Burchill / McCamley

Neon Parc Brunswick, Melbourne

A pigeon, stuffed and perched on a car seat is an oblique reference to Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. Elsewhere a spirit level placed on a floor sculpture is a matter of structural practicality. There is an abiding tension between the loaded and the incidental in the collaborative practice of Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley. Their recent exhibition is a well-rounded survey of the motifs and concerns evident in work to date. The divergent (but now familiar) vernacular includes hard-edged painting, neon signage, accoutrements of warfare and the use of chairs as an authorial presence. 

Upon entry, one encounters walls emblazoned with geometric paintings that bear the numbers of poems from The Collected Works of Emily Dickinson. Throughout her life, Dickinson ordered hundreds of poems into packets according to dates. These were posthumously assigned with numbers which represent an arbitrary labelling system, comparable to the way ‘Untitled’ is used in the genre of abstraction. The paintings here consist of monochromatic panels adjoined in a curious range of contrasting colours, such as magenta, lilac, silver and apple green. Painted on hessian, the hard-edged sensibility is tempered by the generous texture of the backing material. In some, glass panels are included as starting or end points to the compositions. The numbers, all of them three digits long, are painted in white on black, and immediately recall the religious paintings of Colin McCahon and the Mayfair series by Robert MacPherson. On the back wall a multi-panelled painting incorporates nine rows of numbers. It reads like a giant hymn board. 

Of course, it is unlikely that even the most erudite Dickinson scholar would recall each of these poems. Nonetheless, there is a nagging pang of embarrassment at not knowing, or in this case, not even having read Emily Dickinson. Assuming their inclusion was not intended as an app-augmented museum experience, we are left—as the neon sign installed in the centre of the gallery suggests—drawing a blank. The viewer’s sense of self-assurance is thwarted at the outset, so what is there left to do but enjoy the spectacle. 

And, as a viewer ingrained with 20th century consumer tendencies, the eye naturally gravitates to the shiny new things. The use of highly charged surfaces lends the exhibition a feel of industrialised glamour. Perforated aluminium shields, springing from a large body of work exhibited over the past decade, are positioned as freestanding sculptures. A delicate camouflage-patterned textile, draped over the interior of the structure, takes its cues from the aesthetics of high end boutiques. Meanwhile, the exterior is adorned with high gloss, platinum coloured helmets. The language of war—of helmets, shields and camouflage patterns, is mercilessly glamorised in an obscene parody. 

The anthropomorphic potential of chairs, something also explored by Martin Kippenberger in The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ (1994), is an ongoing source of fascination. A range of sueded car seat covers are custom made with individual digital prints. On one, a waterfall rendered in bright red and orange refers to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house. It also looks precisely like something we might find at Supercheap Auto. The artists continually draw our attention to the elaborate industrial processes that the most mundane objects now bear. New technologies give rise to overly designed objects and become ubiquitous without us even noticing. There is a stark contrast between the newness of these objects and the shabby nostalgia of used furniture in Freiland (1991–92) or the ad hoc nature of camping stools included in the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale (2015). The car seats also inject a performative element to the exhibition. At times they are elevated on concrete plinths, or elsewhere strutting on iron legs. Arguably, the most pronounced metaphor in the exhibition is Autorecliner, a car seat positioned for propulsion. Below it, a large scale diagram in red and yellow charts the climate change patterns which lead to catastrophic levels by 2100. 

‘A Single Screw of Flesh is all that pins the soul’ is the only transcription from Emily Dickinson included in the exhibition. The foreboding sentiment chimes with the artists’ self-titled painting Heaven and Hell are just one breath away (2004). From these works we might assume a concern for the precariousness of existence. As it turns out, the trip to the local library was worth it. Poem 821 indicates instead that the affinity between Burchill/McCamley and Emily Dickinson may well be that they are all happy to dwell in a deliriously nihilist state: 

By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
Of Nothing —
“Nothing” is the force
That renovates the World —

Burchill / McCamley. Installation view, Neon Parc, 2016. Photograph Christo Crocker.

Burchill / McCamley. Installation view, Neon Parc, 2016. Photograph Christo Crocker.

Burchill / McCamley. Installation view, Neon Parc, 2016. Photograph Christo Crocker.

Burchill / McCamley. Installation view, Neon Parc, 2016. Photograph Christo Crocker.