What is it to look, to see, to discern an image that is as dark as a moonless night?
I came across a work on the weekend when without any pre-planning or preconceived idea, I wandered into a renovated Victorian terrace house on Lennox Street in Richmond, following a fellow art vulture on her mission to check out the exhibition “Shit That I Like” programmed by Benjamin Aitken. Aitken is an Archibald shortlisted painter, a self-professed non-curator and enfant terrible.
Art exhibitions are hard to discern without some background research or knowledge. It helps to know a little about the artists or their methods or the exhibition’s theme. Other than what the title hinted, artworks which appealed to the non-curator, there was no explicit thread to this collection of works.
The artworks on display were impressive. Twenty-five multi-media 2D and 3D works by established, senior, mid-career and emerging artists, represented by some of Melbourne’s elite commercial galleries, expertly installed inside a terrace house with two exhibition rooms of white-cube quality.
I paused to take a short video of Meagan Streader’s “extension (links)" 2019 u-bend fluorescent tubes, attached to plywood boxed column and caught just a glimpse of Jamie North's "Slag study no 6" 2019, a diamond shaped blast furnace slag, stainless steel and epoxy. My camera captured a pulsating light. The tubes emanated a humming sound which blended in with the garbled noise of people in a gallery. Somehow my camera managed to record an atmosphere laden with dread.
I took a photo of Kate Beyon’s “Night Creatures” 2013, a watercolour, gouache and metallic pigment on illustration board. I stood before Michael Vale’s “Nowhere man”, 2019 oil on acrylic and studied the cavernous sockets of a skull wearing a tall gorlatnaya hat, the kind only worn by the Imperial Russian nobility, decorated with flesh-like eyes, and tried to decipher what other metaphors hovered over this surreal apocalyptic work as I took a pic of the work up close.
I am obsessed by ghouls and monsters, folkloric demons, the spectres of malicious forces materializing as art. Not all macabre art impresses me, but I am drawn to works that mirror a foreboding sense of doom.
I could not look closely at any of the other works on display. I have reached a state of peak-art, suffering a type of Stendhal’s syndrome, not from over exposure to objects or phenomena of great beauty as in the Florentine or Renaissance sense of Stendhal’s time. I can’t just dismiss all contemporary art as bad art. I am not a sentimentalist for the art bygone eras. I look for contemporary proponents which give form to the complexity of my time. Most contemporary artists employ practices that are conceptually clever, producing work utilising exceptional materials and design. Yet, I have made myself sick on artworks, art products that seem to be proliferating exponentially, and as if bulimic, I regularly seek withdrawal in order to purge.
Almost every state has one or two biennales, numerous art fairs and travelling block-buster exhibitions. There are also a plethora of artist run spaces, public and commercial galleries, exhibition halls and pop-ups, not to mention art competitions and awards.
Former factories and industrial halls are converted into mega art barns for the display and hyper consumption of art. Add to the art on trams as they glide by, cacophonous mix of commercial strip signage and marketing and the cataclysmic assault of ornamental graffiti as urban renewal projects or as markers of adolescent defiance, angst scrawled on the side of embankments or piss sprayed across derelict industrial district walls.
I find myself feeling dizzy and nauseous, often disorientated, unable to look, my eyes and brain repulsed by the constant stimuli. I feel a state of acute displacement, inside which I have no capacity to distill let alone meditate on any meaning, other than it looks good, as I flick through social media channels and press a heart for a like.
My concentration span has been shot by an over exposure to art. If ever there was a reason for supporting Plato’s contention that artists, mere second order mimics, distort and divert perception with illusions, chicaneries and tricks, the current state of conveyor belt contemporary art market is a good reason to urge for a return into the blank nothingness of an empty cave, and often that is just what I do, I return home draw the blinds and sit for hours in the dark.
On Saturday however, I found myself inside an exhibition space, and yet again my eyes wandered over the exhibits, and yet again, unable to linger, muse, contemplate or discern, I let my attention fall away inside my mobile phone, in order to capture the perfect image with which to notify the amorphous ether of the singular art work that caught my fleeting gaze for long enough to merit a hashtag or two.
As I introduced myself to the gallery owner, a dignified older woman, I noted a large black canvas on a wall seemingly depicting nothing. From its imposing rectangular shape, I gathered this was not a parody of Malevich “Black Square” 1915. There were intimations of color, brush strokes hinting at enough light to discern forms. This was a work bleak with the heaviness of the Dutch Rembrandt.
A force inside me urged me on for a closer examination.
Towards the bottom right, I discerned the shape of a wing and feathers. An eagle or a vulture, from the beak and the talons a carrion of sorts. My eye moved to the left. The eye traced over sculpted biceps, then arms, do I see wrists, I looked closer, can I see chains?
I realise the canvas spoke of Prometheus, an ancient Greek myth, the Titan, who stole fire from the Olympian gods and gave it to humanity. For his betrayal, the mighty Zeus chained him to the peaks on Mount Caucasus, where an eagle was set to tear and devour his liver daily. The liver replenished itself every night.
As guessed, Leslie Rice’s monumental work is entitled "Prometheus Bound"2016, an exquisite work, magisterial in size, an acrylic painted on black velvet canvas, 225cm in height, 162cm in length, a meditation on the representation of the artist's choice of subject matter and on the nature and purpose of art.
Here is a quote from Aeschylus’s ancient Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound:
“Hear the sum of the whole matter in the compass of one brief word — every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus.”
The work spoke to me, to accept my wanderlust through all that causes nausea and deep confusion. For there will always be that moment that will stretch my imagination far back into the deep recesses of my mind, where I will discover that Promethean urge to bring me back into, to linger for long enough to discern the light.