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Melbourne artist Marcel Cousins recently presented engaging new works in Ryan Renshaw’s project room. Cousins was associated with King’s Art Space in Melbourne before fleeing to Tokyo where he earned a doctorate at Tama University. Since his return he has pursued an interest in using art to examine the relationship between cultural generics and aesthetics. Indeed, this disciplined and exiguous installation demonstrated Cousins’s investment in the alluring and illusory power of art, especially its capacity to transform generic objects via aesthetic processes that operate in exhibition contexts.
Every Little Thing consisted of four works: a floor sculpture, assemblage sculpture, and two paintings. The lush floor sculpture Melting Second World War German Soldier (2010) introduced the viewer to an exploration of counteractive trajectories that can occur between form, content and medium. Although the title specified an historical period for this soldier, the monochromatic treatment of the figure—with its slick dark beige polyester resin sheen—initiated a period shift that aligned the piece more with classical antecedents. Famous sculptures such as the Dying Gaul came to mind and, in turn, alluded to idealised and sublimated depictions of war and destruction. Yet, the sculpture’s deliquescent quality—for the perfectly realised top half of the figure was undermined by a melting lower half and base—abandoned any adherence to flawless classical paragons. Other anomalies were generated by the strong contrasts between hard and soft media as well as concepts surrounding substantiality and dissolution. The original model for the piece was a toy soldier, so the intimate perspective in which one looked down on, rather than up to, the sculpture also reinforced the notion of play and childish imagination, with obvious implications for artistic practice.
The artist also acknowledges that people bring different expectations to the viewing of art and readily concedes our propensity to interpret matters in our own way. This recognition is played out in the probing work It’s Not You It’s Me (2011). In this assemblage sculpture, an abstract painting with tartan patterning was reposed upon two file boxes. Cousins’s sculpture is more direct than the kind of assemblages produced by artists like Isa Genzken or Rachel Harrison, and this is because his approach is informed by the meticulous and precise graphic styles that adorn Japan’s pop commodities. In further stylistic considerations, Cousins wilfully exploits the generic dimensions of consumerism’s consumables, for the painting’s abstract configurations were derived from plaid patterns on cheap shirts, patterns that are echoed in the lines that decorate the file boxes. The file boxes chime with Warhol’s Brillo boxes, where generic product packaging is transformed into fine art. The file boxes also suggest ‘art as business’ and connote the idea of a gallery as office. Many other allusions proliferate in this piece of pop abstraction, and if the viewer cannot comfortably decipher this hermetic assemblage they can at least be assured that the artist knows the meaning but cannot explain it to you in a way that you would understand. Such is art’s mysterious power, for it can transform the most jejune and generic of commodities into a puzzling challenge if enshrouded by an aesthetic aura.
In this show Cousins foregrounds art’s powerful aesthetic dimensions and its capacity to entice and seduce. This affective power is not always easy to define and articulate, yet Cousins persists in manipulating its possibilities and this remains one of his primary interests. For instance, the painting Landscape with Sunset (2011) suggests a very routine theme, but the work is not so much about landscape painting as it is about the way art’s various visual regimes depict nature and translate it into constructions of colour and composition. Each painterly style proposes a unique and relative arrangement of nature and the landscape, and affirms the notion that after painting surrendered its claims to verisimilitude, art can only present illusions or fictions about the world. However, once again, it is the way in which this illusion is cloaked in aesthetic clothing that gives it a power to which we willingly offer our credulity, and this seems to be Cousins’s primary intention.
The earnest painting Junction (2012) also proposes that things do not always seem to be what they appear. The cross hatched and spiralling pattern in this work readily riffs on Robert Rooney’s clever knitting paintings of the 1960s, but unlike Rooney’s, Cousins’s version is extremely dedicated to the idea of painting as craft. The image is an up-scaled version of a bank note pattern, and this quick change of context reasserts art’s illusory dimensions. It therefore speaks of art’s capacity to simulate and dissimulate, and to deceive and enthral. But actually, this painting offers an exercise in discipline and diligence, for it is a meticulous handcrafted copy of a digitally generated pattern. It is thus constructed by obsessive and compulsive means, which, ironically, completely buy into the promise that art can be used to attain a state of perfection.
Marcel Cousins possesses a firm and intuitive grasp of the changes wrought on generic prototypes and objects when manipulated by aesthetic means in exhibition contexts. And, in relation to the various quotidian and clichéd themes he treats, whether abstract landscape, monochrome abstraction, tartan design, banknote pattern, or office equipment—the specific nature of the subject matter is generally subordinated to art’s aesthetic, illusory and conceptual parameters. That is to say, that the generic themes that are incorporated into Cousins’s art are treated in a manner that both estranges and reanimates them when viewed as art objects. This is enabled because art is considered to exist in a special sphere of culture. Fine art may have largely relinquished its claim to transform everyday life, but its aesthetic power remains undiminished, and this remains its exceptional condition, and is in fact the quiddity of its autonomy in contemporary life. Cousins has nailed his colours to this mast and continues to offer a determined exploration of its ramifications.
Marcel Cousins, It's not you it's me, 2011. Acrylic on canvas and enamel on MDF, 105 x 105cm 2 (26.5 x 40.5 x 26.5cm).
Marcel Cousins, Junction, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 118.5 x 152cm.
Marcel Cousins, Melting Second World War German soldier, 2010. Edition of 5. Polyester resin and two pac paint, Scale 520mm, 39 x 67 x 36cm.