Underbelly

November 22 to December 20 Cosmopolitan Cinema and Shopping Arcade

Squatting in a lolly-pink grotto several paces from its Hindley Street facade, the open doors of the Cosmopolitan Cinemas breathe popcorn fumes and sated film-junkies into the surrounding arcade. Having never lived up to its prosperous potential, the Cosmopolitan is now strewn with FOR LEASE signs, movie merchandise, posters and clumsy, cardboard displays advertising the latest-release blockbusters. Attempting to exploit the state of abandonment and 'disrepair' that dwells within these vacant blocks, artists and curators Anton Hart and John Barbour recently gathered the talents of 49 local and international contemporary artists to 'take over the lease' for four weeks. The exhibition, entitled Underbelly, is an invocation of "the first historical arcades" built over cross-roads and converging trade routes of the inner city. The intersection of commerce and religion is magnetic and profane. Shopping malls, bloated with the crass idolatry of material worship, are the cathedrals of commerce: beautiful, baroque and gauche. An 'underbelly' is the swinging carriage of flesh concealed beneath an animal. It denotes vulnerability and has the secondary interpretation of inferiority. The baseness of commodification has come into its own since Warhol, who trampled on sacrosanct perceptions of beauty and glamorised the bludgeoning appeal of pop/advertising iconography. Well now the merchants have been chased out of the temple. On the exhibition's opening night the heavy glass doors swung open and people were free to wander among the subtle vignettes staged in each vacant display room. The most successful instalments within Underbelly however, were those which operated as an interlocutor between the surface of the glass and the space behind it. Artists such as Marco Fusinato and A.D.S. Donaldson borrowed from the massive storehouse of motifs that have stained the purchase mentality of the western mind. Tacked to the glass in several frames, Fusinato's bold poster-red squares sell themselves. Flagging down the attention of the roving eye, his use of flat and saturated colour incites an immediate emotional response. The repetition of the square, hooking the gaze like a film sprocket, sustains it. Have we become so lazy as the consumers of imagery? We don't buy on impulse; we buy impulses. A.D.S. Donaldson's luscious assortment of lurid stripes runs down a glass door as if painted with a huge, psychedelic cartoon brush. Meticulously reproduced from the original design by Sam Small, the design is cheerily familiar of ice-cream wrappers and the coloured streamers hanging over the entrance of corner-shop delicatessens. Peering through the stripes into the room behind, Donaldson has superimposed an enticing entrance to a place that is imaginary, over a door leading to a physical space which remains locked. After opening night all of the arcade's display-room doors were locked. Having missed the launch of Underbelly, I fortunately caught the fine print on one of the meagrely displayed catalogues, saying that a viewing of the work could be arranged "by appointment". As co-curator Anton Hart generously escorted me from node to node, it was apparent that within these musty, retail bunkers an entirely different show was in operation.

The dankness of each shop capsule, with its flaking plaster exposing industrial metal conduits, simulated a 'rave' environment that suited the two-dimensional work of artists such as Jan van der Ploeg, John Nixon and Mikala Dwyer. Both van der Ploeg and Nixon's paintings talk of dancing and designer drugs; resembling the iconic silhouettes of club pills and clothing labels. Mikala Dwyer's canvas sits upon a palimpsest of scrubbed back concrete walls. Delicately perforated with cigarette burns, it connotes the passage of time, perhaps whilst enduring a term of penitence. Arson seemed to be the barely suppressed intent of Memhit Adil's impudent installation. In what appears to be the precursor to an office fire insurance claim, Adil's infant sock filled with unused matches and pinned between the shop window and leaning glass panel seems about to set to flame the entire contents of Johnnie Dady's scoliotic filing cabinet, fatigued with invisible heat.

The clever textural and conceptual synthesis between work and venue could not be appreciated outside in the plaza. Missed from this vantage were Katie Moore's weird little biscuit/plaster curios clinging to the wall, Sarah Minney's ambient lamp-and-cake-tin offering and Annette Bezor's elegantly manicured stack of 'business cards' printed with "I like to watch" (slightly tautologous beneath the looming three-dimensional mirror-text). The surreal drawings of Klara Kristalova look as though they were torn by frowning censors from a Scandinavian children's book. Linda Marie Walker's quilting of mass media textures conspire spatially in a dialogue across two large pages. Both pieces appear to have fallen from a journal secretively bricked up until the recent renovations within the complex.

Artists Christopher Chapman and Nic Foland made good use of the 'access denied' principle of the exhibition. A door with "RIOT" spray-painted across the front violently bars the entrance. In the back of the room a television monitor has been turned around so that its acid green glare scours the wall, as if to confess to the looting of the store... or to hide the evidence. Underbelly contained references to the theme that ranged from glib to acute. On a curatorial level, the show was experimentally energetic and ambitious. Its desire to "encourage discussion and exchange" outlined in the catalogue was met to a degree, but could perhaps have been augmented further had the show's accessibility been promoted with greater clarity.

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