measure of strangeness

caroline rothwell, peter stichbury, david townsend
Artspace, Auckland
7-23 September 2000

The exhibition title, Measure of Strangeness, when considered in the context of its source, 'There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion' (from Francis Bacon's essay 'On Beauty' 1597), is suggestive of beauty's subversion, which in this show was played out as its slip sexuality. Presented as an exhibition of emerging artists, the title took on connotations of pubescence, the coming of age, perhaps, which heightens the provocation of this 'beauty'. Yet, with no binding text the works by the three artists sat as separate acts, and it was only as an after effect that each, in its own different way, seemed to be exploring beauty imbued with the sinister- or rather the perfect finish and its doppelganger, decay. Read in this context the orchid drawings of Caroline Rothwell, which were reproduced on the exhibition flier, seemed representative of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, and the various stages of fertilisation, youthful flourishing, and sexual maturity.

In a spatial sense Rothwell's wall drawings were also the introduction to the exhibition, governing the large entrance space, and triggering the audience's initial response. Formulated as an installation they covered the entire scale of the wall area, and were accompanied by inset boxes containing bone-coloured porcelain casts of organic, testicular, and stamen-like shapes, moulded and melted together. The scale of the flowers permitted a bodily relationship with the viewer, which was accentuated by the veins of the botanical structure, a play on the Greek orkhis meaning testicle. The femininity of the motif was not necessarily undermined by this, but was sexualised through its scale and corporeal association. The drawings were in fact conceived in tape stretched over the shapes of the petals and organs, which gave them a fluidity and strength. They were an interesting contrast of the industrial and the organic. The sense of the industrial and bodily read like a grotesque intrusion on Gauguin's Pacific iconography. The work also included an anamorphic drawing projected in three dimensions-it distorted like a tattoo on the moving body as one walked around the room, shifting between both its abstract and illustrative senses. To this end the porcelain objects in the enclosed boxes were like both the seeds and the bones of the flowering walls.

On a formal level David Townsend's velvet porn paintings of a 'hyper-masculine' nude seemed incongruous. They seemed to luxuriate in a camp kitsch without irony. Townsend's velvet paintings were previously in a show called Perfect, the connotations of which-through association with the movie of the same title-cross-referenced both the masculine culture of the perfect body and the sub-cultural homo-erotic stereotype. These works do not ironise their visual models, because the allure of the paintings, to an extent, works on the same level. They are tactile and sensual in their form, but their sexuality is slapstick. At no point is the viewer made to distinguish between these models and their boudoir originals. They do not shy away from the fantasy of a queer utopia, and yet their connection with kitsch in a high art context potentially draws you back into a discourse with the stereotyping, rather than luring you into their fantastic form. For this reason they behave implicitly like reverse Mapplethorpes.

The inclusion of Peter Stichbury's portraits in the exhibition had the interesting effect of tipping the balance of their psychology from glamour child to the representation of a haunting slice of detritus from hyper-real advertising imagery. These portraits have the promise of perfect skin, perfect proportions, and with the hint of the comic culture from which they seem to emerge, perfect love realised in slick, finely worked surfaces. They are images extracted from the already airbrushed pages of magazines strangely distorted on the canvas by minuscule exaggerations of the whites of their eyes and size of their foreheads, until these perfect children have the doe-eyed expression of a children's book character. The sinister side effect of this 'beauty' is the unwanted combination of adolescence, sexual availability and Manga Manga.

There was a measure of discordance in the exhibition, which provoked a charge within the exhibition space. Formally and thematically there was no suggestion of a cohesive direction for the works, and yet their unity within the architecture struck some chords at the very level of this disunity. The slippage of 'pure beauty' does not fall in the same direction, and in their own way each of the artists seemed to be underwriting John Baldessari 's work. Confessing an attraction and a discomfort with the ideal model.