Travis Paterson: A Discreet One

With his non-sensationalist approach to articulating his homosexual identity, Travis Paterson risks flying below the radar. This is because high profile artists such as Juan Davila and Scott Redford have flamboyantly protested against prejudice and celebrated gay liberation in the context of Australian art. Furthermore, Paterson is a relative newcomer to the exhibition circuit and is located regionally, in northern New South Wales. Like other subtle and committed practitioners (irrespective of sexual orientation), attention for the unspectacular and quietly poetic has gathered him a growing number of admirers, especially in the printmaking realm, notorious for its marginality.

For instance, in 2009 Paterson was highly commended at the Port Jackson Press graduate printmaking award and received a university fellowship to travel to Bristol (UK) to attend IMPACT 6, an international multi-disciplinary conference based on the print. His CV continues with regular representation in group shows, including Familiar Unfamiliar (2011), celebrating 45 years of the Print Council of Australia and the 2012 Fremantle Print Award and ends with his Southern Cross University honours' exhibition Landlocked: mapless and without bearing in late 2012. This brief report draws attention to how printmaking, often through its partnership with the digital and expansion into installation and the three-dimensional, refuses to be typecast and especially how in the hands of a talented graduate allows for readings useful to define estrangement and ‘‘otherness’’.

Behind the emerging artist’s professional profile, Paterson’s adolescent history was decidedly less promising. As a gay child in a devout Catholic family and subject to homophobia at school, he left home in Perth aged 15 to fend for himself in Sydney, moving up and down the east coast of Australia and eventually overseas. ‘‘Being in the closet’’ had become unsustainable, further complicated by the fallout from the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. ‘‘God’s punishment’’ some might recall was said of the epidemic. Unsurprising then, that for his recent Lismore exhibition he should channel his experiences of social and familial ostracism into a research project that investigated forms of exile, both geographical and psychological. Interweaving his memories of homosexual prejudice with a particular historical event that has largely been forgotten is Paterson’s contribution to excavating and examining queer history in this country.

Exile implies dwelling somewhere with the constant awareness that one is not at home. While exile is not an exclusively queer experience (see for instance Edward Said’s essay Reflections on Exile, 2000), the condition does point to the alienation, often, of homosexuals from the broader culture. The historical narrative underpinning Paterson’s Landlocked: mapless and without bearing (2012) derives from two boys from the Dutch merchant vessel Zeewijk accused of sodomy in the early 18th century and exiled from each other to separate islands off the coast of Western Australia and left to perish. The cruelty of this punishment, the sorrow of separation and the marginalisation of the individual in a then remote geographical situation, underpins Landlocked. The sublime beauty of the dominant cobalt blue in this installation, the various nautical references (including an allusion to 1950s imagery from old primary school readers such as those glorifying the adventurous life of sailors, of shipwrecks and being lost at sea), cloak the harsh reality of this particular story. It stands as an historical reconstruction, a poignant memorial and ultimately a homosexual lament.

Central to the installation is a collage of aquatint prints, mural-scale, printed as a tonally subtle, interpenetrating field of coloured sheets. It pulsed through bands of horizontally laid paper and above an imaginary horizon line through vertical sheets of the same multi-plate aquatint etchings. There was a Rothko-like sensuousness to this modular image, each plate being initially grained and etched then inked and hand-wiped. Slightly elevated from the floor, the collage with its slightly torn edges in the lower section, gave the impression of a seascape but also a floating island. The viewer was positioned in a kind of liminal space when viewing it. Alongside, a wall carried a flock of laser cut aquatint swallows, birds once favoured on the chests of sailors, flying in formation (of different sizes to suggest depth in space).

Elsewhere in the exhibition were two small piles of strata-like cream paper with rivulets of blue ink falling through, and drawings that are perhaps like tiny stains from tears (nothing overtly descriptive though) or cast adrift islands. In the centre of the room a simple wooden table carried blue sheets of handmade paper with white pulp-printed forms bonded to them. These featured two young boys facing each other across a 3-D origami boat. Silhouetted, these suggest Wedgwood neo-classical designs, possibly inferring the impress of a new set of culturally specific images for the famous chinaware. In Landlocked, the artist shares something of the same aesthetic and motivation as Australian Neil Emmerson whose installations similarly use autographic printmaking as an instrument to critique homophobia from the perspective of historical figures and furthermore highlight a world where ‘‘repulsion and expulsion’’ are still potent forces.[1]

Footnotes

  1. ^ See Anne Kirker, ‘Shadow play: Neil Emmerson’s recent installations’, Art Monthly Australia, July 2010, No. 231, pp. 41 – 43.

Anne Kirker is a curator and arts writer

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