Dangerous Liaisons
Plimsoll Gallery, Centre for the Arts,
7-30April 1995

Reviewed by Jennifer Spinks

"Dangerous Liaisons" is both a more unruly and less interesting exhibition than the title - with its seductive, sophisticated overtones - would appear to promise. It is, in fact, a rather motley, indifferently-hung collection of works by contemporary Australian artists who have been more or less inspired by periods and features of Western art as diverse as the Renaissance, seventeenth century Dutch genre painting, Maltese and South American Catholic imagery, the Baroque, Rococo, Classicism and Neo-Classicism. It includes the artists Maree Azzopardi, Rose Farrell & George Parkin, Brad Levido, Anna Platten, Siobhan Ryan, Timothy Schultz and Lisa Tomasetti. Curator Diana Klaosen invokes Postmodern image-scavenging as the unifying stylistic element of the exhibition, while the thematics are broadened to include "private or shared agendas  significant social, cultural, sexual and moral issues  (addressed) in highly individual, contemporary and contrasting ways, with humour and irony tempering serious intent."

One aspect remains constant throughout this grab-bag of an exhibition: it is clear that none of the artists can hope to duplicate the technical mastery and illusionary power of their sources, and indeed, seem uninterested in doing so. We must assume that they have other concerns, ranging from the referential to the subversive. It is, then, unfortunate that the curator appears to have a greater interest in simply demonstrating that these artists have historical antecedents than in probing how such complex relations have developed within their work. A more selective curatorial approach allied with a more considered, intimate hang may have allowed the intriguing individual qualities of the works to emerge, rather than swamping them in a chaotic whole.

Those artists in "Dangerous Liaisons" who pursue a quietly thoughtful vision fare badly from an uncomfortable proximity with exuberant, dramatic artists like Schultz and Ryan. Two Polaroid photographs from Rose Farrell & George Parkin's 1989 series "Miserable Pleasures and Glorious Mysteries" are almost lost in the melée. Their Madonna's poignant, melancholy gesture and the rich yet subdued background details of these tableaux fail to command sufficient attention in such gaudy surroundings. In any case, this specifically South American religious imagery seems inappropriate in an exhibition which proposes to concentrate on European masterworks.

Anna Platten's realist painting "Self-Portrait in Studio" (1992) draws on the traditions of seventeenth century Northern European painting. She imparts an eerie presence to the mostly inanimate subject matter of this work and the accompanying drawing "Study for Puppets" (1994). The potential of these images to unsettle the viewer could have been developed to a fascinating degree in a more intimate setting.

Both Platten and Farrell & Parker have produced works with quietly complex relations of imagery and technique to their sources. It is a shame that various other works in "Dangerous Liaisons" meet the curatorial criteria of art historical elements and implicit or explicit sexual content in a much less interesting fashion. Brad Levido's monochrome paintings combine beautiful young men with fragments from classical antiquity. They are intelligent and sympathetic homoerotic images, but technically and stylistically tame.

In a similar vein Lisa Tomasetti draws on Renaissance traditions when posing her black and white photographic nudes. She employs well-worn clichés of the genre (including deeply-shadowed studio lighting, exaggerated grain, and languidly narcissistic figures) which undercut any subversive intent she attempts to bring to her work.

Maree Azzopardi's reworkings of religious imagery combine basic elements of découpage, splashes of gold paint, and rather heavy-handed applications of shellac. Her theme of specifically female religious ecstasy is potentially intriguing, but its impact is lessened by a thoroughly mediocre presentation.

Siobhan Ryan's sculptural work is quite different: her almost excessive attention to the materiality of these Rococo-inspired extravaganzas has fascinating results. Metal, velvet, and "dripping" resin, among other components, twist through the pieces "Boudoir", "Landscape" and "Plode" (all 1994). Their elaborate, convoluted forms are reminiscent of hearts, maps, female genitalia, and human cells, and refer insistently to female experience.
Similarly, Tim Schultz's paintings "Goria" (1944), "Marquise" (1993), "Psyche" (1993), and "Severed Head" (1994), exaggerate, and render demonic, features of Rococo art. They are peopled by monstrous, predatory women, who are decorated with pearls and lurk in decadent interiors. These funny yet macabre paintings have a sophisticated relation to the Rococo; they exploit its inherent sensuality, while challenging its rigid categorisations of humour and tragedy. Schultz clearly revels in both the pleasures of the artificial image, and the murky, sinister undercurrents of human sexuality.

Large-scale, gaudy and dramatic, these paintings dominate "Dangerous Liaisons". Despite their intrinsic interest, it is a shame that the cool, subtle works of Farrell & Parker and Anna Flatten were not also permitted to achieve their full impact. Had they done so, the exhibition might have offered some intriguing insights into contemporary art and the persistent lure of European culture.