On a sunny Queensland day, clerestory light cascades into Milani Gallery. A soft luminance is cast over Jon Cattapan’s seven paintings, one hanging on each wall. Four large paintings hang in the lower gallery and three mid-sized paintings hang in the upper mezzanine gallery. The light furrows into the layers of paint where dripped backgrounds are overlaid with painted sketch-like markings of spectral figures in strange landscapes. As the light works its revelatory illumination, each painting becomes a portal to new or other worlds, and the exhibition’s title Future Constellations seems like an invitation to time travel.
This invitation is expressed through Cattapan’s subject matter, and the way he uses paint. His backgrounds are created with bold gestural strokes using broad brushes laden with liquid paint. This paint is allowed to drip, darker colours cutting into lighter colours and vice versa, tracking vertical trajectories that seek out the bottom edges of a painting. The dripped paint is visceral-like, and our innards resonate with its impulse to leak, drip, expel, flush, travel. Significantly, Cattapan allowed background paint to drip after his return from Timor Leste, where he was deployed in 2008 as Australia’s 63rd official war artist. His subsequent experimentation with dripped paint reflects a visceral reaction to a realisation that in the 21st century, ‘We’re in a state of perpetual motion where conflict is always there—hovering’.1 The dripped paint, reflecting motional forces, acts as an invitation, one with multiple possibilities. Does it offer an escape route to other places or times? Or, does it offer a way to gain perspective from outside the painting, or does it suggest loss, a bleed-out, a slow disappearance?
The invitation to time travel into ‘future constellations’ is reiterated by Cattapan’s spectral-like figures. Their hovering hesitancy points to human vulnerability in a contemporary world where war and conflict transmute between physical and cyber battlefields and domains. Cattapan’s figures conduct this transmutation in the way they initially suggest digitally produced graphics, until viewed up close and the hand of the human artist becomes evident. Markings fragment into an array of sketchy dots, painted with small brushes that leave uneven distributions of paint. The visual play between Cattapan’s layers of paint is accentuated by his spectral figures oscillating between impressions of virtual reality, suggesting human disappearance and possible reappearance as either data proxy or ghost. Perhaps the artist catches the pivotal instant of reality’s disappearance and its reappearance as data proxy?2 However, has he caught something that has already happened, or is he suggesting a future, where constellations of zeros and ones, pixels, bits and bytes present a new un/reality?
On the wall opposite the gallery’s entrance, The Crystal Positions (2017) shimmers. As its dripped blue, orange and green background pulsates, pale figures hover. Upon closer inspection, their initial presentation as computer-generated imagery collapses. Sketchy dots and markings, variously forming body outlines, body parts, and space around bodies, cascade into constellations, not of zeros and ones, but of stars. These celestial constellations offer imaginary forms that take us on a time travelling journey across possible myths, pasts and futures. They remind us that, from a cosmological point of view, everything is formed from star dust. Cattapan’s paintings in Future Constellations may reflect primal formations, but they also foreshadow a future where humanity and Earth have returned to the stars as cosmic dust.
While a return to the stars will occur in four or so billion years when the sun reaches its demise and vaporises the solar system, Cattapan’s paintings also speak to humanity’s more near-term concerns. In an era where ‘conflict is always there—hovering’ how vulnerable is humanity to existential compromise, long before the Sun bakes us in the lead up to its fiery death? Hanging on the wall opposite The Crystal Positions, another painting, Kingdom Group (2017) presents a darker scenario. Indeed, its background is literally dark. A slither of light blue hints at a far horizon, and a splash of red suggests an explosion or a fire. Threats wrought by conflict, and wider existential concerns of the
Anthropocene are conveyed. Unlike the figures in The Crystal Positions, those in Kingdom Group appear more agitated and lost. A crouched figure, back turned towards the group and head buried tightly in his or her knees, seems threatened by a group of figures whose stances appear belligerent. Kingdom Group offers a darker portal to travel through time.
In the upstairs gallery Silt Line (2017) suggests a scenario where existential residue—silt—has come to rest. The soft blue, warm pink and olive green background forms a luminous landscape of land and sky. Gestural brushstrokes of darker tones delineate mountains, contours and shadows. Cattapan’s overlay of white dots form figures in the foreground and a futuristic sky topography. Unlike the figures in the other six paintings in the exhibition, those in Silt Line do not hover. Rather they are absorbed into the landscape, as if buried in sediment. They are more like ghosts than data proxies. However, the sky is a different matter. It is filled with lines and trajectories, perhaps signals, signs of surveillance and digital interconnectivity. At one point on the horizon, radiating lines appear like a fake rising sun, or maybe even a Ferris wheel. This collapses the sky into a strange atmospheric carnival of bits and bytes. Silt Line, a beautiful painting, presents a possible post-apocalyptic, post-human scenario where artificial intelligence parties ad infinitum. It might reflect an outcome of Carl Sagan’s warning that there is ‘no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves’. But, it could also convey that after a period buried and at rest in Earthly sediment, the Sun’s death offers an opportunity for life to be re-released to the stars and potential ‘future constellations’.
Jon Cattapan, Kingdom Group, 2017. Oil on linen, 140 x 180cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
1. Jon Cattapan, interview with the author, 2016.
2. Kathryn Fox, ‘Drones and Night Vision: Militarised Technology in Paintings by George Gittoes and Jon Cattapan’, M. Phil Thesis, University of Queensland, 2017.