primavera 2002

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
16 Oct - 8 Dec 2002

Despite the hackneyed claims for this year's Primavera exhibition as being 'inspired by street and youth culture', its attitude is fresh and loose. Curator David Broker has framed the work within the context of popular culture, which foregrounds a readability for the works, and makes conceptuality a subtext.

The playfulness of the show is signalled at the ubiquitously-orange feature entry wall, where the intra text tells us that the background for the work includes 'Pop Art, graffiti writing and "culture jamming'". And right there is one of Tim Silver's skateboards cast from blue Crayola crayon propped against the wall (one of seven scattered throughout the exhibition, several in pieces).

The annual Primavera exhibition, now in its 11th year, is for artists thirty-five years and under. It is generally guest curated, although I cannot recall when, if ever, its determination has been thematic, beyond a signature marketing device. The exhibitions have introduced the work of emerging artists to a Sydney audience, as well as showing work by artists who, at thirty-five, were pretty well up there; and there have been some gems, but nothing I'd call risky. But maybe that's just me. Still, it would have been nice to see something that genuinely jammed the cultural channels, because even the artists with the highest degree of street-cred (James Dodd, Arlene TextaQueen, Roderick Bunter & Ben Frost) all have significant gallery-based exhibition histories. But that's cool.

A quick roundup: Nat & Ali's garden-setting installation with bushrocks, potted palms and trickling waterfall was cute, the birdsong soundtrack from Tropicana wine cooler cask speakers a nice formal touch (with their palm trees and sunset graphics). A pair of garlanded swings was used as a performance prop for the artists' play on cliched notions of friendship.

On the wall opposite were James Dodd's paintings in street-stencil style, economically and graphically strong digs at United States imperialism: an eagle with the text 'Dominant Cultural Species'; the US flag with skull-stars; old-school fighter planes; and a digital bomb icon with the words 'DROP DA BOMB NIGGA!' During his time in Sydney, Dodd also ran a sticker campaign on the streets where he placed US flag-with-skull pies around town. But Sydney being the town it is, they either did not stick to the cement dust that coats anything glossy, or they would be quickly removed from the CBD, like any other unofficial public imagery.

Sarah Ryan's big digital lenticular photos showed bland designer interiors populated by equally disinterested young people. Ryan's signature use of the lenticular process gave these works an appealing and subtle satin sheen, and the suggestion, rather than the illusion, of depth. If her point is style over substance then the works successfully reveal the pure surface of the life-style alluded to. I could not help thinking though, that these works would look right at home on the walls of the minimal interiors they depict.

Roderick Bunter and Ben Frost's twelve metre long mural, Where do you want to go today? was exhibited at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art a couple of years ago, and it is now in the collection of media mogul and art collector Kerry Stokes. Its montage of consumer and cartoon imagery trades on Japanese porno manga, and makes an appropriate call on the contemporary connections between play and indoctrination.

Arlene TextaQueen's funky portraits of her female friends were scattered across three walls of a separate room, overlaying big acrylic wall-painted versions. As an installation experience it was colourful and energetic, but I think would have worked as well as wallpaintings only, or as a totally immersive experience that captured the style of the interiors depicted and musical cues alluded to.

Sadly, in what was the most unfortunate placement of works, James Dodd's abstract logo wall-painting, on the fourth wall of this room, was completely overwhelmed by TextaQueen's work. A shame, because his robotic, pseudo-Islamic piece was in many ways the most subtly engaging work in the show.

Starlie Geikie's DVD projection installation was, to me, over-determined. It had everything: two-tone painted walls with big gothic and script lettering (saying 'Vain' and 'Rebellious'); a suspended projection screen above a pile of eighteen cast black wax chainsaws; and a set of framed video stills heat-printed on to tapestry fabric with highlights of metallic thread. The video showed Geikie in blurry black and white running through a lake/swamp landscape, being pursued by an unknown entity, the amplified soundtrack of heavy breathing (designed by Simon Maidment) running the course of three or four loops of vision. The didactic material made claims for female victimhood and/or emancipation, the chainsaws with their floppy blades a signifier of male impotency, apparently. The video piece was a strong element, I could have done without the rest.

Tim Silver's crayon-cast skateboards were coloured light blue, a reference, as the artist said during the floortalk, to certain works by the late Cuban born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In the exhibition context the colour signalled boyhood too, and as well as signifying the advertised connections with street (boarding), and Pop (mass-producing a mass-produced object). Despite the remnants of theatrical wheel-tracks and grind-marks on the walls, the broken cast boards suggested a bunch of smashed toys.

I must say that I had the pleasure of hanging out with many of the Primavera crew during the installation of the show and after, and it was great fun.