Gordon Hookey

Contempt Free Hart/Contemporary Art
Umbrella Studio, Townsville
6 July - 5 August 2007

Umbrella Studio’s walls shout out with images and phrases in this exhibition of paintings by Gordon Hookey. The colours are bright, loud—like advertising—and the phrases are rude, crude and funny.

Looking at Gordon Hookey’s work one could gain the impression that he is an angry young man, but on closer acquaintance he appears to be friendly and mild-mannered. His childhood in Cloncurry imbued him with both the resourcefulness and the friendliness of the western Queensland lifestyle. I spoke to him at length when he was artist in residence in the month preceding this exhibition. So where do those rude/crude phrases originate, words that remain taboo in polite society? Of Waanyi ancestry, Hookey sees Waanyi is his first language although he was denied the opportunity to learn it extensively. So English is his second language and it is easier to use bad language in a second rather than a first language. Coming from a non–English speaking background myself, I know the difference in emotional valency between a first and second language. Swearing in English for me is just a formality, but swearing in my first language brings all that baggage of taboo and scandal, levels of offensiveness carefully calibrated since childhood. This positioning of English as his second language liberated Hookey from any restrictive baggage: ‘using swear words is just a formality, we use them all the time’. Removed from their emotional potency, words and phrases can be played with like Lego blocks, their phonetic and semiotic content juxtaposed and disrupted. Hookey says that images and words trigger each other in his head; paintings grow from phrases, and in turn other images grow from these phrases and find their way in to his complex narrative compositions, where Dada meets Rap.

Hookey is a skilful painter and his work is deceptively naïve. It is funny, punchy, satirical and political. He does not work in a traditional Indigenous manner, not having had that background. Someone once said to him that they really liked the titles of his works, so he started to include these as part of his paintings, developing an idiosyncratic font somewhere between the handmade and printed. The words and phrases are best when read aloud, when the gaps and voids between sound and written are bridged and words are heard rather than seen or read. Mis-‘hearing’ of spoken language is often at the source of intercultural misunderstanding, highlighted here in one work where a dark skinned child, (in front of Bart Simpson!) thought he was the best in the class because the teacher always said ‘pay a pension’ when she really said ‘pay attention’.

A new development in Hookey’s work is the presentation of complete texts in charcoal; these are stark and compelling with the quality of concrete poetry. An unexpected bonus in this exhibition was a folder of his poems revealing cunning use of language, evoking strong imagery.

Thought provoking and entertaining, one feels that the artist is having fun with his words, and though the content is at times strongly satirical and politically critical, humour keeps it out of the ponderous domain. Hookey manages to bridge a paradox: his work displays levity and gravity at once.