Exhibition review Junk Bonds New Land Gallery, Port Adelaide South Australia Touring South Australia and interstate with Visions of Australia 28 June - 28 July 1996.
My dealer connections tell me that junk bonds are pawns in the bigger game. Their value is measured in terms of their ability to help finance another company. The really interesting bit is that their security is guaranteed by their relationship to the other company. So what was a stock market tag doing hanging around the neck of an art exhibition? Junk art and junk sculpture, these are orthodox terms applied to artefacts constructed from 'junk' materials. But I anticipated (correctly as it turned out) that there was more afoot than creative cobblings of cast-off materials.
Six artists have contributed work to this South Australian Touring Exhibition Program (SATEP) exhibition curated by David O'Connor: Christine Turner, Geoff Ween-Vermazen, Chris Mulhearn, Marcus Champ, David Lewis and Ted Jonsson. I should declare at the outset a mild antipathy towards objects fashioned from discarded or junk materials. Wood and iron incur the toughest criticism because of the way market forces have promoted something which I can only describe as distressed-ness as a taste commodity. I've become disenchanted with the way scraps of weathered and pre-painted timber and rusting iron make cheap advances on the imagination, alluding in their fragments of former selves to narratives and human dramas.
The albeit vigorous and inventive usages of 'junk' materials by local and other Australian artists is rarely informed by a self-critical edge. The aesthetic pleasures provided by the interplay of disused objects and aged surfaces is often the end rather than the starting point. My benchmark remains the best of Schwitters, Arte Povera, Duchamp's ready-mades, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It's Robert Klippel and Rosalie Gascoigne on the national scene and locally I'd rate Antony Hamilton as the most alert or self-critical of artists working within found object genres along with Shaun Kirby and more recently, Helen Fuller.
The Junk Bonds exhibition group broadly adheres to traditions associated with European rather than American (Pop) sensibilities. The instinct to soften the crassness and low culture connections of component items is strong. So too is the imperative to incorporate all things, to subsume the nature of individual things by building them into the whole. This is understandable in the case of David Lewis' cats and dogs fashioned from bits of lawnmowers, metal drums, scraps of timber and the like.
Along with Marcus Champ's Fetish Fish, these objects aim to entertain through the cuteness and aptness of selection of just so components. But beyond this point, the meanings and the messages begin to get darker and murkier.
Ted Jonsson and Champ are the coolest operators in the group, precise in their editing and conjunction of components and materials and downright clever in their manipulation of materials. I've often written about Jonsson's work in isolation but in this company I was more aware of the brooding, Gothic elements which lend an air of sexual menace to his work, particularly
Wom-Man Servant, Soul Masturbator and He-She. The spiky Peep Show appeared, at second glance, predatory and preoccupied with coverings up and sneaking disclosures. Part sleaze - part tease Jonsson's work knows how to how offer cheap thrills perfumed by a whiff of decay. Champ is in relatively classical mood putting a Picasso-esque bull's head through its paces. In this gathering he looked the easy rider and the word 'junk' when applied to his work looked somehow out of place.
Chris Mulhearn, Geoff Ween-Vermazen and Christine Turner appear less concerned about aesthetic restraint. All work from an apparently strong feeling of commitment to personal positions, part socially-critical and part autobiographical. Mulhearn in Luggage from Rwanda is closest within the entire exhibition to lobbing a specific political statement on target. Turner exploits an orthodox response to childhood memories of Sunday school picnics with clever substitutions of religious bric a brac for picnic basket utensils. The two Frida tributes, Loss and Tribute to Frida 2 demonstrated a healthy lack of restraint in scale and calculated vulgarity. The aesthetic conventions, particularly the cruciform structure, dominating both works stifle their imaginative energy and ultimately their visual interest. Or could it be that I was wondering if the world needed another Frida tribute?
Ween-Vermazen's Consciousness suffers from no such predictability. Twenty-one various paintings, reliefs and small sculptures, displayed across or in front of a wall, read like a day's random trawling on the Internet with the computer programmed to capture and print every 100th image. Figurative images both 2D and 3D lend some kind of unity to the assemblage which whips up a brew of shaman chic to imply a whole lotta soul-searching going on.
Junk Bonds will test the patience and imagination of viewers unfamiliar with mainstream conventions of sculptural assemblage. But the wit and the shrewd crafting of materials may be sufficient reasons for many to keep looking and discover how dumb materials can help to speak volumes.