Peter Madden

Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland
3 July – 4 August 2007

Auckland-based artist Peter Madden’s latest exhibition at Michael Lett Gallery was serialised in three parts, allowing separate elements of his work their own spotlight. The first instalment, titled Lord of the Flies, saw the artist cover the gallery’s street-front windows with gold leaf, turning the space into a private, precious jewel case. This seemed like a logical extension of the museum case whose interior Madden gilded in Escape from Orchid City (City Gallery, Wellington 2006), which also featured real stuffed huia birds, extinct since 1907. Extinction and death are old friends for Madden—scattered over the walls at Michael Lett were swarms of real gilded flies, some of which were painted with various national flags, and lording it over the floor was a human skull, also covered in fluttering, flaking gold, like crumbling parchment, autumnal leaves, or disintegrating skin. Called Dusk, this memento mori was just another in a long line of decorated skulls for Madden, nodding towards the calavera tradition of Mexico, or the macabre baroque bone chandeliers of the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic.

The second instalment of the exhibition, leaving the trail of golden flies intact, saw the addition of sculptural and pictorial elements, small and large, called Past, Future and Present. For those unfamiliar with the Madden oeuvre, the basic conceit is that the artist cuts and reassembles two-dimensional imagery, primarily from the National Geographic magazine, but with back up from catalogues of roses, butterflies and birds. Frequently, Madden turns his 2-D booty into a 3-D world: paper sharks nestle in blackened twigs, snakes run up chair legs, orchids perch atop balsawood towers and butterflies flock the interior of a pair of shoes. Madden’s latest turn, so to speak, involves collage on the surface of LPs, creating tiny black coffee tables inhabited by moths, planets and jet planes. Also memorable: an axe with its head to the ground, its handle sprouting a feisty clutch of flowering twigs, and a walking stick leaning against the wall, sprouting an elegant collection of mushrooms (Madden always tempers death with teeming life). A small stepladder is rendered entirely inoperable due to the roosting of thousands of paper birds in its rungs, each stretching its neck skyward in anticipation of sustenance.

The final instalment, called Orchid City, Its Environs and Excesses, saw some of the sculptural elements of Past, Future and Present corralled into a painted black circle on the floor, a larger analogue of the LP tables, perhaps, or some kind of black magic ephemera. For this stage, Madden introduced his showstoppers: a new series of large (750mm x 500mm), box-framed collages in which the conglomeration of cut-outs forms a new overall image. These painstaking magic-eye pictures announce that we have found our Archimboldo in the age of mechanical reproduction. Madden has been building up to this kind of densely-layered work for a while, making photomontages that herded shoals of creatures into one picture plane, like the fantastic Ur-World, 2006, which the City Gallery turned into the ultimate trip-out poster for the walls of nurseries and stoner flats. Using an image of the earth seen from space as a base, Madden created a world teeming with fish, skyscrapers, lily pads, gazelles, frogs. The new series goes even further, and might be termed ‘relief collage’—the breathing space between 2-D and 3-D, as if air was circulating between the layers of cut paper, like the delicately frilled gills of a fish. In more than one of these new works, Madden makes a human face out of a totality of human faces: layers of lips, swarms of skin patches, and hundreds of eyes, spider-like, create terrifyingly omnipotent deities. The simply titled She is perhaps that, an ur-Goddess, her extremities fringed with orchids and butterfly wings, while Here I am is a peculiar kind of self-portrait as old-man-of-the-sea, encrusted with barnacles and anemones and a generous helping of human skulls.

The three-part format of the exhibition was no doubt an attempt by Madden, renown for his clutter, to give each of his various preoccupations breathing room. But this nod towards visual decorum was nominal—by the end of the show, the space was a crowd of conflicting visual material—from spare collages on graph paper pinned to the wall, to the baroque box-framed ‘masterworks’; from micro-miniature collages on the backs of flies, to the precarious sculptural pile-up of Escaping Chair. I would expect nothing less than too much from Madden, whose enthusiasms simply cannot be contained by linear series with start and end points.

In the past I have called Madden ‘a Robin Hood with a scalpel blade’ who redistributes the wealth of images for which the National Geographic has plundered the globe, turning nature and indigenous culture into a consumable spectacle. Madden’s overall title Cutlass refers not only to the cutting technique that is the foundation of his oeuvre, but has the distinctly salty tang of piracy, an acknowledgement that none of the images he uses are his ‘own’ but have been liberated for a greater good. Madden’s redemptive project is one of re-injecting wonder into our jaded world, where the ready accessibility of ‘exotic’ imagery numbs our appreciation for the strange marvels that make up this planet. Madden’s mash-ups are a rejection of the sterility of the dry documentary format that much of this information is subject to; they are a clarion call for reenchantment. Magic is not just metaphorical here: one of the box-framed collages features a book on witchcraft, and out of its pages spills a runaway collection of spiders, flowers, snakes and birds in flight. Called Voodoo, Madden has animated the potential energy of the formerly lifeless book, actualising words into images. What could be a better illustration of magic at work?