John Vella, Neil Haddon and Phillip Watkins Curated by David Hansen CAST Gallery, North Hobart 9 July - 1 August1999
It's not often one walks into a group exhibition where the work co-exists as exquisitely as in Warp. Experiencing this show elicits an immediate retinal response. Good fun and easy to enjoy, it is not every represented artist's finest hour, but in the context of exhibition as installation the works communicate with each other, constituting a canvas brotherhood. The artists, John Vella, Neil Haddon and Phillip Watkins, all currently based in Hobart, share both a boysie cheeriness and a love of the painting as object. The exuberance of the work and the thoughtful hanging of this show turn the gallery into a container of buzzing conversational colour and form.
Haddon's Late Shift very nearly dominates the room. A wall-sized piece made up of many striped, square canvases in various sizes like a mass of TV test cards, it vibrates as if it were plugged into a wall socket. Haddon's hard edged geometrics produced with a diligent application of masking tape and lovingly layered unmixed paints, are most often these simple strips of colour described by the curator, David Hansen, as "..an 'eye candy' research.". But it isWear No1 where the stripes basket weave into a yummy op canvas that is the delight to be discovered. A lolly coloured painting reminiscent of anonymity pixels, it does more than vibrate. It travels, taking your eyes along for the journey.
From the opposite side of the room Watkin's Between You and Me echoes Haddon's 'eye candy' stripes. As with all Watkin's pieces in Warp it is constructed of patterned store-bought fabric pulled to various tensions over wooden stretchers. Consisting of eight small square 'canvases' it reads from left to right to more extreme degrees of deformation. The striped rugby shirt fabric visibly wriggles to escape the contortions imposed upon it by Watkins.
In Hansen's words, "..they create these twists of meaning with literal, material distortion. The puns are strained, but so is the fabric..."
Other pieces such as the furry Two Places at Once , a diptych of piled, blue camouflage print, are more difficult to extract from their relationship to the garments they were initially intended to become. I see the bellies of adolescent girls, one fat, one thin, wearing the same Spice Girls-inspired dresses, with varying degrees of allure. Likewise, At Cross Purposes , a three-panel vision in argyle, tracks the process of trying to squeeze into the sporty number one hasn't worn for years like sequential film stills. With simple gestures Watkins suggests form and movement where there is none. As described by the curator, he is a 'materialist' in every sense of the word.
Vella's works are built on form. Stretching canvas over baths, screen doors, hotplates, and fence palings he uses paint to reproduce a shadow of the underlying textures. While Funboy Three , a collection of men's underwear stretched over vinyl pouffes, evokes the snickering British schoolboy in every viewer, Bath is a delicious object, the surrounding canvas watermarked and stained and the upper surface a tactile pool of pale green enamel. Standing in the centre of the gallery, it is a quiet place among the chatter. A very bath-like bath. By obscuring the object Vella focuses its very image. Hansen's words again: "Vella's essential image floats on the front or top of his works, but he retains 'the machine in the ghost,' the crating of the objects establishing an actual depth to match his metaphorical one."
Vella's Fence is an elegant gambit. It is a combination of real and painted fence palings that fills the end wall of the gallery. An exclamation point to the rest of his works. For those that didn't get it before, Fence appears to tell it like it is. The subtle differences between real and painted bear close inspection, and the tensions between paling and canvas start to buzz like the Haddon work it faces on the far wall. Like Watkins' stretched rugby fabric, here is Vella's own take on the vertical stripe motif visually established by Haddon's work.
While containing some very likeable work, Warp is greater than the sum of its parts. Having viewed a variety of recent group shows where the work is tenuously linked only by personal association, it is refreshing to view an exhibition where the work is tightly woven together on a variety of levels. Group exhibitions are too frequently a collection, too rarely an installation.