Sticky palms

Stuart Bailey
TCB, Melbourne / ANCA Gallery, Canberra
9 - 20 December 2003 / 4 - 15 February 2004

Stuart Bailey's recent installation at ANCA Gallery combines trashy throwaway references in disconcerting assemblages. His multi-panel works employ iconic coconuts; all familiar visual cliches humorously redeployed. They were conceived while travelling through Mexico and the United States, however these paintings seem to owe more to fantasy than observation.

Bailey's influences are obviously derived from various forms of popular culture: stencil art, tagging, animation, comics, cartoons and even product packaging. Despite their eclecticism, and the fragmentary style of display, the works in this collection have certain coherence when viewed together. The title of the show is a clue to the linking motif of the palm tree which has a distinct presence throughout, even when absent.

For Bailey, palm trees carry inescapable connotations of indulgence, escape and the lure of Hollywood. However he consistently undercuts the overdetermined glamour of the palm tree by placing it alongside disturbing details. For instance, Power Plant humorously juxtaposes coconuts and the defiant upward thrust of a fist, in the form of a placard. Masquerading as a symbol of protest, Power Plant has no overtly didactic message to deliver, except for a vaguely obscene visual joke. Meanwhile Package Deal features a number of variations on the palm theme, with a nasty looking spider crouching beneath, waiting to ambush the unwary.

Using gaudy pastel colours reminiscent of advertising, an imagined island paradise is juxtaposed with details that suggest menace. In the wall painting Sticky Palms II, a dreamlike pink landscape fades to the distance in silhouette, while a tiny man is besieged by flies on the outskirts of the frame. He embodies the nightmarish qualities of this too-perfect isle. Above this deceptively beautiful terrain, a chain hangs from the ceiling, reinforcing the idea of paradise as a kind of bondage.

Evidently Bailey is fond of playing with compositional space by painting flat, obviously fake props such as this, onto three-dimensional backdrops. This form is reversed slightly in another painting which shows spiders running up the length of a gold chain nailed onto a wood-grain background. In the neighbouring work, pink and green palms sit facing each other on opposite cliffs, divided by a massive chasm plunging to the bottom of the painting. Once again, the presence of palm trees fails to guarantee pleasure, instead they are seen perched above a bottomless pit of despair. These spiders, chains and sheer cliff-faces emphasise the dark side of an idyllic landscape.

In Trickle Down, plywood, wood veneers and contact are used to create quirky renderings of castles in a downward descending series. Through his repetitive reworkings of the castle and the palm tree, Bailey sets up an opposition between the Old World, and the New World, both of which seem to be treacherous zones. Sticky Palms was previously shown at TCB in Melbourne, in another incarnation, before being reassembled differently in Canberra. At TCB, the fist was even more prominent in the major wall painting, Sticky Palms, which loomed over the spectator, surrounded by chains, disembodied heads and palm trees at unnatural angles. The current work seems less directly confrontational, although it still packs a cheeky punch.