Callum McGrath

POOFTA
Metro Arts, Brisbane
13 – 30 June 2018

POOFTA by Callum McGrath was a heartbreakingly beautiful exhibition. 

The word ‘poofta’ is grating. It is an angry label, marking one as different, perverse and vulnerable. As the word rattles around my head and takes shape on my lips, it seems that the intention of the word is physically present in the shape required to say it. While inviting a friend to the opening, I casually skipped over the exhibition’s title. Exhibition spaces, on the other hand, are suited to contemplation. They hope for us to linger, offering a space for new encounters and complex emotional responses. The jarring inconsistency between those two elements—person and place; violence and tranquility; condescension and reverence—sits at the heart of McGrath’s exhibition. 

The exhibition opens with a series of photographs of the artist’s father playing rugby. Handwritten capslock captions suggest the photos’ scrapbook origins. Cropped, washed in delicate rose pink and printed onto exposed aluminium, the works heighten the striped lines of the backing paper, like and distinctly unlike the stripes of sports club uniforms. The pink hue is almost exactly the same as chosen by a collective of women in 1976 for the first cover of Lip: A feminist arts journal (1976–84). The shimmering photographs also recall Vivienne Binns’s and collaborators’ Experiments in Vitreous Enamel, an exhibition similarly concerned with exploring identity via (matrilineal) photographic histories.1 POOFTA offers a parallel recovery of colours, textures and techniques, here in the service of marginalised and violent queer experiences. 

Pink is the overwhelming feature of the exhibition. Around the corner in a hallway erected for the exhibition, McGrath installed two perspex windows: one overlayed the pre-existing window to the left and the other was installed for the show to the right. McGrath’s discreet architectural interventions radically transformed the familiar space of Metro Arts, flooding the gallery with an intense magenta light, bathing us all in its colour. As I entered the hallway and looked through the interior window, into the centre of the exhibition space and onto a typical opening night scene, I mistook the window for a mirror, mentally stumbling over my lack of reflection and the missing scene of opening-night revelers behind me. In this disorienting moment, the space evoked the uncanny and pointed to the fallibility of perception, calling for reorientation and a new way of looking. 

Around the following corner, McGrath projected the video Devils (2018). The work combines new and public broadcast footage: billowing clouds, a rugby field cast with the long shadows of the day, a mardi gras protest and archival footy scenes. As the non-narrative scenes fade into one another, McGrath’s signature pink stain appears and disappears. In one of these scenes, McGrath’s slim and shirtless body stands against a football field pole. One raised leg marks this body and its bent posture as undeniably queer: the sensual flesh, angles and curves of the body in marked contrast to the cold, metallic, straight football pole. Here, the queer body reclaims this childhood space of heterosexual masculinity in a manner equivalent to teenage delinquency, seeking out alternative non-productive use of space and time. As a teenager, my best friend and I spent countless hours at our local park, using the empty cricket pitch as a catwalk. In our absence, the pitch continued to operate as intended, but in our intervention, we imagined it as our own. The potential of these strategies lies specifically in their temporal and non-threatening nature. As explained by McGrath, the work functions as a reclamation of the football field as queer space, as a means of working through his father’s legacy and the hurtful experiences of childhood, while taking care of himself and his relationship with his father.2 

Around the final corner of the exhibition was the heart of McGrath’s spiral construction. In this exhibition cul-de-sac, McGrath installed a second video work and a single triangular plaque. I lost my breath in front of the plaque. It read: 

In memory of Dr George Duncan, whose death by drowning on 10th May, 1972 near here, at the hands of persons unconvicted, precipitated homosexual law reform in South Australia, making it the first state in Australia in 1975, to decriminalise homosexual relations between consenting adults. We will remember him. 

Forty-five years after Duncan’s death, McGrath pilgrimaged to the River Torrens where Duncan was murdered. McGrath focused the camera tightly on the river. Its melancholy surface and gentle ripples show a world flipped upside down. This quiet, vacant scene seems so distant from the brutality of the night it commemorates. The work confounds linear history, stretching and collapsing the distance between Duncan’s death, McGrath’s pilgrimage and our spectatorship. Heraclitus believed that we could not step into the same river twice, suggesting, alternately, that the river changes, that it is us who change, or that both—people and place—are only consistent in flux.3 In the context of Australia’s brutal and homophobic histories, River Torrens produces a conundrum in keeping with Heraclitus, a conflicting desire to return to this site for commemoration against the greater desire for a different river, one unmarked, never marked, by violence. 

A month after POOFTA, James Turrell’s latest work, Night Life (2018), launched at the Gallery of Modern Art. The work calls for us to pay attention to our senses. Installed on Brisbane’s river, it also underlines this city’s naff love for neon: fairy lights sparkle around trees, the city skyline is splashed with corporate colours and bridges light up in wild hues. Under the playful and indulgent light of Turrell, I thought back to McGrath’s exhibition. His deft weaving of personal, queer and national histories enabled multiple entry points, throwing up childhood memories and high school introductions to philosophy alongside formal allusions (also to Minimalism, Felix Gonzalez Torres, the Pictures Generation, etcetera) and queer aesthetics (particularly the pink triangle). In his pink sunlit space, where sight failed me, McGrath created an experience of difference and disorientation, calling for vigilant attention to the past and care in the present. POOFTA, like Night Life, was undeniably beautiful, but it was neither vacuous nor indulgent. McGrath’s practice is thoughtful in restraint and powerful in presence. He is one to watch.

Callum McGrath: POOFTA installation view, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photograph Sam Cranstoun.

Callum McGrath, You’re a Poof Mate, 2018. Four prints on exposed aluminium, 30 x 5cm each (approx). Photograph Sam Cranstoun.

Callum McGrath, Devils, 2018. HD Video with audio, 7mins.

Callum McGrath, Männerbund, 2018. Etching on mirrored acrylic, 30 x 30cm.

notes: 

1. Vivienne Binns, Frances Budden, Marie McMahon, Valerie Odewhen and Toni Robertson, Experiments in Vitreous Enamel: Silkscreened portraits of women, Watters Gallery, Sydney and Ewing and George Paton Gallery, Melbourne, 1976. 

2. Callum McGrath, artist talk with Kyle Weiss, Metro Arts, 30 June 2018. 

3. ‘Heraclitus’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/