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Queensland artist, Thomas Vale-Slattery, appears every two or three years with a major exhibition drawn from his experiences during that time.
Like the hawker of things material in Patrick White's The Aunt's Story, he arrives at sufficient intervals to ensure that his wares are both profound and stimulating.
In an earlier exhibition at Michael Milburn's Gallery at Woolloongabba, his work explored the presentation of self in public and its converse, public recognition. Several of the works used a pink triangle (the symbol of homosexuality in Nazi Germany) to focus on signs and myths in a way which only now (with benefit of hindsight) reveals an intuitive and personal parallel to semiotics.
If that exhibition sought meaning in layers or decoration (&), his most recent exhibition was a remarkable reversal.
Gone is the focus on clothes, on material additions to the body. In their place, a greater emphasis on the body itself, unadorned, stripped of its pride, its pretension, its civilization.
The immediate stimulus was a year spent in New Guinea at a time noted for several violent rapes and murders.
Medals, make-up and ear-rings have no place in this environment. The point is· not one of male/female, black/white. It is more a matter of extreme action, extreme reaction, wherever it occurs.
Vale-Slattery's work is inevitably vivid, impulsive, broad-brushed. It jostles impatiently, shoves aggressively, slashes sharply, trying to engulf and comprehend violence. Not just the violence of one person to another, but the violence an artist does to a canvas. Not just the technique of violence, but the violence of technique.
Ultimately, violence and technique merge. it's not simply a matter of expressionism in which technique depicts emotion. What Vale-Slattery has achieved is a process whereby the subject matter hunts out and consumes its depiction. The canvas reaches out and seizes the artist, to ensure that violence is (portrayed) as violence does.
The essence of the works is contained in Hoho/a Morning suite, named after the site of a notorious rape/murder in Port Moresby.
Crudely shaped figures tower over a smaller, child-like woman. She clasps vulnerably at her chest, while they grope at her with distended arms, their faces contorted and spitting out dominance and hatred. Everywhere they are surrounded by sound and fury.
Vale-Slattery uses harsh, primary colours, black outlines and red centres; the red sometimes representing attack, sometimes the desperate plight of the victim.
They share an ugliness, something to which your first reaction is abhorrence. Yet, each painting absorbs you into its heat of darkness, it's a place we may read or think about, but rarely will we be this close. Like the bombing scenes in Apocalypse Now we are attracted yet disgusted by destruction.
What we see is modern yet primitive, a contemporary paradox. The greater our sophistication, the greater our inhumanity.
This paradox eats its way into the heart of the other works. Even more neutral paintings like Salome's Mother, or the more playful Nice Shirt, share the techniques, the colours, and ultimately the connotations of the other works.
Vale-Slattery's exhibition was important because it probed beneath the surface of his earlier works and found something significant, yet disturbing.