Jon Cattapan

In Jon Cattapan's compelling new paintings, Pillars of Salt, we have the artist's characteristic neo-Mallarmean calligraphy of metaphoric fragments and spatial abstractions. Alongside this is a post-Ballardian sensibility that speaks of a poetic vulnerability of living in today's dissipated Megalopolis. Cattapan's paintings, with their atmospheric figurative elements and warm colours, speak of a mournful drowned world where ghostly outlines of skyscrapers suggest a digital image o f late-capitalist culture and displacement. The modern metropolis as the city of quartz, the city of blip culture, indicates the nourish nocturnal landscape of Bladerunner-a seminal text for our emerging post-computer epoch.

Yet what emerges, time and again, in these exquisite multilayered paintings is Cattapan's pronounced nomadic subjectivity and subtle, questioning capacity to use the pictorial conventions of (post)modernist art and thought to generate images, forms and textures that speak in a language

of open-ended autobiographical fragments and pointillistic moments of lucidity. I! is as if Cattapan's authorial presence is constructed as a circuit of deferred self-depiction and metaphorical dissolution. He telegraphs his contrapuntal sensibility to us in fleeting fugitive moments: meaning is constructed not so much as the recognisable textual ruptures of expressionist art but rather as a perpetual circuit of dreamlike signs that signify Cattapan's iconography of post-colonial subjectivity. Painting as a searching, hesitant and reflexive enterprise of the cultural, the personal and the unconscious. Arguably, Cattapan's art reflects the broader conceptual and formal !ropes of the essay genre (Montaigne, Nietzsche, Adorno, Benjamin and Barthes) and concomitantly the essay-film/video (Marker, Welles, and Godard).

The figural language of the paintings, with its ambiguity and liquidity, its vivid atmospheric greens, blues and reds and disjunctive pictorial fields, italicises a sustained lyrical understanding of the paradoxical enigma of the subject: that the desire to delineate the self in fixed terms implies the necessary recognition that art, culture and language do not allow such a certainty in our world. This knowledge of the contradictions and the ambiguities embedded in the representation of the self-the Derridean (im)possibility of autobiography as reflected in the notion of the fully self-aware subject (hence D.H. Lawrence's useful cautionary precept: 'Never trust the artist, trust the tale')-is in Cattapan's case based more on personal knowledge of what it means to live in a late twentieth century city as the son of immigrant parents than on exclusively academic awareness.

 

Metaphorically, the title of the show deals with the biblical fate of Lot's wife and the transgression of 'looking back'. How do we as post-colonial subjects locate ourselves in the impossibly contradictory space of the exiled immigrant? How do we, to quote Salman Rushdie, experience

as 'midnight's children' the urban metropolis of our 'imaginary homelands' where global media and technology is effacing indigenous local cultures and we are obliged to find 'new ways of being human?'1 These are not rhetorical questions that shape the sensuous colours and personal

motifs of Cattapan's signature style and iconography, they are multifaceted autobiographical questions rooted in the complex disruptions and vulnerability of what it means to enter into an alien culture where one's roots, language and socio-cultural norms have been cast into a zone of spiralling confusion, dislocation and turbulence.

Thus, resonating in a number of the paintings is Cattapan's anti-linear questioning of what it signified to someone like his father to emigrate from the north of Italy to a country like Australia with its homogenising assimilationist pre-war policies-being cast between the known and the unknown, between the urge to lose oneself in one's new habitat and to maintain one's own ethnic identity and customs. This is especially evident in New World

Plaster where we see a faint image of the artist's kneeling father engaged in his trade as a plasterer underneath a ghostly surface of urban architecture-a reminder of how skilled immigrants like Cattapan's late father, and not so skilled immigrants, were an integral part of Australia's 'nation-building' policies of the '50s and '60s. A country (then) characterised by its Anglo-Celtic hegemony that "plastered" its own attitudes over its newly arrived settlers.

 

Cattapan's four Immigrant Song paintings constitute a moving polyphonic representation of his relationship to his father-a theme that is seldom addressed in contemporary criticism and connects (besides the more obvious formal configurations) to Mallarme, Kafka, Picasso, Balthus and more recently, Auster, Carver and Roth. The diffused imagery of pools of aquatic darkness and fragmented figurative elements of polycultural dynamics and techno-urban alienation that inform these paintings refer subtly to the marked artistic and cultural Similarities between the artist and his father.

 

Moreover, they delineate the multitude of feelings of disorientation, ambiguity and fragmentation that characterize living between two cultures, two worlds (Cattapan has lived in a number of large cities in the last decade or so). Hence, the key motif of a dog (borrowed from Goya) treading water in the fiery dark expanse of Dog Trick No. 2-the dog is representative of what it means for us today to exist in a panoptic world of increasing endo-colonialisation, global homogeneity and diminishing public responsibility. In a critical sense, the dog is suggestive of our contemporary situation in that we can't afford to look backwards, are obliged to keep on going, but all we do is to tread water, not knowing in which direction to turn. Relatedly, to survive in this world of cultural and technological confusion, we need to become capable of scrambling the conflicting codes and values of our milieu. Immigrants like the performing dog in Dog Trick No. 1 are forced to live by their wits, their cunning and individual attributes, to make sense of their bi-cultural lives.

 

The cities depicted in Cattapan's paintings resemble pillars of salt, as Donal Fitzpatrick correctly indicates in his informative catalogue essay, and are metaphorical urban architectures that have been illuminated by the mobile flares of digital technology. This is particularly visible in the complex layers of the urban glasshouses in Hum, Pulse and the extraordinary Steamer. Culture, space and time have been fused to produce a powerful apocalyptic aura of urban decay and modernity as image overload. What is intriguing about these paintings is their persuasive perspective which suggests a point-of-view of someone looking outwards to a world of urban isolation and the (in)visible dispossessed. Perhaps it is a view of

today's dense urban metropolis as inferno (an image already embedded in the 'hard-boiled' crime stories of Hammet, Chandler, McDonald and Ellroy and in noir film) or as seen by someone like the replicant in Bladerunner who weeps his tears of humanity in the concluding scenes of the movie. lt is a definition of today's cities as sites for migration, displacement and bi-cultural otherness. Pillars of Salt is another eloquent instance of Cattapan's fluent a n d restless ability to expand the boundaries of his art form and to create images that give voice to the voiceless. His paintings matter for a number of reasons, not least because they remind us of Rushdie's following observation 'We all cross frontiers; in that sense, we are all migrant peoples', and at the moment Cattapan declares his presence as the conjurer of these accomplished paintings he deftly manages (virtually

at the same time) to disappear beneath the enigmatic surfaces of his art.