Twin gardens of artistic Eden depart at bitter bite
April 1, 2009
VISUAL ARTSANASTASIA KLOSE
The Happy Artist, Tolarno Galleries, 104 Exhibition Street.
Until April 18 www.tolarnogalleries.com
en plein air, Gallery Smith, 170-174 Abbotsford St, North Melbourne.
Until April 18 www.gallerysmith.com.au
Reviewer: Robert Nelson
THE Happy Artist is the ironic title of an exhibition dedicated to anxiety, frustration and sadness. True to the sarcasm of the title, the show begins cheerfully enough, with a curving pink double stairway warmly embracing the large gallery at Tolarno, decorated with a mural of a children's garden, with pot plants and a lamb.
Very soon, however, you feel deceived by the theatrical joy of this glamorous stage set. It presides over a space with walls that tell another story, the stresses and depression of being an artist in battle with self-doubt, coupled with an inability to share work-related social expectations. With scruffy pictures and poetic text, the walls express the artist's need for autonomy, shadowed by a dependence on others' opinion.
Expanding on the predicament of the alienated artist, a video contemplates the lives of precarious English poets such as Shelley, Byron and Keats, who enjoyed little social acceptability and whose brief lives ended miserably. The scrolling text points out that their best literary work was often produced in periods of torment.
From the mighty testimony of Romanticism to the teary anecdotes in Klose's personal circumstance — with swollen-eyed portraits amid domestic mess — the commanding ceremonial staircase assumes a maudlin presence.
There is something almost treacherous about its splendour, recalling noble architecture in ticky-tacky materials. Like some magic escalator of spirit, it promises to lead to artistic heights; but the bright runway to the stars is also a kind of tomb of fallacious affection, as if a monument to a broken heart.
Called The Order of the Universe, the staircase echoes with several ancient archetypes of performance: La Scala, the altar, the amphitheatre, the exedra, the aristocratic courtyard and the geometric deco catwalk. But if you ascended it, there's nowhere to go but down again. You could tryst a while on the balcony of fluffy carpet at the top, but it wouldn't be long before the thrill of a stellar fantasy were exhausted.
Ironically, you don't feel that you can walk up the stairs; instead, you are invited through a lit doorway into the internal chambers beneath, where a book of poetry sits on a heart-shaped plinth.
From the perspective of the heart, then, the same stairs that take you up are now experienced in reverse: the space declines to claustrophobic tightness by the very steps that might have lifted you up on the outside.
Videos run in this dingy attic, one with snatches of conversation ridiculing the perfunctory greetings of shop assistants and the other bedded down with the indolent artist in an unkempt garden in Coburg. Now a symbol of depression, the neglected garden is an aesthetic disgrace of people who can't get their lives together.
The work keeps me guessing. Is Klose depressed or just self-parodic? Is she reinventing the aesthetics of melancholy or satirising society for the way it dumps us after filling us with artificially spangled hopes? The rosy staircase should be a baroque exedra for some proud obelisk but instead it's a cloister of disappointment, where a platform is set up to watch the non-conformist unravel herself.
Can you find me a happy artist? Surprisingly, they do exist. A good contrast to Klose's speculations are the photographs of Siri Hayes at Gallery Smith. Observing the feeling of freedom and camaraderie at life-drawing camps in Victoria, Hayes records artists at one with their landscape and with one another. They seem healthy and well socialised.
In one picture, Plein air explorers, a strapping young man poses naked upon a tree stump in a clearing, while all around students make drawings of the heroic physique in the landscape.
Exploring and playing, artists are seen as extroverted and happy. This extends to celebrating maternity, as in Moe Madonna, an educational idyll on the dull plains of the Latrobe Valley whose mother and child in the distance recall Raphael.
Hayes often photographs unglamorous places but the visitors are contented and productive.
Meanwhile, Klose builds a shrine of allure and it becomes a dungeon. The spiritual hygiene of artists in a community is out of reach. And from the homemade palace of pine and pink primer, she confesses why sometimes an artist can't enjoy good health on social terms.