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Nov
13

Three exhibitions: ‘Henri van Noordenburg / Efface’; ‘Amber McCaig / Imagined Histories’ and ‘Greg Elms / What Remains’ at Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 6th – 23rd November 2013

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Three solid exhibitions at Edmund Pearce Gallery. All three have interesting elements and strong images. All three have their positives and negatives.

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Henri van Noordenburg presents us with a European, colonialist take on the Australian landscape in his new series Efface, similar in their vernacular to early Australian painters visions of their new homeland, with their longing for an “original” home many leagues away over the sea. Except Noordenburg’s interventions look nothing like any Australian landscape I know, heavily influenced as they are by the work of French artist and engraver Gustav Doré (1832-1883) and Japanese wood block prints. His dark, brooding, subterranean art works – in which the artist photographs himself naked and bruised, prints this image on a large sheet of black photographic paper, then hand carves the landscape with a scalpel back into the paper base, isolating but at the same time surrounding the vulnerable, exposed body – image a gothic, melancholy vision of man lost in the wilderness. Here the body (self) is helpless before various forces, but these forces must still be engaged before some progress (pilgrims progress?) can be made.

The technique is truly extraordinary and the artist sets up a “perceptible tension” between technique and form, etching and photograph, body and bulimic (as in excessive), landscape. These ‘synthetic landscapes’ whose form is produced by spatial reorganization and topographical interventions, man-made spaces, serve as background for what the artist wants us to see as our collective existence.1 Unfortunately, the conceptualisation of the work seems, well, a little confused. And perhaps that is the point. Noordenburg, with his Dutch heritage, is apparently still unsure of his place in a multicultural Australia, even after a few decades living here. But, I feel his point of departure for this work still remains uncertain. And this leads to uncertain outcomes for the viewer.

This uncertainty in the point of departure makes it difficult for the viewer to empathise with the stylistic inclinations of the landscape or the work as a whole. Somehow, it all seems so remote from too much. We can all sympathise with the “humanity” of the work, its anguish and sense of dislocation and wish it well, but I was left a little non-plussed by the visual evidence presented to me. If the exhibition was about wildness (not wilderness) and craziness (not a form of identity dislocation), then it would have been spot on:

“God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion!”

D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

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Amber McCaig’s series Imagined Histories image “contemporary people captured by a sharp technology… [as they] aspire to join the consciousness of another epoch” (Robert Nelson). Small, intense prints, hung in pairs, re-present figures dressed in renaissance costume acting out the fantasy of living in a romantic, historical era. The portraits are paired with still life of wooden boxes filled with allegorical objects full of symbolic representation. The portraits are strong (the incongruity of an Asian knight is particularly effective), and the relationship between portrait and still life is ambiguous and nuanced. However, the still life become repetitive with the constant placement of images at the back of the box coupled with objects situated towards the front of the box. A study of the magical boxes of the artist Joseph Cornell would have been beneficial in this regard.

I feel that there needs to be more layering in the construction of the individual photographs and between the works in the series as a whole, not just the pairs of images. While the work is a little one dimensional in this imagined time, this is a good beginning to an ongoing investigation.

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While Sally Mann’s body of work What Remains is the rolled-gold standard for this kind of work, Greg Elms series What Remains offers an interesting forensic amplification of skeletal “nature”. These animalistic portraits of nature mort are eloquent, strong and forthright. Some work better than others. The Cheetah skull, the Vervet monkey skull (with Rayban Aviator sunglass eyes) and best of them all, the magnificent, constructivist Black cockatoo skull – are all haunting in their deathly presence. Some of the smaller skulls lack these works muscularity, especially when they are printed horizontally on a vertical piece of photographic paper, which simply does not work.

Whether the series needed the ironic commentary of the titles, or the trope of hanging the conceptualisation of the series on the back of global warming, is also debatable. I think the best images are strong enough, and the conviction of the artist obvious enough over numerous bodies of work, that the viewer does not need to be spoon fed this rationalisation.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to Edmund Pearce Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Gustave Doré. llustration of Lord Alfred Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King' 1868

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Gustave Doré
llustration of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
1868

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Henri van Noordenburg. 'Composition X' 2012

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Henri van Noordenburg
Composition X
2012
Hand carved archival pigment print
106 x 106 cm

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“Abstracted within the landscape, the artist features as the protagonist facing the threats of a seemingly hostile bush. Efface references The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden with a focus on the overlaying of a European aesthetic on the physical and intellectual landscape. Starting with self portraits set amid a featureless black background, the photographic surface is hand etched to reveal the landscape.

