Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tom Polo Gestures and Mistakes (Trust Me)

Acrylic on canvas, wood.

Tom Polo's work at Gertrude Contemporary alludes to the way the self-help industry now mitigates the language we use to try and express our deepest and most complex emotions. This industry tries to make our internal chaos more logical and controllable. It offers feel good maxims to feed aspirations and "twelve-step-solutions" to complex problems. It also offers easy catch phrase diagnostics. Polo’s work is a funny and cynical play on our obsession with ourselves, our need to "talk about it" and the self-conscious element of all self expression. 

Self Sabbotage (as you leave)
Acrylic on linen.

Self-help allows people to identify, for themselves and the rest of the world, a reason behind the inexplicable emotions they have been feeling. Maybe they have low self-esteem, midlife crisis, self sabotage, dysfunctional family or anger management issues or all of the above. These are terms that everyone now understands and nobody needs any more details about when they are dropped into a conversation. "He quit his job and left his wife." "Why?" "Midlife crises." "Oh ok." Self-help language has also become a useful way to discuss our emotions without actually getting emotional.  Tom Polo has identified the way we are talking loudly about our personal feelings everywhere from Oprah's couch to the back of the tram. He conjures the idea of us somehow becoming these emotional activists who march around  protesting our feelings for the world to see. He does this by combining the language of self- help on hand written signs together with expressive portraits on placards. The slogans of self-help enable the activists to protest their messy emotions while still keeping it together and tidy for the cafe. 

Gestures and Mistakes
Time based wall drawing.

In the front space at Gertrude Contemporary the walls of have been painted a vivid blue. Even the front window has been covered over with a light blue wall. It is enclosed and dramatic. These internal colours evoke the intensity and saturation of emotions that colour our perception of the external world. The placards leaning up against the walls have definite shapes like squares or circles. The portraits on the placards have been painted in similar bright primary colours as the walls. The simple shapes of the placards suggests a desire to control and organise the colours of the walls.

The portraits are painted in a naive style that is comic and playful. It suggests painting sessions at school or in art therapy where we are asked to paint how we feel. There is a pink fleshy face with an unhappy blue smile, a cloudy grey melancholy one, one with orange hair and a squiggly orange nose, and another way up high on the wall with triangle nose that starts in his eye. One of them has a man with a brown gravy tray nose. We can imagine these placards at a personal crises rally where people go to demand that someone stop this internal chaos. Polo has created placards that express the squelching nausea of anxiety and uncertainty. At the same time, their simplicity makes them unheroic. A placard usually presents a catch phrase that sums up the activist's position and demands in a few words. But these placards are far more ambiguous and communicate abstract feelings that are difficult to express in language. 

Paintings/Props/Personas (Balls)
Acrylic on canvas board, wood.

 We are reminded of the idea of art as being able to communicate something pure and honest. It has been thought that painting, in particular, can show emotions that cannot be expressed in any other way. However, Polo's emotional and expressive paintings on placards suggests that any form of self expression will always have an element of presenting oneself to the world in a way that can never be free of self-consciousness. Their messiness seems like a joyful and colourful romp in artistic frustration. 

Paintings/Props (Flag)
Acrylic on canvas, wood.

The self-help slogans in the space are painted in a thick home-made, garage-sale- today sign style. They are not written out in their conventional form. The spaceless Try Harder to Try Less could allude to the sort of cryptic advice often offered to people who should 'focus on the now' while trying to 'set goals'. This work gives us a sense of how self-help language is used as a sign to explain and clarify this internal world. However, within this intense and emotional world their meaning appears as confused, disordered and as inarticulate as the emotions it tries to organise. It is the sort of catch phrase shared in both the language of the rally, shouted through the megaphone, and the language of self-help, posted on the wall of the gym.

Placards are commonly used in big rallies where like-minded people meet in the streets to bring about change and express discontent. Perhaps the language of self-help, like the political rally, enables people to come together and feels connected to a wider community that share the same problems. This installation seems to grapple with the actual difficulty of trying to incorporate the public ideas of self-help into the turbulent internal world of the individual. The language of self-help can be experienced as our own imaginary angry activist. They scream out their slogans and demand change of ourselves. 

Wall drawing.

Self-help has made an industry that profits from people's insecurities  and encourages them to repress negative emotions and focus on self-improvement. The use of terms like “heal” or “move forward” to turn sadness or anger into some form of illness that can be treated by following these clear procedures. By turning it into an illness, self-help seems to alleviate the guilt and sense of personal responsibility associated with feeling emotionally terrible. However, by providing easy solutions it also puts the onus back on the individual to change the way they feel. They are obviously not trying hard enough or following the steps properly because if they were they would be successful and have everything they ever wanted and feel great about themselves. So while there is much more public discussion about our feelings and “where we are at” emotionally; there is an implicit pressure to be progressing up some sort of happiness ladder. This is what is so clever and funny about Tom Polo’s work. His placards show an awareness of the absurdity of demanding more happiness of ourselves and the world.

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