Family first

Curator Mark Feary
tony garifalakis, shaun gladwell, matthew griffin, rachel howe, marco roso and blair trethowan
VCA Gallery, Melbourne
17 June – 17 July, 2005

Family First is obviously not about families; well, not in the tradition sense. Curator Mark Feary maintains that the exhibition sought ‘to demonstrate how subcultural allegiances can inform and contribute to the practices of young artists’, a rhetoric he has explored in previous exhibitions that map similar themes. The problem with this illustrative, essentially didactic, approach was that while it was useful as a point of departure, it became a necessary endpoint; appearing as a blanket enveloping and over-determining what was inarguably a good selection of artists, a solid collection of art works and well-crafted use of an awkward exhibition space.

In line with the exhibition’s theme, Tony Garifalakis was an obvious choice. Not only is his practice goth-styled, it could be said that he is the most hardcore member of Melbourne’s emerging artists subculture; he is so underground, very few have discovered his genius. On show were Garifalakis’s still life and death-metal portraiture paintings on velveteen, originally shown at First Floor, and the ambitious large-scale installation Ruin of Empires, dedicated to the memory of Nik Garifalakis. Détourned high fashion ads that read ‘THE SKULLFUCKERS’ and alarm clocks giving the time as ‘6:66; TIME TO DIE’ provided the backdrop to a blue neon noose, my personal favorite in the show, which all actively worked together to create an installation that successfully transformed and respectfully paid tribute to the subcultural practices of goths, death-metal and glam-rock that all inform Garifalakis’s practice.

Marco Roso’s video Headbangers of the World Unite… Hell is Here greeted you as you walked in the door, although the projection suffered in visibility from sunlight entering the gallery foyer. The stylishly crafted two and a half minutes of three gorgeous girls whizzing their hair around to bubblegum-metal was enthralling, but what was Roso on about? The work felt like a Nike commercial for headbangers; was that the point? To recruit new members into the headbanging fraternity? If so, join! The music is good and the chicks are hot!

Blair Trethowan is generally known for his skateboarding-inspired practice, however for Family First he had on show some new collages, conceived during his recent Australia Council Los Angeles residency. Although the works looked awkward, sitting somewhere between museum-type interpretive panels and a school project presentation, the work played off a number of (sub)cultural contradictions from the ’70s that haunt us today. One of Yoko Ono’s annual birthday messages to the world, Buzzcocks lyrics and Playboys competed with the present day embodied by Kurt Cobain, Centrelink letters and Japanese slackers; the references were thick and fast, providing a discursive and historical context for the specific ‘subcultural’ intervention of the other artists within the show.

The work of Roso’s fellow New Yorker, Rachel Howe, was pretty cool; but not as cool as the embroided drawings she showed earlier in the year in Murde on the Dancefloor, curated by Matthew Griffin at MIR 11. Howe outlines the motivation behind her practice in her Teenage Art Manifesto, which is that the creativity of teenagers—think the customisation of clothing, drawings in the back of school exercise books and performative actions such as shooting beer cans and throwing rocks at cars from overpasses—possesses an authenticity lacking in the art of ‘grown ups’. Her drawings had a white-trash, I love Guns ’n‘ Roses ‘meet me behind the gym after school Elizabeth Peyton and I’m gunna mess you up you poser pretty girl’ feel to them. Yeah it was naïve, well self consciously so, but that was the point I guess; I’m hoping.

It came as no surprise that the ubiquitous Shaun Gladwell was in the show. We are all familiar with the work, however we are none to familiar with the work being played off its (sub)cultural other. In this respect the work looked all to literal, as opposed to its imaginative positioning in other discourses such as ‘architecture’ and ‘consumerism’, although that said, the slow-mo poetry of Godspeed Verticals: Phloem Sequence and Godspeed Verticals: Escalator Sequence was a perfect counterpoint to the speed of Roso’s video.

Matthew Griffin is now pretty much infamous for his wall drawings, although his photography is just as good. Valhalla, I am Not Coming was a combination of both, making explicit connections between what some would consider to be different components of his practice. The subcultural content of Griffin’s contribution to Family First was quite hard to map, except to say that it was anything but literal. Griffin’s work is informed by a DIY approach, which transcends any one given allegiance.

Overall Family First worked well. The artists’ ideas and materials provided enough diversity when combined with the well orchestrated installation to create a solid show. Despite this, the curatorial premise seemed to circumscribe that special something required to make the show more than the sum of its constituent parts.