gordon bennett

figure/ground (zero)
Sherman Galleries, Sydney
17 July – 9 August 2003

In this recent exhibition, Gordon Bennett presented ten regular canvases with repetitive rhythms. They are seductive and painterly, decorative and familiar. Camouflage patterns engulf and deform the figurative component of the works. The camouflage pattern employed in a multiplicity of colours, tones and patterns for the purpose of conducting warfare is an emblem of modernity. Such patterns employ the logic of modern abstraction to disguise form in a distortion of vision.

In Figure/Ground (Zero), Bennett is concerned with vision which has been subjected to distorting effects, from which objective detachment has been lost. He includes a figure in a gas mask and a portrait image of Saddam Hussein—ambiguous icons of fear. These images are subjected to repetition and eventual deformity and collapse. As contemporary icons they exist in a distorted social and symbolic order. They are invoked with a hallucinogenic quality in an unreal landscape of hypereal media images.

Bennett addresses the figure/ground relationship as a problem which structures the visible in painting and culture, as a binary construct which conditions culture and history. The ground is a formless place of emergence from which the figure must distinguish itself—whole, autonomous, distinct and present. This relationship constructs visibility and representation through the tropes of human/inhuman, knowledge/nonknowledge, and form/formless. The visibility of the other is subject to dualisms—light/darkness, positive/negative, presence/absence and seen/unseen.

The exhibition includes four paintings of an anonymous figure disguised by a gasmask. This image lacks uniqueness and individual features as it functions as a faceless abstraction. The gasmask can be seen as a symbol of terror—it is an icon of the war on terror. There is an ambiguity and uncertainty about this figure. The dualistic logic of the war on terror is predicated on producing waves of sameness and predictability, underscored by a brutal logic which views the other in terms of them and us. The other is separate—a figure of negativity, excess and monstrosity—in a culture where anything can be appropriated and recuperated into the spectacle of terror. The faceless figure in the gasmask could be one of us or one of them. It is ambiguous, formless even obscene.

Bennett also has produced four images of Saddam Hussein. They are reminiscent of Warhol’s camouflage paintings and propaganda images of Socialist Realism—public art for shaping public opinion. The icon is an abstract signifier devoid of unique features—a caricature which neutralises any expressions in excess of necessary response and action.

Bennett’s paintings leave one wondering about painting and its use. Painting may serve the desire for an authentic expression of self. There are traces here of the artist’s recent concerns—Basquiat, New York and Ground Zero. The camouflage patterns include skeletal Islamic text and veils. Bennett does not necessarily situate Ground Zero in a certain time or place—the World Trade Centre. It is elsewhere—ambiguous, shifting and indeterminate. He locates Ground Zero closer to home: within local culture rather than world politics. In these works, Bennett addresses the ambivalent identification of racism and the otherness of the self in a racist world as a perverse palimset. The terror dome becomes a chaotic play of fear and desire—splitting, doubling and stitching up procedures behind the production of identity. While making explicit reference to the Iraq war Bennett’s investigation is also close to the narcissistic desire and complicity in contemporary Australian culture. The icons of fear camouflage information and disable debate.