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Disagreement about whether or not artists need theoretical knowledge causes many a bitter argument. On the one hand, artists frequently claim that they work visually - in a language quite distinct from verbal concepts - so they needn't bother with all the latest theoretical jargon. On the other hand, a purely spontaneous, instinctive, artist's work, more often than not is both naive and inconsistent.
There is no doubt that "theory" can be both obtrusive and incongruous within a visual art product. But this is only so when theory is merely illustrated by the work or attached to it by ad hoc rationalisation, foregrounded simply for the sake of fashion. When theory instructs the choice of direction in visual experimentation or exploration, and guides the artist's assessment of experimentation's success, then it becomes inscribed in the work rather than imposed onto it.
Ruth Frost, who showed at the Roz macAllan Gallery last month, uses theory in this second way. She is one of the new generation of artists in Australia - well educated in both the practice of her profession and in the theoretical implications of that practice.
If there is any weakness in her work it is not due to an over-emphasis of theory but to a youthful over-enthusiasm with technique.
The works she showed in Brisbane are photographic montages she completed recently for her degree as Master of Fine Arts from the University of Tasmania. Their theme, and her strategy for conveying it, were both soundly analysed by the artist in a research thesis done concurrently with the visual project. And while there is an unnecessary overload of technical manipulation in some parts of her pictures - equivalent to "overworking" a passage in an oil painting - the images succeed in producing a powerful fascination.
Ruth Frost's large, mural-sized fantasies depict a theme of urban alienation, but they are not the tired purgations of post-industrial angst that we have grown to expect from artists pursuing this well-worn theme. Her combination of dislocated photographic fragments maintains a plural set of functions - constructing a new coherence as it criticises and questions past the referent to its representation. Acknowledging its own fictitiousness, her work still manages to comment on the estrangement between people, and between people and the environments they construct.
By basing her work on theoretical strategy, rather than on "high theory" content, she draws fresh insights for theory out of practice rather than vice versa. The end result is that, paradoxically, she regains the mimetic function that her art critiques. Her works begin to bear a striking resemblance to reality from their assertion, in the face of theoretical fashion, that even reality is neither self-evident fact nor fiction, but a mixture of both.
Conceptual reflection has thus allowed Ruth Frost to look critically at her surroundings, at her medium, and at her own response to all of these. Without this reflection her images would surely have been considerably poorer in content and less coherent in overall effect. But theory has not become obtrusive in her work, for it is clear the degree of her success is not so much proportional to the quantity of her theoretical involvement but to the thoroughness of it.