Who will write the history of tears?

I’m so lucky. I’ll get to teach the bit of Barthes where this line comes from in a month or so. Judging by the first crop of student blog posts – my scatter bomb approach of words/images/ideas/provocations seems to be doing the trick of inspiring young minds to engage with the world in an interesting way.

This is not meant to be an art blog – but I feel impelled to write about art lately. I’ve been seeing some good art, which is always good for the alma, and at the same time, I’m so frustrated with the 50-100 word art tweets (ok – not actual tweets, but so damn short they may as well be).

I had a quick jaunt up to Sydney last weekend, for a few days of delirious delight  as well as a cool change from heat stricken Melbourne. It was a mad dash of dinner, sleep, coffee, art, brunch, art, coffee, dash, bus, shopping, eating, catch up, sleep, coffee, art, catchup, dressup, dancemyassoff mayhem.

There were 3 things I was itching to see: Anish Kapoor at the MCA, Daniel Boyd at Artspace and Arlene Textaqueen at Sullivan and Strumph. All 3 shows are about to end so this is a bit of a postpost type review, and I give my sincerest apologies to Tracey Clement. She writes art reviews. I write art essays.

The image on the header of this post came from Pat Hoffiie’s collection of sculptures that made me hoot with laughter and regret not turning up as Schappylle Scragg. They were a suitable corrective for the stark heartbreak of the Assimilation pamphlet shown as part of Mathieu Gallois’ installation about Wellington. Wiradjuri country tugging at my heartstrings again. Reading the sickening mantra of assimiliation doctrine, hating this horrible history, racism, this place, culture, stupidity that is under my skin, blood cells sob as Lowell so eloquently evoked.

But I went for Daniel Boyd, the Rembrandt of Marrickville, whose latest works ‘History is Made at Night’ provide one of the best picturing of James Elkins’ wonderful worlds on the drippy stuff in ‘what painting is’. Being Aboriginal and working in dots, means that Boyd’s work is talked about in reference to ‘dot painting’, as if he is doing Papunya Tula for postmodernists. I’m not denying that, as he has always worked with themes that resonate around indigenous Australian identity, such as the Captain noBeard portraits which he is most known for. As a painter, I can’t deny his mastery of oil paint and this is what draws me in each time. In the Artspace installation he had two large canvases covered in dots – large dots consisting of oily emulsions where colours swirl around. These are quite different from flat acrylic points of colour from desert painting, and creating different effects of scintillation and space. I moved back and forth…. forth and back, watching areas come into focus and out again. these were quite different from his quasi pointillist puns shown in Melbourne 2 years ago – there was no pixellated figure to poke fun at – but sheer immersion in space and layers. He carried over the dance of points of lights and layers unfolding in the 2-channel video installation, where a field of white dots on black is washed over with skeins of transluscent colour, creating patterns of light and picturing that dance across the walls. My very small formalist brain considered that this was closer to the work of acrylic (at its best) where layers and layers of colour shift and move across a field, as opposed to oil, where the movement is somehow within the texture of the paint itself. I love it. I just wish more art writers would take the stuff and process of Boyd’s work as seriously as the pertinent and brilliant meanings.

And on pertinent and brilliant meanings, I shlepped down to Zetland in the rain to catch Textaqueen’s incredible show at Sullivan and Strumpf.  And it is her best work yet. I think. Reviewers make so much of the ‘cool kid’ appeal of her work – the cutesy pop culture camp of using felt tips in bright colours for portraits that I’ve been wondering what would happen as she got older, and if/how she could be taken seriously. Her last Melbourne show – on the tail end of occupation and in the middle of my appendectomy recovery  – was intensely serious – and playful. It was a series of portraits of people of colour; activists, performers, artists and others posing in fantasy film scenarios. Ladies of Colour Agency posed in what looked like the perfect antidote to ACMI’s Asian Film Festival poster, while Gary Foley posed as “the Creature from the Black Platoon”.

Melbournians are unlikely to see her work, because her former Melbourne dealer represents the horrid Luke Grogan – a hipster white boy who does ‘ironic racism’, appropriating dot paintings in order to reinforce racist stereotypes of indigenous Australians. A lot of people have written better words than I on why this is shite, but I guess some mining money has to go on art, and Grogan is the Norman Lindsay for the 21st century. (At least Billich isn’t as racist). Anyway – this is why i had to see her work in Sydney.

After my soggy trek, I got there, went upstairs, wandered around and came back down for my notepad and bottle of water. The works are incredible, and more incredible close up. As with Daniel Boyd – reproductions don’t do them justice – to the scale, the texture, the impact of seeing and moving around and with the work, and being moved by the work.

Oh, so moved. I never imagined I’d put Textaqueen in the same category as Frida Kahlo, but these works have a similar brutal honesty and surreal intensity to Kahlos. Pain in hypercolour. Texta showed me the self portrait as Jesus, which in words seems like a transgressive posturing – but oh! that was nothing. Nothing compared to the shock of her self portrait as a bullet ridden “Ghandi returns”, or the vicious visceral rage in ‘colonised desire’, where a floating self portrait as Barbie in frills, dumbly looks out, clutching a white ken doll, strung up by Animal from the Muppets. Textaqueen’s intense campness, her fixation on toys, textas, extreme cheese in pop culture is wielded with the precision of her finest artline marker to mark out the ghostly spaces of desiring and wanting and identifying and shaming. It’s all in the teal which doesn’t seem any where as intense in the reproductions….

The coupling closeness of her dual “Save yourself” self-love portrait; the naked woman and the besuited art superhero is poignant and beautiful, and the chicos baby lollies gushing from a coconut, reversing the POC epithet, or not – perplexing me as the chicos and coconut milk swam between her and the elephant (whose trunk looks like ET’s nose) and danced in her eyes making a strange family tree indeed and then, oohhh then, Subcultural Charms, had me sitting alone on the concrete floor, tears in my eyes, hoping no one would come upstairs and think I was a freak.

Because this work, is a self portrait of mourning, and the product of years of gestating grief. Her shaved semi-mohawk, in a mourning veil of skulls. The grief garbs crossing continents in sepia (brown skin, brown eyes, everything else in shades of grey). the trinkets strung on chains between ear and nose rings; India, Australia, Dollars, Wedding Cake, Family Photo, oh…. with three daughters where there are now two, and the crucifix which always looks uncannily like our mutual dear dead friend Pred.

I’m glad I missed the opening, and could have the time to sit with this work for a few minutes, just a fraction of the time spent making it. Just to sit and remember the summer she told me about her sister, the summer she started crying and thought she couldn’t stop, and how somehow in grey, black and brown textas, eyelashes veiling her own eyes, she’s evoked the magical alchemy of grief. It never leaves us, but we slowly learn to walk with it, carry it with us, dance with it sometimes, and let it have its own life.

One response to “Who will write the history of tears?

  1. What ana amazing post. I am so glad you described TextaQueens drawings…. I feel like I am looking through a telescope at them from Melbourne. Thankyou.

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