Greenaway Gallery 28 April - 23 May 1999
Being a socially critical artist in a contemporary world doesn't leave much room for such old-time theatrics such as hell-fire denunciations and bouts of moral indignation. Ranting's out. Artists, in order to build an audience and get a message across, as they say, have worked on the style and format of delivery. Installations, particularly those utilising commercial or post-industrial by-products, by their ability to blur distinctions between life and art, between artist and spectator have retained their popular appeal. It's also a too-easy option for apprentice artists unwilling to commit to years of training to acquire the necessary technology skills such as manipulating pigments on flat surfaces. For an artist like Ian Chandler who has pursued painting as an expressive medium across his working life, the challenge has resided in striking some kind of balance between communicating socially critical concerns and maintaining a creative edge. To this end he has in a series of exhibitions across the 1990s, focussed on global issues as underlying themes while at the same time refined a distinctive style of configuring imagery which has become increasingly complex and layered. A forecast of the artist's present concerns can be retrieved from exhibition notes to his 1993 Greenaway Gallery exhibition in which Chandler counterposed traditional systems for storing and codifying information with contemporary information technologies which have the capacity to 'engulf us'. The 1996 exhibition adopted a mordant, localised note as the artist alluded to issues including gambling and profiteering. The practice of providing extended notes on each work continued in this most recent exhibition, declaring the issues, sources and symbolism underlying the iconography. There were six painted panels in all, three horizontal, the others vertical. A video produced as a collaborative project between Chandler and his son Brett amplified themes related to constant speed and movement.
The starting point for this exhibition was a work titled Futurism 1909-1999. Multiple profiles of cars conjured impressions of speed in keynote Futurist style. In the appealing configurations of the tracery of car forms lay a reminder of the love affair with the machine which seduced the Futurists so long ago and the obsession with speed and access which, in the artist's perspective, bedevils the world today. This interest in things being wound up to frenetic pace informed the intensity of most other paintings which adopted the look of a frozen monitor image of down-loading graphics arriving from multiple web sites. The incongruity in a sense was provided by the emphatic references to traditional culture particularly in Mahatma, Ganesha & Dharma Chakra where a diagram of the Indian national flag was intermingled with designs based on the Hindu god Ganesha and the ancient Buddhist symbol of the Dharma Chakra, the Wheel of Life. The remarkable thing about this image and particularly a facing panel, Mao Zedong & Deng Xiaping was the visual impact of the layers of calligraphic-like patterning and random pockets of visual intrigue created by the overlays. Here was the heartland of Chandler's work, a metaphor for hybridity fuelled partly by information technologies and also by the cultural forces driving the global presences and possible future world domination of India and China. The process of looking resembled a game with the viewer invited to 'surf' the layers and make sense of the experience. The effectiveness of the artist's methodology was apparent in the double-take of benign, aesthetically attractive imagery built sometimes from ominous elements such as the tanks and crossed guns which composed some of the infills in Mao Zedong & Deng Xiaoping or the cascading fountains veiling the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The artist's notes indicated that for him the Tower symbolised the tottering Western world. The fountains referred to the acid rain which continues to add the building's destruction.
These images, with their interwoven complexities and symbolic marriage of ancient beliefs and recent political history communicated a sense of negotiation with the possible and perhaps inevitable. The ironies which inform his style of commentary continue to demand a great deal from anyone seduced into believing that knowledge or ideas can be accessed by upgraded browser performance. The 'faster' the world becomes, the more, I suspect, will Chandler's work demand that the viewer slow down and lose time within his mesmeric mazes.