A preoccupation with unseen process, whether of labour or thought, traces through many of the works in ‘Here & Now 12’, an exhibition of early-career Western Australian artists at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. Behold, a hint of my studio, my tools, my neurons as they synapse! The artists fashionably insist on a methodical process-as-art. They have kept their objects clean and pared-back, and they appear to feel extraordinarily constrained by, and attached to, that refined aesthetic. This is where the exhibition becomes interesting—the viewer can consider the question of whether we trust art that is so restrained that it evades any sort of confrontation.
Clare Peake’s black and white graphite images on archival paper all feature stark, circular black images, except one, which calls to mind the moist hanky of somebody with the Black Lung. A fine metallic mist is dispersed, as if by coughing, over the paper. Her glass and clay sculptures are in the centre of the room and the graphite drawings hang on each of the walls. We are told that the work takes the viewer from the conception of a thought through to its ultimate articulation. I feel as though the work was abandoned at the crucial instance. The procedural emphases betray the sense of restriction under which the artist is apparently working. The methodical mapping does not take the viewer beyond anal-retentiveness. Nor does it deal usefully with its own 1960s minimalist heritage.
The meticulous parquetry twig sculptures by Ben Kovacsy are an attempt to conceptually fuse the ‘contested territories’ of handcrafting processes with mechanical production, and this is achieved quite literally with an actual formal fusion of these two types of processes. The twigs are quite harmless and, since the curator has styled the exhibition as a sort of inoffensive office environment, they almost disappear in the dim after-hours lighting.
Jacob Ogden-Smith’s kiln spits out sleazy licks of fabric flames, promising to reveal ‘processes otherwise unseen’. Rumbling from within is a recording of what sounds like a crackling fire. There are small squares through which you can make out a neon orange light coming from inside the kiln. Other openings are barred up with bricks, and only a shaving of light peeks through. He seems to want to make you feel like a pervert or a Peeping Tom. The program describes the work as ‘melancholic’, but that is not the feel of it I get. The boarded-up object stages a suspicious and rather too neat game of voyeurism and censorship, so that ‘pornographic’ would be more apt.
Tom Freeman generously offers his grandfather as the universal grandfather. His work is the exception—it is far less tidy. Canvasses featuring studies of church windows hang and lean lazily on the walls. It is shrine-like, as a result of the church window motif and the organ recording. The recorded dialogue is of his grandfather, gruff-toned and chuckling, talking about the war.
The sentimentality of Freeman’s piece borders on kitsch—the soft gravelly voice is distant and hard to make out while the great sea of canvasses and the persistent organ chords accuse the viewer of harboring her own nostalgia in relation to the sacrificial relative. The organ chords are hackneyed and offer only a stale prediction of the viewer’s response. Again, Freeman has stopped working on the piece at the critical moment, that is, when the tricky terrain between universality and an honest discrimination had to be negotiated. His execution betrays a fear of contamination and, since the work relies on a religious formalism, he lets us down by defending that purity of sentiment. He needs to keep working on it in order to confront that lurking element of bathos or anticlimax. The viewer remains locked out of this piece.
We should be wary of being sold neatness of form as if it were clarity of an idea, or orderliness of execution as if it were precision. It is okay to demand more from artists. To the objects themselves, these artists have applied extreme levels of refinement. Yet, there seems to be a resistance to directing that refinement critically at the ideas in play. The curious result is that an exhibition involving such chastity and restraint can nevertheless present as a confused and hasty attempt to cohere into an ending. Do we want to join these artists in a paranoiac refinement of things? Here & Now 12 is worth seeing in order to consider this question. I cannot join them until I can discern a confrontation with the more consequential parts of their work.
Jacob Ogden-Smith. Detail, installation view, 'Here and Now 12', Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia.
Clare Peake. Detail, installation view, 'Here and Now 12', Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia.