Janenne Eaton

Angle of Head
Helen Maxwell Gallery, Canberra at Silvershot, Melbourne
10 – 20 May 2006

At first glance, Janenne Eaton’s show ‘Angle of Head’ at Silvershot is a luscious, seductive affair. If this were a night at the theatre, here is how it would unfold: black tuxedos brushing up against silky taffeta, hush and expectation in the air. The giant red curtain parts. The night sky is filled with stars. The location: Nowheresville. The actors: Nobodies. The plot, or rather, the paint, begins to thicken…

Janenne Eaton’s dedicated and methodical practice has resulted in great technical flair; however, here the vast installation of giant banners, and large, glossy works on canvas, sets the scene for an exploration of much bigger issues. Time is of the essence here. Eaton is interested in the cultural shift towards thinking about time, particularly in light of media and new technology, and its impact on humanity. She employs layered, painted grids to evoke a speedy digital age, but because she works precisely, and by hand, it evolves at a snail’s pace. In this contemplative space, the digital becomes a metaphor for a vital communication breakdown where words, meanings, history and experience cross over each other, blast out, fade away and intersect in a high velocity, disconnected and dangerous way. If Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie was a musical and energised grid evoking the atmosphere of downtown New York, Eaton’s ‘Angle of Head’ goes into a darker, less charted terrain.

Each painting in ‘Angle of Head’ begins with the careful application of a smooth layer of high shine (usually black) enamel paint. Eaton builds on this slippery surface by creating layers of gridded white dots and squares. Some are applied with stencils, others are tiny spots sprayed or painted by hand. These white squares and circles vary in size, and there are up to five or more layers on any one painting. From a distance they look like the black of the universe, filled with constellations and rocky meteors. Oddly, up close the pixilated dots resemble a quite different form—hand embroidery or quilt work, punctuated by tears. Emerging rapidly from these overlapping screens of pretty little points of light, are murky expressions, and looming pictures, hovering like the smoky aftermath of a gunshot.

One such painting, These People, bears that very phrase, and is fixed with an electronic lighting device, a small red alarm that never stops flashing. Wherever you move in the space, it is there, watching. It seems this ‘play’ might be about those living on the borders, the ones purposely cast out and kept out, lost or far from home. In our current political climate, asylum seekers are incarcerated, and the government turns either a blind or blaming eye onto Indigenous communities in strife. Eaton brings this reality into focus.

The whisper of another title, Make one false move is a threat which raises the hairs on your neck; it momentarily stops you moving at all. Someday maybe, is false hope, a wish that things would just ‘get better’, rather than a decisive plan of action. Lingo is comprised of various digital symbols, floating in (cyber) space, that elude us. ‘Nowheresville’ floats across the surface of Nowheresville (Breaking Up). The horizontal lines cutting into the word are evidence of a connection lost, and perhaps never to be re-established.

A giant banner that says NOTHING divides the middle of the space. Historically used by union groups, churches, and other politically charged entities, banners have a more domestic quality than flags in that they are often hand made by individuals. Eaton’s painted and vinyl banner is black and white and leaves an ample space below the word as if to highlight an absence of faith, community, nation, or hope. The little string of mini flags across the middle might otherwise be a cheerful addition, but here is grim and funerary. Eaton’s banner refers directly to the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which resulted in ‘nothing’, reminding us how war often results in lack: of evidence, satisfaction, change, life, or victory.

And then I see it; it calls to me like a siren, this lipstick red painting at the far end of the room. As I approach, I see it spells ‘Mum’, the curve of its letters rounded and sensual, like a body or a row of buildings. Eaton has seamlessly applied tiny red stars, the sort found on dusty shelves in craft stores, to this ever-wet surface. To stay ‘mum’ is a vow of silence, or conversely, a cry to our mothers, when sick, hurt, or proud. In a dark world, this glittering ruby Mum is the click of Dorothy’s red slippers, delivering us home, safe, if only for a moment.

From the far end of this room, looking back, there are two more banners, of lawlessness and the law, for one never exists without the other. A ghostly skull and cross bones makes up the back of the NOTHING banner; and not far behind it is a six-pointed deputy sheriff’s badge. This image of a skeleton on a flag has served as a symbol of a pirate’s fearlessness in the face of death, as well as poison, danger, death itself. Ironically, the symbol for poison is currently under review, as the ever popular pirate has re-emerged in media and children are now drawn to the image, rather than repelled by it. Who are the pirates of today? Are they These People, who in the name of freedom and a better life, risk death as they sail upon foreign seas? Locking them up seems an unsuitable reward if we love our pirates so.

The Deputy Sheriff’s badge opposite is not overly threatening. After all, Hollywood tells us a Deputy Sheriff is second in charge, a donut eating man, whose domain is a small county. And then I learn that Eaton is referring here to John Howard, whose devotion to American war efforts saw him recently dubbed Deputy Sheriff (to George W. Bush). Eaton’s use of emblematic forms in both of these works falls directly in line with her interest in time; the emblem endures and yet a constant flow of images and events ensures its meaning is unstable, changing, and multiple. It can be comic or serious, lovable or repulsive, evil or benign.

‘Angle of Head’ refers to the perspective from which something is viewed. We begin to turn our own heads, and see further afield than we have before. Janenne Eaton trained as an archeologist and it shows. Where once archaeology was deemed the study of ancient cultures via its material remains, it has become broader, and encompasses contemporary culture. Eaton provides a thoughtful space in which we get to see the results of her ‘dig’; it is a rich and beautiful treasure, but not without ample warning.