The Art of Gordon Bennett by Ian McLean and Gordon Bennett Craftsman House RRP $75
In a relatively short amount of time - just under ten years - Gordon Bennett has risen to considerable prominence in Australian contemporary art. His paintings, installations, writings and performance videos have come to represent a vivid account of that dialectical site of cultural collision and confrontation which so aptly describes our post bicentennial Australia. Moreover, his works have become a part of the process of revealing much that has remained concealed and occluded from Australia's history in the 200 years preceding that National celebration. Bennett's art, with its compelling combine of dot style and western representation painting; and its art historical iconicism rearranged by appropriation and collage, delivers an art which reorders historical representation to register the revised history of post colonialism. And these are important reorderings. But what makes Bennett's art more than mere revisionism - more than a positive/negative binary proposition - is the interdependent complexity of his representational signs. This is what Ian McLean has termed Gordon Bennett's 'haunting', a term he has obtained from Sartre who has much to offer about the 'self' and the 'other', and whose existentialism provides a way to think through the issues of identity which necessarily surface in the debates of post colonialism. Or as McLean has put it: "[Bennett} does not take the quick route to identity by seeking the centred discourses of nationalism and Aboriginalism, but recognises that identity is an existential project in which 'the Other determines me' ... the relationship between identity and otherness is not one of a frontal opposition but rather an oblique interdependence. To be 'in-the-world' or with others, is 'not to be ensnared in it' ... but is a type of habitation or haunting." In his own account towards both artistic and self-awareness, Gordon Bennett offers a further reading on the self, vis à vis the other, when he talks about Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha who discovers the self as a part of a cyclical continuum in history - of past, present and future - through a reflection which is not narcissistic, but rather subject to the flux and ruptures of the surface. Rather modestly, Bennett hopes that his works might register one of those surface ripples and ruptures which disturb the narcissism which characterises so much of Australia's own contemplation of its national self. The Art of Gordon Bennett; with texts provided by both Bennett and McLean is perhaps one of the most important books about Australian art which has emerged over the past decade. While it is a single artist's monograph, like the subject of its survey and explication - the art of Gordon Bennett and the artist Gordon Bennett - it contemplates some of the most important issues of our time. In a time which is still assessing the outcomes of post-modernism's strategy of the death of author, and in a book which evidently studies Bennett's own effective use of appropriation, it is a bold decision to open the book with Bennett's autobiography (The Manifest Toe). But it is a right decision, not only because Bennett beautifully, and carefully allows the reader to observe the process of artistic build-up and knowledge which has eventuated in his maturing work, but, and more importantly, it is a deliberate and symbolic declaration of an authorial voice which has been silenced through Australia's white history. Bennett's choice of direct address and the purposeful use of the pronoun throughout gives his text an immediacy and produces an intimacy which creates the opportunity for an inclusiveness which will not distance the reader from many of the home truths which need to be encountered. Like his art, with its combination of epic history painting and simple homily, Bennett's words are carefully chosen for their representational economy and impact. Like his art too, Bennett's own version of his search for artistic and self identity, is a richly woven tangle of philosophy, learning, art, autobiography, ancestry, popular culture, doubt, recovery, and finally, or at least at this time, a questioning but accepting sense that there may be opportunities for redemption. And these are the essential qualities which make his works so important in a time when debates about nationhood are taking a decidedly uninformed, simplistic and counter-reflective turn.
If Bennett's account builds up this heterogeneous surface of representation which drips Pollock over history and collages the appearance of indigeonaity with the illusionism of western picturing to, as he quotes Thomas McEvilley, produce a appearance of "concepts" based on a process of "metaphor that overlaps somewhat with iconography and representation"; then McLean's additional three chapters produce the effect of peeling back these overlaps to reveal their essential beginning points.
Although he deals with some quite complicated philosophical territory to reach these essential points in Bennett's art - an intricate knitting of Lacan, Jung, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida and Bhabha - McLean delivers both a sensitive and informed reading of Bennett's works with some ease. In particular, McLean's discussion of the persistent metaphor of the mirror in Bennett's oeuvre is a useful and descriptive account which explains a strategy of 'implication' without reductiveness, which leads towards both a symbolically drawn and socially hoped for reconciliation. McLean links the Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalytic mirror to its mythic genesis - the Echo and Narcissus story - to reveal Bennett's continued interest in history and identity as formed in the reflections by and of the other. Or to quote McLean:
'If in Australia Aborigines have been made the other, the inverted double, the metaphor of the mirror allows their difference to retain an uncanny presence in the narcissistic discourses of non-Aboriginal Australian identity. The 'Australia' which Bennett traces is the tragic affair set in train by colonialism between a black Echo and a white Narcissus, but an affair whose tragedy can be exceeded (cheated) by transforming the narcissistic regression of colonialism into a deconstructive mimicry, so that Echo can articulate her desires and Narcissus love the other.'
McLean's observations also assist in explaining Bennett's stylistic experiments; his use of the western desert dot painting style which is not appropriation but both a mimicry of and homage to a way of picturing the world, just as his mimicry and homage to European western painting is quoted and diagrammed to illustrate the way in which it is just another way. Two systems competing, but co-existing. The Art of Gordon Bennett is a very satisfying book, in that it is a complex, theoretical encounter and a thoughtful explanation - just as its subject aspires and requires.