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There have been many criticisms of the postmodern phenomena of pluralism ranging from the suspicion that it caters too readily to market forces through to strictures questioning its supposed political stance. One of the most problematic areas of this field is that while pluralism presents all art as being of equal value, it must then, by rights, see all art as equally valueless. While this smacks of a certain eclecticism it can be argued that the devolution of the art object is not a bad thing. It is questions pertaining to how we value and view art that are at the crux of the exhibition, Real Art.
Real Art was an exercise, which sought not only to explore concepts of pluralism, but also to extend the possibilities of those concepts to their fullest—to probe, what curator Graham CoulterSmith in his catalogue essay describes as 'radical pluralism'. As a delineation of this idea the works selected for the show were widely disparate; the artists chosen, drawn equally from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, were a cartel not commonly exhibited together and their works stressed the importance of a multiplicity of sources and mediums.
The exhibition used works that stretched conventional notions of the two-dimensional and which attempted to broaden the perspective of the artwork in a deliberately nebulous mode. A common persuasion within the grouping was a certain self-awareness, an adoption of definitive strategies if you like, designed to demonstrate their role in the processes of the interpretant. They contrived an inversion of visual languages and metaphors aimed at constantly undermining preconceived notions and traditional boundaries.
The works of John Stafford, complicity..., and receivership: security for the age we live in..., dominated the space to great advantage. They were very theatrical pieces that demanded a certain level of interaction; both from the viewer and from the space itself. Stafford's work was concerned with the institutional format under which the production and exhibition of artworks travail; the quandaries and complexities of producing art within a market system. The 'crime-scene' body outline, fashioned from brass screws within complicity... and Gardener's art-historical tome suspended outside the window of the IMA in 'receivership' were strong indictments against a 'system' which places the artist in such difficult moral dilemmas. These installations reinforced the impasse at which a majority of artists find themselves when attempting to situate their work into more 'professional' channels; weighed down as they are by both the demands of the markets, the art spaces and the art historians.
The Crimes of Men and the Gods by Susan Barta undertook to mediate a quite different burden. Using a theme from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which relates to tragic mythic heroines, Barta produced a sacrificial altar to demonstrate the forced passivity of women within a patriarchal society; to question the way in which women have inherently, since Eve at least, been convenient scapegoats for the 'crimes of men and gods'. The work related the classical mythology of women who were savagely transposed by the Gods into beasts and other elements by rendering them at their moment of transformation. This mutation being a punishment for various misdemeanors, either real or imagined, against the dominant forces of the classical world. In translating this myth into a contemporary statement Barta has sculpted four emblems of these tragic creatures interspersed with phials of blood. This metaphor of drained essences reinforcing the sacrificial element of the altar.
While Stafford worked with everyday, found objects and Barta with the more traditional sculptural elements of bronze, wax and marble, Rosemary Laing chose the medium of the cibachrome to outline her statement regarding humankind's preponderant desire to sanitise, and improve upon, nature. The large image of perfect full-blown roses dissected by a panel of red plexiglass held an overwhelming resemblance to those saccharine birthday cards one used to receive from one's relations. It is this area of sentiment that such images expose which is an important element within the work, for Paradise comments on our inability to accept the harsher realities of the natural world and our desire to 'Disneyfy' that which we find too raw and unfashioned. Our fetish with, and perhaps in some ways our need for order and the desire to be in complete control.
In somewhat of a direct juxtaposition with those works just mentioned were images by A.D.S. Donaldson, Fergus Armstrong and Diena Georgetti. They were of a more understated nature; their visual language spoke with more economy. It was the surface of these images which held the key to their more 'minimalist' and aesthetic concerns. Donaldson's ‘triangles' were so glossed and polished that the eye almost slithered off the facade of the professionally painted veneer. The formal concerns at work within the images being so introverted as to conjure up an aura of total silence. They became an aesthetic full-stop, punctuating the exhibition as a whole.
The pencilled icon, upon the plywood surfaces of Diena Georgetti's 3 Tiered Generation echoed a more complex geometric understanding. Suspended in time, the images, in many ways weightless and unattached, floated upon the surface—the grain of the wood continuing the textual interplay. Armstrong's obsession with the lens as a way of perception extended over the two-dimensional. The sense of decay contained within Untitled questions the focus held by those concerned purely with questions of aesthetics.
The works contained in Real Art lay within their separate strata without any of the violent discord that one would usually expect from such a 'plurality of voices' and this raises questions as to the effectiveness of radical pluralism as a workable concept. Always hopeful of offering a fresh perspective, pluralism, can be likened to a form of radical democracy in that they both hold notions of total equality entrapped within utopian allusions. As a concept, pluralism is very seductive but when put into practice it can become damnably elusive.
Had the obvious dichotomies encountered in Real Art encouraged a disorder and friction, which forced the viewer to reassess aspects of contemporary art one could unconditionally support notions of radical pluralism. As it is pluralism is often more a state of mind than an actuality; it is an illusion that hides hierarchical structures rather than illuminates them. It enables us to pretend that we experience all art equally. This is not to totally negate pluralism but merely to ask for the recognition that the anarchy of pluralism is not always constructive. It can lead, as was the case with experiments in radical democracy, to the tyranny of rhetoric and that is a situation which must be guarded against.