Van Noordenburg describes the process of self-nude photography as an “incredible mix between strength and weakness, frustration and containment a feeling of euphoria and adrenaline”. Feelings, which mirror van Noordenburg’s attempts to assimilate within a dominant culture.”

Text from the Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Henri van Noordenburg. 'Composition XXI' 2013

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Henri van Noordenburg
Composition XXI
2013
Hand carved archival pigment print
30 x 30 cm

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Henri van Noordenburg. 'Composition XXII' 2013

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Henri van Noordenburg
Composition XXII
2013
Hand carved archival pigment print
30 x 30 cm

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Henri van Noordenburg. 'Composition XXIII' 2013

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Henri van Noordenburg
Composition XXIII
2013
Hand carved archival pigment print
30 x 30 cm

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Between Here and There

The figure that haunts these images is far from a signifier of passivity and calm. Dwarfed and subjugated by that which surrounds, his naked form seems deep in the throes the landscape’s implicit bewilderment and assault. His pallid, naked flesh is scarred and reddened and soiled, the reproach of this eerie land leaving an acrid evidence.

The work of Henri van Noordenburg veers towards the anxieties of juncture, displacement and exodus – art history, religious mythology, the socio-cultural tropes of migration and dislocation and the tensions of the photographic medium underlie his visual and allegorical language.

Indeed, the sensibilities and narratives that punctuate the Dutch-born artist’s new series, Efface, are significant on several levels. The immediately perceptible tension is that of technique and form. Beginning their lives as nude photographic self-portraits (the body set against a vast, featureless, black backdrop), van Noordenburg’s renderings of the Australian landscape and wilderness are in fact painstakingly realised hand-etchings. The photographic surface is an amalgam, the physicality of the photographic object unmistakable. In an era of fluctuation and change for the now ubiquitous digital form, van Noordenburg attempts to reengage, reinterpret and gain further understanding of the photograph’s physical roots.

The formal and stylistic inclinations that the artist achieves via such a process offers another intriguing layer. Resting upon the myth of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, this loaded series operates in the shadows of art history, forging a Romantic European imagining of the landscape and broaching its loaded colonialist underpinnings. Just as van Noordenburg’s photographic visage wanders a landscape created via the hand and the imagination, the European man stalks the myth of the non-European landscape as a base, inhospitable threat. Allegories and references double back on one another; themes of movement, displacement, exile and expulsion break bread with the iconography of the colonialist gaze.

That it is van Noordenburg’s own image that haunts these works – his body writhing, crouched or prone amid the bush – proves telling. Though living in Australia for the best part of two decades, the artist is an outsider in a nation that remains in acute denial of the extent of its immigrant foundations. Whether white, black, yellow or brown, the great myth of a quintessential Australianness – one that exists on a plane distinct from the cultural melange that marks the Australian reality – threatens to dislocate all who fail to blindly buy in.

In the suite of works that populate Efface, van Noordenburg sets himself adrift, haunted by his own place in history, mythology and the wider Australian scheme. Though we live in an increasingly borderless and post-national world, some things tend not to change.

Dan Rule

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Amber McCaig. 'Ute von Tangermunde' 2013

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Amber McCaig
Ute von Tangermunde
2013
Archival pigment print
48 x 33 cm

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Amber McCaig. 'Untitled VII' 2013

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Amber McCaig
Untitled VII
2013
Archival pigment print
48 x 33 cm

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“Using a combination of portraits and still life elements, Amber recreates an exploration into the idea of identity and imagination, providing an insight into what it is like to live out fantasies in everyday life. Laden with armour, treasure chests, maps and lore, these fantasies show the power of our imagination and what is possible if we dare to dream.”

