gordon bennett; john citizen

(home décor) aboriginal art; interiors
Sutton Gallery, Melbourne
19 March – 25 April 2009

The Gordon Bennett retrospective, which opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2007 and toured to the Queensland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, concluded with a selection of Bennett’s abstract paintings. The exhibition’s curator, Kelly Gellatly, explained these in terms of respite from the ‘postcolonial project’ that had driven Bennett throughout his artistic career. The abstract works begged the question, however, what will come next? Bennett’s exhibition at Melbourne’s Sutton Gallery earlier this year provided the answer—an emphatic return to his Home Décor series.

It could be said that Bennett had never entirely put aside the postcolonial project. The abstract paintings, while giving him relief in the form of neutral visual material and the pleasure of mark making, were still legible in terms of the issues that his work had always addressed. They seemingly dared the viewer to read them as ‘Aboriginal art’ because of a superficial resemblance to the work of particular traditional Indigenous painters. Perhaps the political potency of Bennett’s work up to that point left an echo that his audiences were not able to ignore, his reputation being such that viewers of the abstract works refused to believe that there was no agenda behind them.

Whether or not the abstract paintings were deliberately intended to look ‘Aboriginal’, the new paintings certainly demonstrate that relatively little is required for a painting to be read as such; in this case ochre colours and forms that vaguely evoke the symbology of Desert painting. Bennett demonstrates how the ‘borrowing’ of Indigenous visual cultures by the non-Indigenous mainstream has reduced them to a set of visual cues, and one blushes at being able to read them in this way. Margaret Preston—the focus of the Home Décor series—is one of the most notable figures in this degeneration of Indigenous imagery, having become notorious for applying symbols from Aboriginal artefacts to her designs for the modern Australian interior.

Bennett’s paintings in this exhibition quote from Preston’s late prints, in which she included stylised Aboriginal figures, however he pushes them further towards being abstract forms so that they teeter on the cusp of legibility. Again, Bennett is depending on the viewer to complete the work by bringing something of his or her own experience to it, if not to realise the ‘Aboriginality’ of the paintings then just to bring the forms together into a face, as is the natural human impulse. The ability to recognise familiar faces is based on that mental process, so, while in the past Preston and others may have taken mute and decontextualised objects in museum collections for inspiration, Bennett asks contemporary viewers to recognise that behind the abstract use of Indigenous visual material there is always a human face.

What is new in these recent works is their simplicity of means. They eschew the complexity of the original Home Décor works from the 1990s with their multiple layers and references. Is this Bennett learning from John Citizen or from his own abstract paintings? Bennett’s works are displayed alongside the paintings in which Citizen depicts them. Citizen has painted Bennett’s images into his own interior scenes before, but this particular step still successfully complements Bennett’s works by re-enacting Preston’s transferral of Indigenous material into the domestic space. As John Citizen is representative of the Australian ‘every-man’, his performance of this role is particularly potent.

Like Bennett, Citizen also employs popularly recognisable visual codes—his interiors suggest the display home or the home-wares catalogue, where it suffices only to deploy a few key signifiers, such as a ‘retro’ coffee table or some contemporary-looking ceramics, to denote that this is a ‘fashionable’ home. Similarly, original artworks on the wall signify a ‘cultured’ home; Indigenous artworks have an even richer role to play in the popular imagination, they signify ‘cultured and enlightened’.

Was Margaret Preston enlightened for her time? Yes, she was ahead of her time in seeing that there was something to be learned from Indigenous Australians; there was, however, a very long way still to go before non-Indigenous Australians began to understand what and how we could learn. By calling upon our prior knowledge to make sense of them, Gordon Bennett’s Home Décor paintings also show that there is still a good deal to be unlearned.