Monika Behrens @ Gallerysmith

Monika Behrens - Shock n AwesomeSaturday, 18 June 2011

Monika Behrens @ Gallerysmith

Monika Behrens’s exhibition at the Gallerysmith in North Melbourne is dominated by a huge quadriptych, Shock ‘ n ‘ Awesome. Composed of four large canvasses, it depicts in an allegorical language the Allied invasion of Iraq. A multitude of plastic toy soldiers of every shape and model, accompanied by military toy machinery, surround or make beeline towards rose buds, which are strewn across the canvases in bouquets or individually. The allegory of the composition becomes clear in an instance. Toy soldiers personify invading forces; their different colours represent various nations that willingly danced to America’s political tune. As for the rose-buds, rose is an actual symbol of Iraq. What an unexpected, simple and powerful metaphor it represents! How aptly it is used by Behrens in these paintings! Simultaneously representing rose as a nation, and a rose as a symbol of fragility, we are witnessing and anticipating these flowers to be literally and allegorically crushed under the innumerable armies of the attacking soldiers. The metaphorical association of roses as symbols of femininity, and the inherently vulvic arrangement of their petals also foretell of the atrocities the native population would endure during the invasion.

Monika Behrens RippleThese paintings draw an immediate parallel with the art of John Brack, whose ‘pencil’ paintings recreate various famous battles and military campaigns, especially those of the Napoleonic wars, and where different colours of pencils similarly represent vari-coloured uniforms of warring nations. However, Brack’s paintings were not inspired by various military skirmishes in which Australia participated under the spell of American hegemony throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Behrens’s paintings, on the other hand, which directly engage with such current and litigious events, are as topical as they are courageous, and perhaps the most direct comment on the international military involvement in the Middle East we have seen in this country’s galleries since the largely overlooked and misread installation by Jenny Holzer at the ACCA earlier last year.

On the opposite wall of the exhibition space, Behrens displays a suite of six or so paintings, which depict upturned wine and champagne glasses with toy soldiers and military machines within them. They continue the theme of the exhibition and also raise a multitude of similar semantic connotations, such as the physical fragility of the soldiers as well as the all-too-real possibility of the mutual annihilation of the warring nations: think of what would happen to the two Koreas should a conflict erupt on that peninsula. It reminds me of an obvious dictum about ‘people who live in glass houses’, or, as it has been eloquently summed up in a recent TV show, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Monika Behrens Precarious RevoltHowever, one cannot talk about these paintings without discussing their incredible painterly merits. As evident from these photographs – and infinitely more so when you view them in the flesh – these works are a masterful tour-de-force by this young and undoubtedly talented artist. The hyper-realistic tromp l’oeil of these paintings is astounding; the brushwork is barely visible on their smooth painted surfaces. The translucent quality of glass is rendered most meritoriously, reminding me of the excellent crystal vase paintings by Arthur Streeton. The effectiveness of these paintings is increased by their limited colour palette, effectively contrasting the fragile glass vessels against predominantly black or dark-blue backgrounds. My favourite work in the exhibition is undoubtedly Precarious Revolt, where complex swirls and folds of a red scarf burst forth from the overall sombre gamut of the picture, and are expertly contrasted against the strategically introduced model of a green tank.

It is such a pleasure to see an exhibition by an artist who so obviously can paint, and who is not lazy with her brushwork, modelling and colour application, which, bizarrely, is almost a rarity nowadays… Furthermore, it is highly commendable for an Australian artist to acknowledge the existence of the world beyond the confines of a studio environment and engage so bravely and openly with highly contentious and divisive contemporary issues.

www.gallerysmith.com.au  //  www.monikabehrens.com

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but full or partial use is welcome with full and proper acknowledgement.]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

June 2011


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