Recent South Australian Art
Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art University of South Australia, Adelaide
20 June – 17 August 2008

Why ‘uneasy’? Exhibition curator Timothy Morrell explained, ‘No Australian city seems as uncomfortable in its own skin as Adelaide’. He may be right. Adelaide, if not always producing art of the unease, is a veteran, certainly since the 1970s, of hosting and dealing with it. A number of Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (ABAA) exhibitions, notably Christopher Chapman’s 1996 ABAA with its overriding themes of fin de siècle anxiety and neurosis, and the 1994 ABAA Adelaide Installations which included Aleks Danko’s HIDING IN THE LIGHT (a light vision), a brutally dark rendition of Adelaide as a garden shed from which emanated murderous verse (Robert Wallace) describing Adelaide as unraveling like a festering Dadaist nightmare, picked at the scabs.

Uneasy’s hang ensured an immediate response with Annette Bezor’s prominently positioned Blush, an almost three by five metre painting of a front-on, legs-apart, female nude, delivering the mixed message of, as Morrell put it, ‘the private indulgence of an erotic fantasy’ translated ‘into a public encounter’. The experience of having one’s public ogling at overt nudity misinterpreted as prurience, predisposed a sequence of responses with nearby works, but, curiously, not with Daryl Austin’s candid, male nudes which defied easy interpretation. Then again viewers’ incipient voyeurism may have been cooled by the presence of Austin’s trademark nail-studded fetish objects. John Barbour’s diaphanous lengths of fabric pressed the issue of private pleasure versus public discomfort, through staining and half-finished, embroidered words (akin to stammerings and mutterings) contaminating the communion-white surfaces.

Text as a vehicle or mask for inner anxieties and awkward truths also played a central role in works by Aldo Iacobelli and Hossein Valamanesh. The presence of one of Iacobelli’s more enigmatic works from the later 1990s, Imageless, a black canvas bearing the word ‘IMAGELESS’, offered a rallying point in the exhibition for imaginations less interested in subjects which cause unease and more interested in art which questions itself and evades easy capture. Iacobelli’s works were in this zone and so too was Michelle Nikou’s Full, a set of small, amorphous bronzes looking anything but heroic—more like mutant truffles and punching well above their weight.

Valamanesh’s Middle path consisted of a paper scroll on which was calligraphically inscribed the word ‘love’—eshg in Farsi—repeated over and over. A progressive fade-out of the saffron yellow pigment in the middle section supported the artist’s reading that the work ‘may give the impression that love was on the edge of extinction and somehow has become strong again’. Did someone mention the war? Muffled drum beats underscored Annabelle Collett’s military-chic threads for both women and children. Camo-lingerie and a stuffed camo bear implied a toxic marriage of war mania and affiliative body branding. In a darker place sat Collett’s Gitmo Gear line in Guantanamo Bay submission outfits, with orange as the new black.

Matthew Bradley’s video extrapolation of the well-known image of Adelaide boy-come-jihadi David Hicks with a bazooka to his shoulder, offered a disturbing reading of a kid from the burbs, hazed on shake your Wii-eapon fantasy, a heartbeat away from a My Space pre-massacre press conference. Now that was disturbing. Almost equally so was Sarah crowEST’s caught in a loop, a video featuring a series of odd behaviors which, in the context of the exhibition, projected a menacing mood which implicated art makers as potential (if not actual) obsessive compulsives.

On a gloomier note Fiona Hall’s glass coffin, Mourning chorus, described as a ‘requiem for New Zealand bird species that are extinct or extinct in their natural habitats’, performed its own little sound and light macabre. Yhonnie Scarce’s Oppression, Repression (Family Portrait) also used the vitrine as metaphor to render the worst of anthropology as akin to collecting natural specimens.

Works by the other participating artists, Tracy Cornish, Nici Cumpston, Ariel Hassan and Deborah Sleeman, occupied metaphoric territory in varying degrees. A poetic reading of Cumpston’s leaf litter trapped by a wire fence was enriched by the nearby presence of Valamanesh’s bitter-sweet scroll. Similarly, a speculative alignment of Cornish’s mutant encoding patterns with the capillary-like creases on Sleeman’s pressed tin, ectoplasmic dresses and Hassan’s propositions of human nervous systems as simultaneously ordered and mysteriously incomprehensible, even chaotic, established dialogue.

Local, regional survey exhibitions are rare creatures. Adelaide’s last was the Art Gallery of South Australia’s ‘CHEMISTRY: Art in South Australia 1990 – 2000’. Interestingly, trends in practice evident in that exhibition, particularly a dalliance with death and with chaos theory, have resurfaced or been amplified in ‘Uneasy’. With no other contender in sight ‘Uneasy’ looks to be the bookmark Noughtes survey by which the next decade of contemporary practice will, in part, be defined. For now insert the cue word ‘askance’ in the margin and await developments.