Peter Booth

Getting to know Mr Booth

"A victim of its own success", a "Frankenstein "; these are Peter Timms' descriptions of his "monster" show, Getting to Know Mr Booth. Such apparent ambivalence from a curator faced with national praise! The extent to which it is possible to measure an exhibition as a success or failure, and the means by which this might be achieved, are questions of continuing debate within the art museum profession and often in relation to requests from funding bodies to show their worth in statistics, or in "queues at the door". The outcomes of the curatorial strategies of this successful exhibition, rather than its success, are the subject of this review.

David Hansen, Director of Riddoch Art Gallery, the originating gallery for this exhibition, commented that in Painting 1982, Riddoch Art Gallery had "located every difficulty" the Mt Gambier community had with contemporary art-"including size, cost, it was nasty and it had a dick ". Powerfulness/empowerment and powerlessness are the themes of both the central painting in the show, Booth's Painting 1982, and the premise upon which Peter Timms has curated the openended, detective-game style exhibition, with the intention to teach the audience the skills with which to interpret the work. The curatorial style is intuitive and non-prescriptive in its intent, at once empowering the non-art educated public for whom it has been designed and restricting the art educated public who made up the bulk of the audience at the opening lectures at Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery and Museum.

Around the central work, curator Peter Timms has gathered an informing array of artworks, by artists including Hieronymus Bosch, Diane Arbus, Lean Golub, Francisco Goya, Arthur Boyd, and others. Peter Timms does not see meaning as "embedded" in a work of art, but rather that it may be continually reinvented, the meaning shifting and changing with the reconstruction of the work. He used three approaches in the exhibition; an art historical, psycho-biographical, and technical (that is, referring to the physical construction of the painting). With each piece, an accompanying didactic panel afforded the viewer observations and comments that are intended to lead them through the works, whilst remaining illustrative and at times, mutually contradictory. Much, if not all of this information is also to be found on the reverse of the poster that accompanies the exhibition, doubling as a catalogue.

In the opening lecture at Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery and Museum, insights were to be gained as to the nature of audience interaction with the exhibition. The absence of other contemporary works from the show was queried by, not surprisingly, an art historian. The virtual exclusion of comment on the landscape, which has figured in much critical writing on Peter Booth, was another art-historian's point, and a regional gallery director was "outraged" and said that the painting was the antithesis of what they would expect to see in a regional gallery-all very personal projections onto an exhibition that is intended to be open ended and non-prescriptive. Two conclusions can be drawn: firstly, that there is an inherent difficulty in bringing about change in people's perception of art-history, when an exhibition that offers new juxtapositions and new ways of seeing works of art, is still being read in pre-existing contexts; and the second conclusion is that Painting 1982 aroused strong feelings of identification in people responding to Timms' talk, and in so doing, demonstrated the strength of the essentially psychological content of the work. Appropriately, Peter Timms reports, adolescents were engrossed in the apocalyptic landscape, extremes being the framework in which, (dare I generalise), adolescents operate, and it could go without saying that the sexual content and references in the painting are the other major focus of teenagers seeing this painting.

The potential for lateral meaning to become evident through the juxtaposition of various works, and the resultant active participation of the viewing audience, were the invigorating outcomes of this exhibition. The protagonist in Painting 1982 is either kneeling , or without legs, and is either bound, or is without arms. Regardless, it could equally be read as the figure with the most power in the work-the figure is struggling, but is actually in the process of being confronted with its 'demons', whilst the other figures, described by Timms as menacing, are alternatively a passive crowd, blankly staring and out of touch with what they are facing. Likewise, the "mutants" as they are so often referred to, are flailing and floundering, directionless and incompletely formed. The struggle of the small bound figure is in the process of being resolved, but all of the other figures are at varying stages of blindness and unknowingness. Eddie Adams' photo of the execution of the Vie! Cong guerrilla by the South Vietnamese Chief of Police, a famous image, carries with it for those of particular generations, the sense of powerlessness in the face of war, though in the light of the Booth painting, it seems to address other issues. With references to fathers, and struggles, to metamorphoses such as the amphibious form in Arthur Boyd's Figure with Beast and Waterfall, the Eddie Adams work could be read as an image of Oedipal issues, father threatening son, rather than simply the historical and social reading of vulnerability in war.

The intent of avoiding too much direction has allowed viewers to extrapolate the information given in the didactics, though to some extent one must query whether it means watering down the material that would enrich the experience of an art-educated public. Graded labels may be the answer to this difficulty. Here we find that "Frankenstein" that Peter Timms speaks of: one exhibition cannot be all things to all people, although the questions should be raised, it must be accepted on its own terms.

The exhibition is unique in that it is the first show of its kind to be toured nationally, and is a shining example of an exhibition tailored to a specific regional audience. The exhibition 's other unique qualities stem from changes the initial concept underwent before appearing in the Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery and Museum. Specific to this show, but indicative of broader concerns, three points come to the fore: the combining of the role of curator with that of educator, the specificity of the instigating audience and finally, the use and the usefulness of reproductions in didactic exhibitions in art museums.

The curator, Peter Timms, has taken on the two roles of curator and educator, a position not uncommon for regional gallery directors, though as is evident from the outcomes of this exhibition, the two are more happily clearly defined and delineated, between two individuals working with the exhibition. Amongst all of the reactions and interactions, the curator's own interests and directions become apparent. Here, the difficulty of being both curator and educator is to be seen. It was the curator 's intent to avoid personal response and interpretation, however in looking at the works and considering the content of the didactic panels, it is evident that this is more difficult than it seems.

The community of Mt Gambia and the perceived difficulty that audience had in coming to terms with a large, expensive, expressionist piece of contemporary art, created the momentum behind the show, and once it moved from its place of origin, the exhibition must have necessarily taken on new meanings with the widely varying audiences to which it has been exposed. Not the least of which is the great expectation of each receiving public.

With the Australian Exhibition Touring Agency's decision to tour the exhibition, the original work entitled, St. Martin with his horse in a ship, an engraving by Hieronymus Cock, after Hieronymus Bosch, was not included in the exhibition and a photocopy was used in its place. (The show's itinerary was also limited as the Goyas were able to be toured to a maximum of three venues.) This brings to question the exclusivity of the display of original works by art museums, the display of objects in which an inherent and intrinsic value is believed to exist. Perhaps the curator/ educator in this instance saw the value in the image rather than the object, particularly in relation to the broader objective of providing a learning context for the audience. David Hansen suggests that this reconsideration of the primary goals of the curator/educator and art museum may allow for a far greater use of reproductions in exhibitions. If that was the case, the breadth of possibilities for such didactic shows is limitless.

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References

Cochrane, Peter: "A Brush with the Dark Side", the Age Magaz1ne. 24 March 1990

Eisner. Elliot: "The M1ssion of Museum Education", Museum Studies Journal, Fall 1986

Braverman. Benjamin E.: "Towards an Instructional Design for Art Exhibitions", Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol 22. No 3 Summer 1988

Home Oonald "finding the poetry of the everyday", Art Monthly

Bum, lan: "The art museum more or less", Art Monthly

Garfield, Donald: "Visitors Always Have Provided Clues for Labei -Wnters·. Museum News, October 1989