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Mark Titmarsh: Hour of the hammer
The reader who, in a pursuit for that which is true and right, meets a tale in which the expected matrix of clues is subverted not only by waves of diversionary actions (the redherring), but also by the self-reference of the text, may grieve for a lost unity of fiction and rhetoric. For that reader there may be a necessity for belief, for an integrity of illusion. Real grief would exist only for the duped reader who forgets what fictions are.
The postmodern sleuth, as reader, distrusts the representation. This reader reverses the stakes of the fiction game to 'guilty until proven innocent', and then disallows innocence – was the fairy-tale that was proved phoney ever 'true'? And yet is this reader duped in turn by that unresisting embrace of the false, lured by the seduction of an involuted game of irony? As the fictional McKenzie Wark, himself, has stated,
It is sometimes assumed that the postmodern solution would be the false representation of the false. But is it not the case that every plea for pure, unadulterated and false simulation is also surreptitiously a claim for the truth value of this false falsity? A claim that the false is more true than the true, and the true false? 1
Mark Titmarsh, in his exhibition titled Hour of the Hammer, and Anne Zahalka in her show at the Institute of Modern Art, tell tales from a dead centre of fiction. Both seduce the reader with slick, beautiful and contained works that are guaranteed to sit on white gallery walls like chic advertisements on shiny white magazine pages. Like advertisements, Titmarsh's canvases and Zahalka's cibachrome prints present an authorative front, peopled with actors and set, but seemingly functioning with only minimal script and rationale. The reader is located and then abandoned. The image is hard sell, but sells that which is absent and unspecified.
Is this then the postmodern malaise of moral bankruptcy, that ahistorical eclecticism which Hal Foster describes as being "symptomatic of sheer post-histoire escapism"? Or has the reader been concentrating on the wrong set of clues?
If Titmarsh and Zahalka articulate tales with no narrative, they do so in a way that is tangible. The risk is that the specificity of their figurations may trap the reader who is unwary of the redherring and who falls for the obvious, or may trap the reader who is too wary of the redherring and who ignores the obvious.
The specifics of Titmarsh's Salle-esque appropriations are, according to the artist, largely incidental but not haphazard. Images are culled not so much for residual meanings as for the 'right' look, the 'right' contrast, the 'right' "emotional grab". 3 Fall of the Rebel Angels, for instance, sets a blood-red underfield of seething figures against a floating linear sequence of five portrait heads. The underlying network of clothed figures, for the postmodern sleuth, can be traced to Robert Longo's bass relief, Corporate Wars, and in turn to Michelangelo's relief of The Battle of the Centaurs. Similarly, the faces have popular/high culture lineages, citing Picasso, a Man Ray portrait of Le Corbusier, a bespectacled solemn male face from a Max Dupain photograph, and a (stereotypical) girl's face from an advertisement.
For Titmarsh, the redherring is the image source, but is it? Why covet images with a potentially recognizable source if the exercise is a mere tease, unless it is a parody on the tricks of postmodernism themselves? This, however, is unlikely. Titmarsh's work fits too neatly the mould of commodity art, and runs in that allegedly nee-conservative groove described by Foster. Foster's argument with such a postmodern practice is that, "however parodic or ambivalent, it comes in the guise of humanism, in the name of authority", being "a reduction of historical periods to ruling-class styles that are then pastiched".4 As well as "the return to history", Foster also argues against "the return of the subject (the artist/architect as auteur )". 5 Titmarsh, unabashedly, returns to both 'history' and 'subject'. 6
In Fall of the Rebel Angels, Titmarsh's portraits, outlined in a heavenly blue, possess the confidence of dated (popular) advertising. Without provocation, they glide over the red monochromatic surface. The 'buzz' comes from a formal manipulation of difference, with blue on red, matt on sheen, stillness on turmoil, and the open grid on the enmeshed ground. The work registers a bourgeois proprietry, the constrained mask of the vacuous gaze hiding its private nightmare. The repressive fifties and Hollywood are revisited in fantasy; possibilities for wider contextualization in this ahistorical overlaying are not given a chance.
Avoiding the overlay cliche, Anne Zahalka opts for the confusion of intermeshed (un)realities. The illusion of photographic 'realism' diverts the reader from the inbuilt flaws that Zahalka has utilized to undermine that 'realism.'
Zahalka's large cibachromes, with their lush textural qualities and precise tonal range, are not far removed from the luxury advertisements made for the 'best' department stores. In turn, such advertising resembles the seamless ordered consumer interiors described in paint in the seventeenth century by Vermeer, works which form the art-historical model for Zahalka's work. The interiors of Zahalka, however, are not innocent, and there is cued a collapse of the histories and personas there constructed.
For instance, The Dutch Painter re-presents, with some licence, Vermeer's The Artist in his Studio. No longer a self-portrait, the artist has turned to the viewer, with the now completed painting in centre stage. Momentarily seduced by the precision of arrangement and by the diffuse yellow light which imparts a soothing unity to the scene, the reader suddenly notices that the painting on the easel is a monochromatic grey abstract (a non-objective portrait?). Then such other details as the wrist-watch come to attention. Zahalka employs the same gently disruptive tactics as used in Derek Jarmon's recent film Caravaggio. The illusion of Old Master paintings is used as a starting point for 'reality', and then that new (un)reality is undercut by implanted anachronisms within the costume re-presentation.
Zahalka's Resemblance photographs are a staging, with depicted roles faked in the sham set of the studio. Because of the degree of observable fraud, the reader loses faith in all the visual signs in the work. Objects, instead of signing character, status or role, are revealed as props for the make-believe drama. Then again, is the exotic 'painter' indeed a 'real' painter before his own work, or is he yet a stand-in? The man portrayed in The Dutch Painter observes the reader with a degree of nonchalant unease. He lacks the guise of the professional actor (and therefore is more 'real'?), suggesting that he is an accomplice in a semi-casual game of play-acting. The catalogue list of works cites his "identity" as "Guus Koenraads, painter". So the portrait was "real", in a post modern sense, after all. But the question is, was the redherring Vermeer or Guus Koenraads?
In her portraits, Zahalka confounds any bottom line dividing truth and fiction, and with a perplexing seduction of means, demolishes unquestioned assumptions concerning the constructed facades of unified personal and historical identity. Zahalka, in effect, deconstructs the notion of the portrait while seeming to embrace it. Yet, if Zahalka narrowly outwits the strictures of Foster's definition of nee-conservative postmodernism by incorporating elements of a 'poststructuralist postmodemism', does the work still assert "surreptitiously a claim for the truth value of this false falsity"? Or do the convoluted twists of postmodern trickery outsmart the reader, critic included?
1. McKenzle Wark, ‘... So help me ... ', The Self-Portrait Show, exhibition cat., COG, Sydney, 11-28 November 1987, P. 11.
2. Hal Foster, Recordings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Bay Press, Seattle, 1985, p. 123.
3. Graham Coulter-Smith interview with Mark Titmarsh, Brisbane, February 1988 (unpublished); Personal interview with Mark Titmarsh, Brisbane, February 1988 (unpublished).
4. Foster, op.cit., p. 122.
5. bid. ., p. 121.
6. Ironically, the centre panel of Titmarsh's work, Why I am a Destiny, had appeared in the Self-Portrait Show at COG in late 1987 (under the same title), and McKenzie Wark's previously quoted essay appeared 1n the catalogue. The Sell· Portrait Show, op.cit., pp. 4, 10-12.