Text from the Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Amber McCaig. 'The Knight Errant' 2013

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Amber McCaig
The Knight Errant
2013
Archival pigment print
60 x 42 cm

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Amber McCaig. 'Untitled IV' 2013

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Amber McCaig
Untitled IV
2013
Archival pigment print
60 x 42 cm

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Amber McCaig. 'The Knight' 2013

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Amber McCaig
The Knight
2013
Archival pigment print
60 x 42 cm

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Amber McCaig. 'Untitled III' 2013

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Amber McCaig
Untitled III
2013
Archival pigment print
60 x 42 cm

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Greg Elms. 'We knew it was serious, but we were kind of busy (Black cockatoo skull)' 2013

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Greg Elms
We knew it was serious, but we were kind of busy (Black cockatoo skull)
2013
Archival pigment print
85 x 110 cm

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“This taxonomy series of large-scale prints, which acts as an amplification of its forensic nature, is an examination of where our relationships with animals are headed. Whilst those with vested interests may deride climate change, it is beyond dispute that there is a decline in many species of fauna (and flora). In 21st century life, where the distractions are numerous and social media pervasive, 24-hour news counteracts important issues amidst a blur of information overload… Elms work investigates the natural world exploring themes of reality, mortality and the sublime.”

Text from the Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Greg Elms. 'It got overrun by other news (Wombat skull, aerial view)'  2013

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Greg Elms
It got overrun by other news (Wombat skull, aerial view)
2013
Archival pigment print
70 X 55 cm

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Respice post te!

There is something incredibly human about Greg Elms’ latest suite of works. Something uncannily and immediately recognizable in these gaping eyes and grimacing teeth. What links each of the ‘individuals’ here is very simple. It is not just death, it is the cause of death. These are forensic portraits of homicide victims, genocidal talismans for the perpetrator. Enjoy them, for it is we who must plead futile innocence.

Stripped of fur and flesh, they were beforehand stripped of the flora and fauna that sustained them, they were humiliated, out-numbered and out equipped and we? Well it’s simple. We needed more coffee plantations, more timber, more cultivation, more food for our yapping pets.

I’m not suggesting here that Elms is some kind of tree-hugging animal lover. But I am saying that, like the best forensic analysts, he has identified his victims well.

Elms himself gives away much of the story behind this cruelly grinning menagerie. Think of how many times in recent decades you have read the kinds of commentary that Elms utilizes here as titles; “We knew it was serious, but we were kind of busy,” “Lobbyists were employed to dispute the facts,” “It got overrun by other news,” “We felt like we were helpless,” “It would’ve been fine if Newscorp was onside.”

These are everyday, generic comments. All too much so. think: Global Warming, human genocide, animal extinctions. Just everyday comments accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. One could add “too late now.” Elms himself adds: “Everything comes and goes…”

But if there is beauty in Apocalypse then Elms has found it. There is an elegance alongside a silence in these animalistic portraits of nature mort. These un-furred memento mori.

The Latin phrase, memento mori, translates essentially as “Remember that you must die.” Another translation of the term reads Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento – Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! But here in Elms’ portraits it is the Vervet Monkey, the Black Cockatoo, the Cheetah. Indeed, the only thing missing is the skull of the human.

But there is time enough for that…

Ashley Crawford

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Greg Elms. 'We felt sort of helpless to stop the extinction (Cheetah skull)' 2012

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Greg Elms
We felt sort of helpless to stop the extinction (Cheetah skull)
2012
Archival pigment print
110 x 85 cm

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Greg Elms. 'You won’t get away with this for much longer (Vervet monkey skull)' 2011

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Greg Elms
You won’t get away with this for much longer (Vervet monkey skull)
2011
Archival pigment print
110 x 85 cm

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1. Jackson, J. B. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 8 quoted in Goldswain, Phillip. “Surveying the Field, Picturing the Grid: John Joseph Dwyer’s Urban Industrial Landscapes,” in Goldswain, Phillip and Taylor, William (eds.,). An Everyday Transience: The Urban Imaginary of Goldfields Photographer John Joseph Dwyer. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2010, p.75.

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Edmund Pearce Gallery
Level 2, Nicholas Building
37 Swanston Street (corner Flinders Lane)
Melbourne Victoria 3000

Opening hours:
Wed – Sat 11 am – 5 pm

Edmund Pearce Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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