Monday, August 22, 2011

The Devil had a Daughter

Tony Garifalakis, Cover ups, 2008. Joyce Nissan Collection, Melbourne


This exhibition title, The Devil had a Daughter, sounds like the title of a Gothic novel. The viewer is instantly drawn into a sense of narrative in these works and their relationship with one another. These printed works, under this title, seem to evoke all the devil’s daughters of the printed word in literature. They embody a certain power and sexuality that once awakened becomes a force of chaos or destruction. These are the heroines from literature that leave the reader awed and terrified: Medea who ruthlessly avenges her husband’s abandonment; Lady Macbeth who calls upon the dark forces to help suppress her femininity to help kill the King; Arthur Miller’s Abigail who can destroy a community with her jealous and hysterical witch-pointing finger and Toni Morrison’s Sethe who can kill her daughter Beloved to save her from the life of a slave. The devil is in the ambivalence of their acts. These characters, and many others, have carried a warning to readers to avoid assumptions about what should be considered “natural" for a woman. But there is also an ironic tension in many of the artworks that explores the lines between the bawdy and the obscene, the comic and the tragic. 

Jason Greig’s work contrasts the Romantic sense of metaphysical dark forces that leave characters cursed and powerless with the Humanist stories of Ancient Greece. While the Greek plays were in homage to the Gods, they tend to emphasise the responsibility humans must take for the darkness in their lives. The Romantic motifs in Greigs work include Poe-like hazy shadows with small figures, black cats, full moons and willowy women. However, the dangling little legs in Dragonfly speak of the hubris of Icarus. In Greig’s work Icarus hand glides in a giant old man’s head—literally flying in-the-face of his father’s warnings. There is also the haunting Phaedra in Phaedra Chain. She is bearded like a witch from Macbeth. They are “weird women” who can tell the future and in so saying make it happen. Phaedra is a classic devil’s daughter in her lust for her stepson Hipploytus and her ability to enunciate the destruction of her husband and his son from the grave. Despite the ominous metaphysical elements in this work the real devil comes from a knowledge of something that resides within the characters, hidden, repressed and then unleashed in irrational destructive directions.  

Pat Brassington’s photographs evoke a sense of slithering parasitical intrusion into a beige domestic space. The work titled The Wedding Guest shows a pink and lumpy alien substance emerging from a white embroidered satin—suggesting a seeping surprise for the wedding party. In Rocket the slippery alien tongues at the foot of tight white pants also evoke a secret now revealed. These works carry a sense of the suppressed memory coming out in an unsightly and menacing way, growing, slithering and taking over the family home. In Topography in Pink, the holes in the pink pantyhose in the image of the female crotch are not eroticised but suggest an inanimate mannequin, moth-eaten, claustrophobic and decaying. 

Stuart Ringholt, Circle books, 2005 (detail). Monash University Collection

There are lots of holes in the works of this exhibition. In Stuart Ringholt’s work, holes have been cut into the faces in book illustrations and have been collaged with holes upside down or different eyes or no eyes. The faces become grotesque and disturbing. David Noonan also creates collages with holes that reveal multiple faces or another layer below. In a video, Mike Parr inhales his sketches of his self portrait over his face, momentarily breathing life into these masks. His mouth is the hole we see between sketches. Tony Garifalakis has left holes for a model’s blue eyes or smile behind sinister aerosol blackness. In all these works there is a sense of unpeeling layers that will reveal something dark and incomprehensible. The idea of holes is usually that they are a void; in these works they reveal a disturbing and unexpected presence. Like Blanche Dubois’s secret desires for boys at the Flamingo Hotel or the destructive fires and pistols of Hedda Gabler, these works tell the story of masks of repression breaking down to reveal a grotesque and hungry drives. Part of monstrosity of the revelation of these drives in femininity is the control and disavowal of them in the first place. 

In tragedy, these drives reveal themselves to those who seek to control them the most. In The Bacchae the prudish King Penthius admonishes the women for their debauchery on the mountain but would also very much like to see it—just so he can understand it better, of course. He hides in the bushes and peeks through a costume of fawn skins. The women, including his mother, find him and in their intoxicated state they think he is a lion. They rip his head off and parade it through the town. In Sally Smart’s collage on the wall we seem to crouch down before this sort of large dark female ritual. The figures wear puffy Victorian sleeves, swishing petticoats in flight and swatches of floral corduroy—they are like good girls that are now running through woods and metamorphosing. Some have lost limbs, some have beetle heads or stick heads, the tree shapes are horizontal and yet there is a sense of walls; the forest has come into the house and the girls will never be the same. Like a Penthius in the bushes, the viewer watches these figures with fear, desire and wonder. That they are pasted directly onto the gallery walls rather than contained in a frame confronts viewers’ voyeurism. There is no window-like proscenium arch the viewer can just passively peek through and keep protected from a returned gaze.  

Sally Smart, In Her Nature (Performativities) 2011
synthetic polymer paint, ink and oil pastel on linen and cotton velvet with collage elements
The Devil Had a Daughter, 2011 installation view, photo: Christian Capurro

The eyes and holes where eyes should be throughout this exhibition seem to say a lot about our capacity to thoroughly enjoy watching the unravelling of others—as we do when we read and watch films and theatre. They also ask us to consider how this act of watching, admonishing, critiquing, admiring—reveals our own desires. In Dylan Martorel’s work we literally peep through stereoscopes at intricate patterns at once theatrical floral, celestial, insectal and decorative. We peep into a deep three dimensional interior, as the matching wallpaper work opposite suggests. The neon tubing evokes the penny peep show of the carnival. It is the illicit joy of peeking into what cannot be seen on the surface that is so satisfying. Like in a peep show, in art, literature, theatre and film the audience are offered the opportunity to peer into another world. They experience the emotional catharsis dissociatively, anonymously and without consequences—like a dream.  
 
The drawings of Petrl Herel capture the irreverent humour that runs throughout the exhibition. The figures are little illustrative monsters morphed from wings and genitals. They are like a naughty drawing on a school desk but also finely graphic like an ex-libres printed for an erotica collector. The figures are bulbous and hairy, if they moved they would waddle. These works express a comic element related to the uncanny. Herel’s work acts like the chorus of cheeky satyrs that would follow a Greek tragedy. They would wear long leather phalluses and would perform lots of sexually charged gags similar to burlesque. The lusts and desires that are shockingly revealed in a tragedy are playfully mocked in the comedy. 

The Devil Had a Daughter, 2011, installation view, artists left to right: David Noonan, Tony Garifalarkis, Sally Smart, Jason Greig, Stuart Ringholt photo: Christian Capurro

The artworks in The Devil had a Daughter evoke the anxiety central to the tension in comedy and tragedy. This unpeeling or unravelling is unnerving because it undermines the pretence of control that we like to maintain. The eyes and holes throughout this exhibition act as windows where the viewer both sees and is revealed. Like a witches’ séance, the works conjure the monsters of literature, particularly female characters that stretch our empathy to dark and ambivalent places. Their secrets swell like pus from freshly pierced ears and run like stocking ladders to hem lines. 


Anna Newbold

1 comment:

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