A Decade of Distance

Tue, 18/06/2013 - 14:13 -- damien
Scott Redford at the IMA

What an odd idea it seemed for Robert Leonard to want to restage Scott Redford’s mid-nineties work. At a time when people flocked to Brisbane to inspect the new Gallery of Modern Art, the day after the big opening we were offered the chance to come to the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) to consider an exhibition that was located around two themes strongly associated with the nineties; queer identity politics and the life (and death) of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. Redford has left most of this work out of previous surveys of his career, so seeing it together offered a reflection on an era that does not seem so long ago yet, art historically, feels very different from the one we are now in. The show was interesting firstly because the decision to look back at such a recent and particular history feels awkwardly correct, and secondly because the work proved to be much more than a reliance on what Mike Kelley calls the ‘contemporary intellectual fashion’ of an era. A lot of the work I knew from Redford’s book Guy on the Dunes which was published by the IMA in 1997. Here the work is viewed afresh due perhaps to Robert Leonard’s relatively outside perspective on Redford’s work, Leonard having arrived from New Zealand in 2005 to take up the IMA director’s chair. A decade of distance also provided an aspect of nostalgia that would not have been present in the works’ original outings.

The show was ‘Bricks are Heavy’ and began with a stencil in the front room explaining that the walls were painted with paint mixed with AZT, Prozac, speed and soluble aspirin. The viewer was immediately confronted with classic nineties’ style neo-conceptualism à la Félix González-Torres but at the same time the work also shrugged off such references. In his artist’s talk Redford acknowledged the reluctance of viewers to enter the empty space yet, far from being detached, to me the work hailed inclusivity; with melancholic references to death… the body… sickness… AIDS and the will to inscribe these fears onto the gallery space. This first room set the tone for a lot of the other works in the exhibition in that it evinced a tension between an ‘art about art’ mode of practice and the will to address sociological issues directly. Since most of the themes in the show revolved around issues of the nineties, I immediately thought of the ‘art history versus cultural studies’ debates that were discussed in reference to queer identity at that time and to which I will briefly digress.

Since artists are as much interpreters of art history as are critics, the subsumption of art historical discourses within the paradigm of Cultural Studies concerns both the artist and the writer; a point which is reflected in Redford’s exhibition. As an interpretive model of history, Cultural Studies seeks to reveal the significance of a given object as contingent on influences beyond its fields of production. In the 1990s, critics like Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss and Thomas Crow argued against a Cultural Studies understanding of art, articulating its effect as a pseudo levelling of all cultural values; effectively turning the history of art into a history of images. Krauss and Foster in particular focussed negatively on the political motivations behind Cultural Studies claiming them to be a symptom of global capitalism and the dominance of the readily consumed, disembodied image, rather than a rigorous and accurate account of the subject. What I am interested in here is Douglas Crimp’s response which addressed these debates in relation to Andy Warhol and the relegation of his career to art history after his death in 1987. In an essay of 1999, Crimp included a statement made by the queer theorist Simon Watney who wrote that ‘Warhol simply cannot be reconciled to the type of heroic originating Fine Artist required as the price of admission to the Fine Art tradition’.1 This is due to Warhol’s prioritising of popular and topical content over art theory, his foregrounding of persona and the business of art over literal critique and, important to Crimp’s argument, the cultural politics behind his homosexuality. Crimp’s predominant concern in this essay is the question of the ‘framer’ of art history and he uses the polemics surrounding Warhol’s criticality to offer deeper insight into these debates. He argues that Hal Foster’s understanding of art through the deferred action of avant-garde practices in the present does not sufficiently account for the framer’s role in presenting this history, continuing the perception of the art historian as an all-knowing and objective figure. When Foster claims in ‘The Return of The Real’ (1996) that the ascription of a critical aspect to Warhol is a ‘projection’, Crimp’s response can be characterised basically as ‘what isn’t?’, and he contrasts Foster’s views with the acknowledged ‘double play of transference’ that underpins cultural studies and informs its politicisation of all cultural subjects. To Crimp, the queer readings of Warhol counter the art historical reification of avant-garde genealogy and the normalisation of sexuality which he identifies with ‘the move away from the narrower prerogatives of art history and toward the broader inquiry of cultural studies’.2

So what does this have to do with Redford’s show? Well, the debates were present in this exhibition, not in a literal sense but perhaps intuitively given the era that produced its dominant themes. Many of Redford’s works displayed an uneasy relationship between an hermetic approach to art and a sociological one. Thus there were references to Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969), Félix González-Torres’ take home stacks, Morris and Judd beams, Duchamp urinals, etcetera, all kept at bay with broader sociological concerns. Equally, mainstream cultural references are used in Redford’s critiques to form a dialectic with the art historical. What a restaging of this work highlighted for me is an art historical tension that is no longer around. The weight of art history has largely disappeared, particularly in emerging contemporary art, dissolving into one of many other cultural reference points for an artist. If it can be argued that in the 1970s and ’80s Duchamp was still held up as the initiator of the era’s artistic values, then the present era surely owes its greatest debts to Warhol. This paradigmatic shift in critical values can be seen in the art of the 1990s and is perhaps best demonstrated by the success of the YBAs (Young British Artists) who articulated the popular embracement of art in a way that postmodern discourse could not accurately account for.

