In a Post-critical Moment

Rex Butler, Melbourne Art Fair Catalogue

If we are looking for that resentment which is the driving force of much contemporary art, then we need search no further than the comments page of the average art blog. Take, for example, the readers’ responses to Tracey Moffatt’s August 2005 show Under the Sign of Scorpio at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery on the anonymous Art Life blog. “Utter crap”, opined “Really”. “Dunno what she flaunts, but it sure ain’t talent”, echoed “Father Jim McLaren”. 1 The target of their criticism was a series of photographs by Moffatt in which she dresses up to imitate a number of powerful or otherwise well-known women throughout history who happen to share the artist’s star sign of Scorpio. Thus we have, among the forty or so impersonations, Moffatt posed as author Margaret Mitchell, facing away from the camera and staring into a red sunset with book in hand, and Moffatt as Democrat Senator Hilary Clinton, in purple sunglasses, blonde curly wig and looking up into shafts of golden sunlight.

The effect is nothing like Cindy Sherman’s famous images of feminine masquerade dating from the late ‘70s. In that series, Sherman was – at least at the time – anonymous, and precisely the point of the work was how she was unrecognisable beneath her various disguises. In Under the Sign of Scorpio, by contrast, Moffatt barely attempts to make herself over into the different subjects she portrays. Indeed, the paradox of the work is that it is not Moffatt who imitates these other women, but these women who end up resembling Moffatt. If the work can be seen as an instance of feminine celebration, it ultimately takes the form of performative self-empowerment. It is not so much about recognising the achievements of others as boosting by association the profile of the artist herself.

It is perhaps this that accounts for the tone of barely contained hilarity that runs throughout the series. The dazzling smile that Moffatt assumes for most of the photographs is that of someone admiring herself in the mirror, in the image of their new-found celebrity. There is a kind of endless narcissistic self-reflection about the photographs, as though they acknowledge the fact that only someone already like them could play these larger-than-life women. And it is undoubtedly this that upset the refined aesthetic sensibilities of the readers of Art Life, for whom this display of uncritical self-regard was too much, as though art should remain humble and self-effacing, like a politician chasing our vote. Nothing could be more offensive for such good spirits than the thought of an art that looked like it was enjoying itself, that appeared not to have a conscience. In Moffatt’s work, the critical reflex is short-circuited in the immediate embrace of the image with itself, of one celebrity with another, with none of that subtle distance between the actor and their role that we come to expect with impersonation.

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Could we imagine a more different artist from Moffatt than Juan Davila? For over two decades, he has undertaken nothing less than a severe deconstruction of the founding assumptions of heterosexual society and, indeed, of the whole political economy of art. His work has interrogated the artistic gesture and signature, the exclusions that allow the canon and the distinction between art and pornography. His paintings have sought to undermine such expressions of Australian identity as the bushrangers, the Heidelberg School, the Antipodeans and the Detention Centres at Woomera and Port Hedland. We could not find a more committed practitioner of that “criticality” which is understood to characterise post-modernism, including, of course, the self-criticism of the artist’s own implication in the system he is analysing, from the early Hysterical Tears (1979), where the artist includes himself amongst the artists parodied, to the later op. cit. (1986), where the entire painting is made up like barcode. 

How strange it is, then, that coming at the end of this long process of critical self-reflection viewers of Davila’s 2006 retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria were confronted with a series of works that looked like conventional portraiture. In Origin of the World (2002), an elegant-looking woman with aquiline features and dark hair is painted nude from the waist up. In Origin of the World (2003), a different woman with similar dark hair and dark eyes is also painted nude from the waist up, this time with her hands leaning on her hips and leaning forward slightly. 

What are we to make of these two works? In a way, looking at them is like listening to the silence produced by the dying away of a loud noise. It is as though what we are seeing is the sudden withdrawal of the entire critical project that had sustained Davila’s project over the previous 25 years. And it is easy enough to understand the works as critical in at least this negative sense. By their titles, they obviously refer to Gustave Courbet, the great French Realist who could be said to have introduced the critical dimension into art, as though in some sort of homage to him.

