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The drowned world
I once spent a strange evening in a restaurant on the top floor of a skyscraper in São Paulo, one of the largest and most dangerous cities in the world. Helicopters powered through the soupy sky and the lights of the city appeared to extend forever. There was a sense of serene unreality up there, suspended above the teeming mass of humanity below. I was reminded of the experience when looking at the paintings of Jon Cattapan in a survey exhibition held earlier this year at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, The drowned world: Jon Cattapan, works and collaborations. Cattapan’s paintings are distinguished by their high vantage points, and space is denoted by the application of a grid and the geometric arrangement of lights. Most strikingly, they are imbued with a pervasive sense of anxiety.
Cattapan has been charting urban experience since his career began in the early 1980s. Ranging from his first neo-expressionist nightmares of nocturnal St Kilda to the recent meditations on migration, his work has a strong underlying humanism which has largely disregarded the vagaries of art-world fashion. The exhibition, curated by Chris McAuliffe, was part of the Potter’s ongoing commitment to mid-career artists, and like those before it, was accompanied by a useful and well-illustrated catalogue. It comprised eighty-two paintings and drawings, the latter grouped in a room above the two ground floor galleries which concentrated on the large canvases.
While Cattapan’s drawings are clearly sources of inspiration for his oils, most obviously in the early works, the more recent drawings have taken on a distinct life of their own. This is partly due to his practice of collaborating with other artists (in this case Peter Ellis, Eugene Carchesio and Surendran Nair), a process which has resulted in some remarkable works on paper. The practice is clearly important to Cattapan and the results manage to maintain the distinctive characteristics of each artist’s style while producing images that are highly resolved. Cattapan’s drawings (and collaborations) pay homage to the Surrealists, whose belief in automatic drawing as a method of tapping directly into the human psyche produced some extraordinary works in the early part of last century. Cattapan’s organic forms, his love of saturated colour and the overriding sense of dreamy ambiguity combine to create jewel-like works that are as beautiful as they are mysterious.
His paintings too maintain a sense of ambiguity and elusiveness, particularly since the late 1980s when he began his noirish investigations into the nocturnal city. Cattapan is an artist who clearly enjoys messing around with paint, even though these days he utilizes digital technologies to produce sketches using a scanner and Photoshop. His painted surfaces have changed over time, away from the earliest gestural applications to a more precise and contained method in recent years. Cattapan’s cities, even when unpopulated, seem to throb with life. Illuminated arterial roads have a visceral quality; blood pumps and oozes its way throughout some of the canvases. In The city submerged no. 21 (Rising), 1991-2006, the body is evoked in the arrangement of small organically-shaped canvases that graced the Potter’s spacious stairwell. Some of the imagery was also suggestive of the body and its visualisation in modern medicine.
The Potter’s galleries are well suited to survey exhibitions of contemporary artists, although not particularly adaptable. With limited space available the curatorial challenge is not to overcrowd. Cattapan’s paintings are usually large and have a powerful visual presence, and the first room of The drowned world was too busy—works were not given the space they needed. The other two rooms however worked well, and the decision not to hang strictly chronologically was a wise one. Some pairings were inspired, particularly A view from flat 3/42 Grey St, 1987, next to the more ambiguous The taking of Richmond, 1999. While in the former some of St Kilda’s seedier characters were arranged theatrically across a stage setting, the latter turned a violent clash between parents and police over a school closure during the Kennett years into a more general statement about civic brutality (today the painting would more likely be read as an image about terrorism rather than state-sponsored violence). Painted over a decade apart, the two works highlighted a fundamental shift in the artist’s style yet were connected by a profound humanistic impulse. Together they sparkled.
Cattapan’s more recent city dwellers are more likely to be protesting than simply enduring the misery of their condition, yet pain and suffering are often not far from the surface. In one of the artist’s responses to the Tampa crisis, Carrying, 2002, a sea of lights and figures is punctuated by pools of blood.
The drowned world was an substantial exhibition of work by an outstanding and compassionate artist. As the world seems to lurch from one humanitarian crisis to the next, and human populations continue to proliferate at an alarming rate, Cattapan’s dark vision becomes all the more powerful.