Exhibition review Sculpture Bert Flugelman Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, South Australia 23 April - 18 May 1997
Bert Flugelman's constructions in wood and mixed media are nothing short of wonderful. While many of the works reflect a sophisticated sense of humour, underpinning and infusing the works is a rich commentary on life, society and politics informed by art, literature and a wealth of experience.
Flugelman is a significant artist. His major sculptural commissions have shaped and enlivened many public spaces including Martin Place, Sydney; the arid Public Service strip at Belconnen, Canberra; and Rundle Mall, Adelaide, where citizens meet at a site fondly referred to as `Bert's Balls'.
Many of the works on show are informed by references to other artists. For instance, in a wood assemblage L.H.O.O.Q. Duchamp's version of the Mona Lisa is revisited in Flugelman's minimal Mona Lisa, who is recognised only by her moustache and beard and her elegant, long, carved strands of hair. Duchamp's lack of reverence for `great art' is mirrored in the images Flugelman has inserted in miniature frames and placed at each end of the work. This imagery in turn frames the Mona Lisa. In these mini frames are fragments of medieval images, including snippets of angels' wings and peep views of maidens backsides. This imagery tantalises and assumes the status of a fetish while also subverting accepted notions of beauty. Is Flugelman joining Duchamp in his mocking of beauty and the fetish?
The landscape is a recurring theme in several works including The feathered cloud in which the contours of the land, the oceans and sea creatures are constructed, added or painted on. The work is completed by a sculptural gesture which matches the simplicity of Magritte: the feather itself has become the cloud in the landscape.
The reverence Western art has shown for perspective is the focus of another work, Tuscany, which is a Renaissance reconstruction of an altar-piece fitted out with a Masaccio-like perpectival grid. The strained sense of depth and laboured sense of distance is aided by the addition of columns, a balcony and railing. This work comes with its own Renaissance painting.
Politics is never far away in this exhibition. While most of the works are made of timbers Flugelman has lovingly collected, shaped, modified, constructed, polished, and even painted on, his pro-forests stance and his critique of their destruction is overt in Musical Saw. Here the murder weapon, the saw with its blunted saw-teeth, is framed and set behind glass, perhaps as an optimistic gesture that the saw ought to be relegated to the museum.
One of the most chilling works on show is The Prisoner whose face is viewed behind a wooden grille. The painted shadows on the prisoner's face reflect both the shadows of the grille and the sense of despair in the prisoner's eyes. The three dimensional grille permits the prisoner to see an elegant wine glass which is placed in a shelf outside and to the side of the grill, to be used by those who pass by. The reality of incarceration for presumed political `crimes' is reinforced by this sculptural symbol, where those outside may sip of the pleasures of life.
The mechanised body is another theme which surfaces in several of the works, sometimes with a black or dada humour as in the Raoul Hausmann-like re-creation Come with me. However, Flugelman's construction of the human face in this work presents the viewer with a sense of closure: the buttoned-up lips repel rather than attract. At other times in other works the semi-mechanised body sends out signals of pain. This is apparent in The ballet class in which dancers' bound feet are symbolised by aggressive, 3D protruding ballet shoes. Metal screws placed in separated sections of dancers' legs suggest muscles which scream out in pain at the unnatural movements of classical dance. An assemblage of cut-outs of Degas' ballet dancers engaged in the rituals of movement adds a summary voice to this work.
The well crafted works in this exhibition display both a versatility and breadth of references to art and life. As a meta-commentary on art and art discourse they are simply pleasurable to look at and ponder. The humour of the recurring phallic lizard in works such as Dressing table for a Princess concludes this sense of pleasure.
Bert Flugelman was an important force in the Adelaide art scene in his years 1973 - 83 when he taught at the South Australian School of Art. He was a foundation member of the Experimental Art Foundation and also a founding member of the South Australian Workshop, a collective which has been an influential force in shaping Adelaide's public sculptural commissions. In his years at the Art School he forged strong links with Visual Arts as it once existed at Flinders University: each week he would take his students to listen to Donald Brook's lectures. In the early 1970s students were introduced to late modernist conceptual art, contemporary aesthetics and much more. It was fitting therefore that Brook, who no longer resides in Adelaide, returned briefly to open Flugelman's exhibition. Brook recalled many a time Flugelman pulled off the impossible in the name of art: Adelaide is the poorer for their joint departure.