danius kesminas: hughbris

Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney
7 May - I June 2002

It is curious to note the current ubiquity of Danius Kesminas's latest show at Darren Knight Gallery. What is it about the show that makes it so eminently reviewable? The most obvious answer would be the subject it finds in the robust persona of Australian art critic, Robert Hughes. In fact Kesminas makes Hughes an iconic target for a series of knowing though less than rational ruminations on the nature of art and its labyrinthine critical effects. Hughbris, as the title of this show suggests, revolves around Hughes's recent involvement in a near fatal car crash in a remote region of Western Australia.

More than a simple accident report however, Kesminas's exhibition focuses on the crash's impact on the critic's public reputation. After all, Hughes was charged then acquitted of culpable driving. At present he is again facing court after prosecutors successfully re-opened the case citing defamation. In fact Hughes's response to all these allegations has been a series of tirades and public recriminations. In these the eminent Australian presents himself the focus of right wing conspiracies and blatant legal bias. Of course the irony of the situation does not escape Kesminas. Here the artist pits the seemingly larger than life Hughes, in his known guise as cultural judge, against the potentially more serious judgments of the civil law courts. Kesminas derives a certain glee from Hughes's protestations of wounded innocence given that similar defence generally issues from artists the critic considers minor or unworthy of his attention. Yet Hughbris is a multi-dimensional exploration. lt attains much of its effect from an obvious appreciation of the myriad ambiguities surrounding this particular event. Potential interpretations of the work are liable to last as long as the still unresolved matter of the crash itself and of Hughes's uncertain guilt or innocence.

The central focus of the exhibition is a perspex vitrine containing the apparent compacted remains of Hughes's mangled vehicle. As an object the piece reverberates with memories of a certain generation of sculpture, especially popular during the 1970s. This resonance reiterates the localised nature of the accident itself. Indeed it seems peculiarly Australian in its co-mingling of geographic remoteness and automotive fetishisation. Such an elevated though disturbed relation to the common automobile recalls as diverse precedents as Mad Max and The Cars That Ate Paris, both classics of Australian cinema. At the same time Kesminas's found-object hints at a Duchampian impulse of parochial dimensions. Furthermore the car as simple 'junk' returns to the gallery as a preciously encased commodity as well as the indicator of serious intellectual intent.

To the left of the crushed car is a hand-made case containing a deliberately amateurish replica of a Bluefin tuna. Hughes claims such a catch was stolen from the crash vehicle by a member of the local volunteer fire brigade who rescued him from the wreck. In this case Hughes becomes both macho marine hunter and self-proclaimed crime victim. The boxed fish neatly echoes the cubed car in its pristine transparent container. The importance of the missing tuna also raises questions of the creatures own disregarded death at the hands of action-man Hughes. At the same time the display case housing the faux fish becomes a surrogate coffin. Similarly the smashed car is metaphorically transformed as Hughes's possible final resting place and the potential vehicle for his immortality.

Behind the vitrine is a watercolour version of a Time magazine cover featuring a portrait of Hughes and the headline 'Beyond the Jaws of Death'. Whilst the Hughes crash story appeared in the same edition of Time, it was far from being considered worthy of the cover story. Kesminas, in a spirit of paranoiac parody elevates the figure of Hughes in direct proportion to the critic's renowned ego. This operation grants Hughes a distinctly mythical status as though the importance of his plight and the extent of its international newsworthiness had simply been robbed him. Extending this mythology are copies of Hughes's X-rays used in court as supporting evidence. The nature of his considerable injuries are apparent in the numerous pins and steel implants visible in these clinical images. Yet nestled artfully and contradictorily among pictures of damaged bones are clearly discernible reproductions of some of Francisco Goya's 'Black Paintings'. Goya executed these paintings towards the end of his life in a state of reclusion in which he suffered from persecution fantasies. Once again this is subtly attuned to Hughes's own testimonies as well as the art critic's description of a dream he had shortly after the crash. In it Hughes, who is in the process of completing a monograph on the great Spanish painter, described how a gang of hoodlums aggressively approach him in the street. This threatening gang turned out to be lead by none other than Francisco Goya!

In Hughbris Kesminas excels at magnifying these wry coincidences. In doing so he stages a coup in which the implied machinations of the art world spiral into ever-increasing zones of self-aggrandisement and absurdity. Kesminas's matter-of-fact humour effectively removes the author from the picture. He substitutes in place of himself a portrait of the critic as colossus or as Saturn devouring his children.

Danius Kesminas, Post-Traumatic Origami 1999-2002, 1997. Nissan N15 LX, fishing hooks, line, sinkers, reel, net, lures, tackle box, cookbook, spectacles, road map & beer can, 177 x 150 x 85cm. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. 

Danius Kesminas, Holden Caprices (Nothing if Not Critical), 2002. X-rays and x-ray lightbox, 97.5 x 123 x 16cm. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. 

Danius Kesminas, TIME October 11 1999, 2002. Iris print of original watercolour, painted framed, 81 x 64cm. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. 

Danius Kesminas, Tuna Shoved Up a Tuna Hole, 2002. Cast fibreglass, acrylic paint & wood, 128 x 60 x 13cm. Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.