GAYME @ the Counihan Gallery

Gary LeeThursday, 21 January 2010

Dear Diary,

I have been blown away by a Midsumma exhibition… which is a statement in itself. Gayme at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, is perhaps one of the most significant curated Midsumma shows I have seen in a long time in terms of the daring, innovative curatorial content and the quality of artworks on display. The exhibition’s creators, Edwina Bartlem and Ben McKeown, assembled together an impressive display of gay indigenous artists, a feat which probably would have been unthinkable even a few years ago [if my memory serves me correctly, the Midsumma festival did a modest attempt to focus on the gay indigenous community in the early noughties]. The combination of queer aesthetics informed by indigenous / urban indigenous rhetoric imbue the works in the exhibition with the fresh, surprising, and frequently innovative and unexpected interpretation and approach.

Clinton Nain

The exhibition opens with the three large canvasses by Clinton Nain, Treaty, Right, and Wrong (all 2009), featuring the eponymous titles smeared and repeated ad infinitum in white across the dark-brown and black bitumen background. Nain continues the exploration of his aesthetic representation on the “whiting-out” of Australian indigenous culture, which began so poignantly and sometimes violently in his oeuvre of the late 1990s with his bleach-splattered denim works. The strength of the messages is self-evident. At the same time, the flowing cursive of the writing as well as the breaks in the surface tension of the pigment create an overall elegant abstracted effect, at times reminiscent of Leonard Brown’s textured paintings.

Troy-Anthony BaylisHand-knitted pink tubes, suspended from the ceiling, are the pivot of Troy-Anthony Baylis’s exhibit. After a short while the penny drops that this is a queer, gendered take on the traditional phallic ceremonial poles, which are usually carved by men, as well as a reference to woven baskets, which are usually created by indigenous craftswomen. In a suite of works titled Making Camp, rife with double entendre, Baylis’s pink poles are superimposed on colonial landscapes by H.J. Johnstone (whose works I’ve mentioned in the MPRG exhibition), Haughton Forrest, and others, who portrayed Australia as terra nullius. Baylis attempts to right their visions, which denied the existence of indigenous inhabitants in Australia (let alone the gay element of these communities), by populating their landscapes with traditional phallic (pink) poles to denote an indigenous camp site, where a ritual dance is performed by a spirit apparition in drag (the last element seemed a bit superfluous to me, as the artist has already delivered a very strong message with the semantically layered pink poles). In a twist on this theme, Baylis transfers his knitted pink tubes to Berlin’s Schlossgarten, where, in the absence of the least modicum of European culture, the artist’s aboriginal-inspired poles are the only markers of human civilisation.

Dianne JonesThe second room of the exhibition displays photographs by Dianne Jones and Gary Lee, both of whom are breaking traditional gendered stereotypes of indigenous men and women. In her near-life-size photographs, Dianne Jones seemingly effortlessly re-imagines herself as an American preacher, Elvis, Audrey, or the Fonz. She boldly explores her androgyneity to convincingly transform herself into characters of either gender without the recourse to the Sherman-style facial prosthetics. While the photographs are good quality works of art in their own right (in terms of the composition and technical attributes), this is perhaps the first time an attention has been focused on the America-centric, Hollywood influence of Anglo, Italian, and Hispanic stereotypes on the indigenous (or urban indigenous) culture. Gary Lee continues Jones’s breaking with the stereotypes in his sexualised and homo-eroticised photographs of indigenous and pan-Asian youths. If Brooke Andrew has explored in his Sexy and Dangerous series the objectification of the indigenous male within the context of anthropological photography, this is perhaps the first time that an Aboriginal male has been openly viewed as a contemporary pin-up, let alone a gay pin-up model.

r e a The last room of the exhibition is taken by the works of r e a. It consists of an HD video showing an Aboriginal woman in a heavy Victorian mourning gown, complete with a tight corset and full crinoline skirt, evoking a Victorian gothic novel. She is dashing about in a forest with charred trees, like a later-day Bertha Rochester who had escaped her captivity. Her hair is closely cropped, and at times she appears almost masculine in her looks. She is perhaps the embodiment not only of an Aboriginal woman, but of the Aboriginal race. She is not looking to escape from the forest, but stops by the charred tree trunks communing with them, mourning a universal rather than a personal loss. The looped video is only 6.5 or so minutes short. It keeps the viewer’s attention and maintains the sense of mystery. The video is accompanied by photographic stills, which are not chosen at random. Each of the nine (I think) photographs on view is aesthetically and compositionally complete. The tonal values are underpinned by the charred blacks, muted greens, and ochres. The geometry of vertical tree trunks provides a strong contrast to the sinuous silhouette of the woman’s period dress.

Ben McKeownThe exhibition’s co-curator, Ben McKeown, is represented by three works in the exhibition. They are perhaps best described as the Roar Group’s take on indigenous art, where simplified, primitivist shapes of urban structures are carried out in predominantly traditional indigenous colours. McKeown creates the visual language of an urban indigenous artist, and re-images the space, simplified objets within it, and the artist’s journey across it, not unlike an indigenous artist’s temporal conceptualisation of space and time in Dreamtime paintings. He traces the journeys across the grid of city streets, and even provides a cheeky take on Clifford Possum by re-imaging the two fallen warriors as two masturbating youths. Unfortunately, McKeown’s three paintings come from different years and represent a variety of aesthetic and semantic directions. As such, they lack the curatorial unity of other exhibits, and their meaning as a group is less sharply defined.

Exhibitions like Gayme and Finding Space are the evidence of the progress within the queer art movement, and the natural evolution of the avant-garde within its context. The works are no longer necessarily activist and / or self-referential, but respond to more universal issues of contemporary Australian and international art, including race, environment, and over-saturation of American pop culture.

3 Responses to “GAYME @ the Counihan Gallery”

  1. February 11, 2011 at 9:16 am

    yep youre right – it is good curating

    basically a cut and paste job from ‘hand in hand’ held at Boomalli for Mardi Gras 2008

    (after Edwina met with us – as curators of ‘hand in hand’ and took notes)

  2. February 28, 2011 at 7:59 am

    yes often its left up to Indigenous organisations (because unfortunately theres little inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in the pink struggle)… and wy would Counihan want to do it again? … its already on the brag list (and now they can be the experts – thats usually the way it works in this country)

    fortunately there is one at Boomalli coinciding with the Sydney Mardi Gras this year ; )

    and heres a link to ‘hand in hand’ fyi:

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2010


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