Both Scott Redford and Robert Leonard seem well aware of the disjuncture that this exhibition could generate which is why I thought it was a brave move of Redford’s to restage these debates with the knowledge that many people might encounter it as simply being stuck in a preceding era. The exhibition served to justify the fact that, for some, art history is as good a point of reference as anything else—despite its associated power relations. Redford’s battles with artistic solipsism lent themselves to being contextualised within a long and heterogeneous list of artists throughout the 20th century—not just as a demonstration of the post-colonial and queer identity debates of the nineties. One thinks of Philip Guston’s move away from abstract expressionism into an engagement with figurative painting as an unusual case in point. For an artist with a social consciousness, as Guston had, abstract expressionism was too self-enclosed, pop art too resistant to internalisation. Guston states that,

'When the middle ’60s came along, I was feeling split and schizophrenic. The [Vietnam] war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?'3

In Redford’s case the pressing issues are manifested around a more general sense of unease; about his identity, the impact of AIDS and the psychology of the subjacent figure within society. He is also concerned with the way in which these expressions will be framed by history.

The exhibition definitely exuded a tension but by no means did I find it as difficult to read as some have said Redford’s work to be—the melancholy that underscored it was very much sympathetic to the viewer. Beyond the relationship between art history and everyday life, the exhibition also revolved around the missing figure of Kurt Cobain; giving it an elegiac quality. As a concept, death is often used to describe an uncanny sense of absence; something which was set up nicely by Redford in the aforementioned first room painted with paint mixed with healing solutions. Redford’s use of Cobain emphasised Cobain’s manoeuvrability as a type of death symbol. Kurt appeared as a sympathiser to all, his name written on a cigarette and then smoked in a new video work in the Screening Room featuring the late artist and frequent collaborative worker, Jeremy Hynes. Death was everywhere in this show yet it was Kurt who led the way out. Like Jesus, his presence loomed large in his absence, living as a symbol of redemption. Redford uses Kurt as a weird symbol of angst, queer tolerance and the contemporary avant-garde; a vanguard artist within popular culture who killed himself to remain an idol of integrity rather than fading away Crosby, Stills and Nash style. Kurt Cobain’s presence in Redford’s work appears to have less to do with the reality of his character and more to do with him being an adequate symbol for a range of issues that Redford has been preoccupied with over the course of his career. The Cobain-as-Jesus motif worked particularly well as the exhibition also had an overt sense of Christian idolatry—in his iconic references to Kurt, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix and the artist himself, coupled with a pronounced concern for the relationship between materiality and ethereality. The thirteen pictures of urinals taken with a flash camera were all framed in white, and the flashes bouncing off their shiny metal surfaces gave off a modern, spiritual connotation. The Christian blend of spirituality and impurity comes to mind mixed with a Wildean, ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’, type of sentiment. And what to say of ‘Clown Fuck Punk’ (2002), Redford’s R rated video work which was showing on alternate days to ‘Inhaling Kurt’ (2006) in the screening room? Well the title kind of says it all but not quite. It’s compelling, the yellow costume of the clown worked well on screen and if something can be classed as playfully menacing then that’s what it was. The fact that it was shown on alternate days really changed the overall feel of the exhibition, adding a physicality that in a strange way rendered mute some of the more nuanced works in the show.

Ultimately, I came away from ‘Bricks Are Heavy’ with a greater sense of Scott Redford as a conflicted personality. To explain further, I get the sense that as an artist he is wary of the things he wants. In his work which raises the issue of Australia’s regionalism there is also the paradoxical desire for his regional stance to become canonised, to become established as a force of empowerment. Yet then he seems equally wary about the consequences of becoming a canon of art history. This is apparent in the nature of his artistic career overall in which, despite his success, he still remains relatively hard to pin down. Unlike other writers I do not feel that it is necessary to position his work as about regionalism or about queer identity but as located somewhere in between both and, perhaps more importantly, demonstrating an anxiety behind being read at all. This reminds me of a quote attributed to Hany Armanious (incidentally the focus of the preceding show at the IMA) who when asked to comment on his own work stated that ‘the idea of being quoted horrifies me’4 as if seeing his own opinions laid bare would make him repellent to himself. To compare these two mid-career artists, Redford plays closer to didacticism and critique than Armanious but similarly wishes to operate on a strong formalist level, drawing out intense and paradoxical connections between the visual tropes and their subsequent meaning. Despite all the art history and theory that floated around ‘Bricks Are Heavy’ it was this undirected sense of tension, conflict, paradox or whatever you want to call it that stayed with me. This was backed up by the catalogue interview in which Redford comes across as wanting to be an artist like Robert Hunter yet is unable to stop himself forever being conflicted by what he wants to be and who he is.

notes: 

1. Simon Watney, ‘The Warhol Effect’ in The Work of Andy Warhol, ed. Gary Garrels, Seattle, Bay Press, 1989, p.118.

2. Douglas Crimp, ‘Getting the Warhol We Deserve: Cultural Studies and Queer Culture’ in Social Text, no.59, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999, p.50.

3. Philip Guston (in conversation with Bill Berkson) quoted in Robert Hughes, American Visions, Harvill Press, London, p.585.

4. Dominique Angeloro, ‘Review of Art Nouveau Barbeque’, Sydney Morning Herald, July 25 2003.

Wes Hill is an artist who is currently a PHD candidate at the University of Queensland undertaking research into the critical reception of Jeff Koons. He practices as Wilkins Hill.