Out of print

Gordon Bennett
DELL Gallery, Griffith University, Brisbane
4 April - 20 June 2004

Out of Print: Gordon Bennett is a daring gambit, a de facto twenty year survey through his printwork, for an artist who is not considered to be a printmaker in the conventional sense. Making prints, however, has been a constant and important aspect of Bennett's practice: it is a way of thinking, exercising and exorcising ideas and his discomfort with the way things are. It is also a means of pushing boundaries in the orderly and prescribed world of printmaking by focusing on content rather than a mastery of technique. Bennett has done work with reduction techniques—lino and wood cuts, collographs, lithography, etching and aquatint, but his use of computers (an Amiga 500 at an early stage in 1986-87, the tool of choice for the rogue image-making artist at the time, and now the state-of-art consumer hardware and software) allows him a freedom and independence to control the means of production, and his own place as an artist. 

Through computer-generated imaging, Bennett incorporates a wide range of source material, often described as a strategy of appropriation. In Bennett's own words, from a letter that he wrote to Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1998, ten years after Basquiat's death: 'I became acutely aware of racist stereotypes and the power/knowledge relationship that governed my indigenous heritage and how it was inherently intertwined with the history and reality of colonialism. I found the avenue of "appropriation" art within the conceptual framework of post modernism to be the most suitable way of pursuing my interests'. Typically, appropriation can be a contrivance, to inhabit a signature motif through high irony without making a commitment. But in hindsight, Bennett's letter can also be read as a declaration of independence—it is his (Bennett's) interest, not those of another artist, or even the interests—'the best laid plans'—of artworld discourse. Images or visual moments from canonical modernists to the national canon (Margaret Preston) are chosen for a reason. They provide inspiration, a point of departure and quotation that is not art about art alone a prime characteristic of appropriation strategies, and to some extent, post-1950 modernism itself. Bennett returns to certain images, adapting, transforming, and mutating them, as well as to signs of his hand in order to generate a complex vocabulary and pictorial space that become his own rather than a clever pastiche (the de Stijl 'modernist' grid becomes chainlink fencing in his 1997 Home Decor works).

Bennett also uses language/text in his work, to cite Renato Poggioli, as 'the great historical revealer', words that signify, his own voice as footnote said out loud, and the language of effect, a form of scatology that inhabits comic books and everyday life: Grunt; Ha Ha; Blah Blah. Some of his declarations are embedded in the titles or in the form of cultural equations and parenthetical thoughts: each frame of the grim cautionary tale Cat and Mouse Death Match (2003), repeats the phrase, 'Don't Worry it's just a picture .. .'. The game of cat and mouse is fitting in describing the relationship between artists and the artworld, and can then be read in Bennett's camouflage work of Saddam Hussein (2004), the Home Decor works (1996-97), interweaving vernacular and high modern images, and his self portraits using a Picasso 'primitive' mask (2004). The game extends to his nom-de-plume John Citizen works such as Coloured People (2001), and the John Citizen Interiors (2004), as the camouflage of taste and style. The Citizen works establish a relationship to the artist himself, to be his own subject, as with Interior (with Gordon Bennetts) (2002). Rather than conceal—the objective of camouflage—Bennett does the reverse, to reveal, and to alter the rules, as he has shifted the rules of engagement in making prints.

The radicality in Out of Print is the breadth of the work shown, laid out chronologically, although not for reasons of the tried-and-true survey methodology. Often, it is the overriding belief in the arrow of time that is proof of an artist's 'progress toward maturity', with the curator pausing at, or emphasising 'seminal' moments. Exhibition curator Simon Wright has done the opposite. Instead of foregrounding curatorial preferences, cloaked as truths, we are given as much information as possible. The inclusion of student work (normally, a dangerous and erroneous exhibition device), demonstrates Bennett's voracious work ethic and departure from the trappings of visual servitude.

Artists who are Committed to Print (the title of a 1988 MaMA, NYC exhibition), expressing strong and  determined social concerns, have been with us since Goya, and many others in the 20th century have used and altered pictorial conventions: Richard Hamilton, like Bennett, used the potential of instant information technologies in his 1970 Kent State, 'world edition' video-image silkscreen. Bennett aims his thoughts at a world of contradictions—the combative ideologies that persist—to model ideas and move into the world at large because he is an artist in the world: the prints are his communiqués.

Gordon Bennett, Notes to Basquiat: Family. Inkjet print on paper. Courtesy the artist and DELL Gallery at QCA. 

Gordon Bennett, from Notes to Basquiat, 2002. Inkjet print on paper. Courtesy the artist and DELL Gallery at QCA. 

notes: 

The exhibition Out of Print toured to Sydney College of the Arts Gallery, University of Sydney; RMIT Gallery, Melbourne; Flinders University Gallery, Adelaide.