But, at the same time, the title of the works might also be referring to Davila’s desire to paint “straight” at this point in his career, without any sense of critique or self-implicating irony. The “origin” Davila is speaking of might merely be to start art over again without a sense of paralysing self-consciousness. And the very subjects of these pictures might be a way of Davila reintroducing – a used-up word, but perhaps the only one we have at the moment – a sense of beauty into art. It is an ambition that is virtually unthinkable in today’s art world (and hence its assertion returns us to a kind of criticality, a deliberate rejection of convention). In recent essays on artists who might in fact be read in similar terms to Davila, commentators are still very keen to impute a criticality to their work, a self-reflexiveness or at least an allegorisation of the cultural and economic conditions determining it. For example, in a reading of the work of the sculptor, woodcarver and model-maker Ricky Swallow, Anthony Gardner writes: “Swallow exaggerates markers of the self, indexicality and the works’ material presence so as to critique the market to which his works ostensibly and actively appeal”2. Or, of the work of Melbourne-based photographer of staged social situations Darren Sylvester, Daniel Palmer insists: “Regardless of what the artist claims about his work, despite his own blithe acceptance of the state of things, I would argue that his depiction of a wholly self-absorbed social class remains an implicit critique”.3

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What has any of this to do with Ben Quilty? In what way is his work new or what can we say that is new about it? When critics write about Quilty’s work, they are always keen to stress its depiction of his friends’ drunkenly sleeping off the effects of too much alcohol or his – assumedly ironic – love of heavy metal and hotted-up cars. His paintings are seen as undertaking an analysis of Australian macho culture, with the necessary proviso that Quilty is in no way exempting himself from what he observes around him. As he is quoted as saying in one newspaper article: “My work is a comment about reckless masculinity rather than a celebration of drunkenness. It’s me as a willing participant in the mayhem that is modern man”.4 Indeed, it is even possible, on a more subtle reading of his work, that Quilty’s whole heavily impastoed and gestural painting style itself participates in the same overblown “masculinity”, with the same redeeming thought that it also somehow quotes or brackets this, holds it as it were at arm’s length, so that it is not what it seems to be.

We could even turn for evidence of this distanced attitude to the recent Cave Man works of 2007, in which Quilty folds a paint-loaded canvas over on itself to produce another reversed image, a little like an Abstract Expressionist Rorschach test. Here we could not appear to have a more offhand approach to painting, with the whole ironisation of the supposed singularity of the artist’s hand, the very quality for which Quilty’s art is so prized. Or, looking further back in his career, we might think of the parrots of FTW (After Sam “Bull” Hall) (2006), in which he depicts a number of dead parrot species, which he paints on panels to spell out the letters FTW on the gallery walls. Here, very much like the Queensland artist Michael Zavros with his series of prize roosters, Quilty can be seen through his choice of subject matter to be speaking of the absurdly over-bred or over-elaborated quality of figurative painting today – its specialisation coming at the cost of its viability – and its impending extinction. It is something that in the case of both artists, could only be read ironically in the light of the very beauty of their images and the fact that they continue to work in the medium of paint.

 But the strange power of art criticism is that it creates things, takes the work of art beyond its own understanding of itself. It is never still; it continues to double the work, dividing it from itself (perhaps its ultimate irony). It is in this sense that we might say that there is something in Quilty’s work that exists outside of the prevailing “critical” conception of it. It is undoubtedly a fleeting, utopian possibility, but it is to see the work as somehow for a moment empty and devoid of meaning. The work would be a pure image, no longer a painting in the same way we would say that Moffatt’s work is no longer photographic, insofar as the very idea of medium is too caught up in art history, inseparable from a reflection upon itself. And, again like Moffatt, this image would not refer to anything, or at least not to anything outside of itself. It would instead be absolutely identical to itself, entirely self-contained, a form of self-equivalence that would not imply any higher self-consciousness or self-reflection. And finally, the work would not have any significance , with its silence not even being able to be read as any form of resistance or refusal to speak. It is these three negations that art criticism must attempt to think, or at least approach more and more closely, in this new post-critical moment.

Rex Butler

1 The Art Life, July 11, 2005 (

2 Anthony Gardner, ‘Art in the Face of Fame: Rickey Swallow’s Reflection of Reputation’, Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture 1, 2007, p. 75

3 Daniel Palmer, ‘Darren Sylvester: In Step with the Real World’, Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture 2, 2008, p. 104

4 Rosemary Sorensen, ‘Dead Drunk Self-Portrait Wins National Prize’, The Australian, 22 October 2007, p. 8

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