Hamish Carr

Missing

This is an exhibition defined by layers of erasure: there are grainy images of missing people and all have been defaced in some way. White paint washes over facial features, eyes are obscured by spray paint, and words that might have indicated identity have been scribbled over. In one painting a broad smile hangs beneath the covering of a bag. In another, we can discern only the outline of a head that has been obliterated with black paint. The subjects of the works appear to have been maimed, perhaps suffering the loss of a sense: some seem blind, others disfigured so that they will have no sense of smell. A yellowish halo of linseed oil surrounds the background of each face, so they present simultaneously as mutilated victims and as saintly heroes. A tracker dog buried in scribbles of black spray has been painted directly onto a gallery wall. It suggests a futile search. A sad, nostalgic feeling lurks uncomfortably in the background of this exhibition. The images here are time-worn, they have been brutalised with abandon.

Photographs of missing persons invariably evoke a jarring sense of context shift: what was once a family happy-snap has become the forlorn image of someone whose whereabouts are now a source of great anxiety. The smiling faces, cheerfully unaware of the fate before them, arouse our sympathy. These are images from a life that the subjects can never return to. The world comes to associate the picture with the mystery. Carr recognises these as images which bear the weight of heavy projections, from both the family of the missing person and within the popular imagination. The artworks here function as pictorial translations of these complexities. The reckless ‘damage’ performed by the artist on the portraits alludes not only to our obscured understanding of the subject, but also to the imagined violations that the victims may have suffered.

The paintings have been installed in a way that suggests a strategic map, similar perhaps to the way police might position photographs of victims on a background image of the landscape in which the mystery occurred. The viewer is thus lead to consider the way in which the Australian landscape is peculiarly mythologised by its relation to missing people. Given the high incidence of people having disappeared, for many any experience of the Australian landscape is invested with a sense of anxiety.

For some time now Carr has been developing a cluster of aesthetic techniques which are particularly suited to the missing persons theme of the present show. For an exhibition in 2005, the artist produced a self-portrait painted from a half-burnt photograph. This destruction of a picture affirms Carr’s interest in how spontaneous gestures can reveal as much about a subject as a carefully painted traditional portrait. A fascination for the ad hoc mutilation of imagery combined with labour intensive technique translates here to a metaphor for a life that has become mysterious, and possibly has met with a sudden, reckless end. Perhaps the most telling source of inspiration for these works is informed by personal experience. Following a series of child abductions in Adelaide in the early 1980s, the young artist, with his mother and two brothers, was escorted by security from a shopping centre after having been followed by a potential abductor; maybe it is the artist’s memory of the gleaming eyes of this man that are erased here, over and over again.