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I remember some years ago visiting Rob McHaffie’s studio in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. It was a revelatory experience; rotting fruit and vegetables, wilting plants, pieces of material, all sorts of bric-a-brac covered every surface. Some of this ‘rubbish’ was assembled in preparation for McHaffie to work his strange, surrealist magic, bringing this bizarre array of detritus to life in a series of crazed watercolour ‘portraits.’ As a practice it was a kind of Still Life in extremis; the wizened shape of a potato would become the face of a geriatric, while rotting leaves would become questionable evening-wear.
Such visual tactics are at the heart of curator Bala Starr’s intriguing ‘Model Pictures’, a show that presents four artists who experiment with scale via modelling. Featuring McHaffie, Moya McKenna, James Lynch and Amanda Marburg, ‘Model Pictures’ ostensibly explores these artists’ use of constructed tabletop tableaux, plasticine models, mannequins and studio still lifes.
As seems to be often the case in contemporary curating, Starr has bitten off a mouthful when it comes to describing her motivations behind the show: ‘The dominant interpretative model—revolving around repetition and simulation as expressing scepticism towards representation—was established early and elaborated upon little. This exhibition will explore interpretations of the practice from a critical and historical perspective’.1
Visually, it is difficult to see how ‘Model Pictures’ does this. All four of her artists graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts between 1996 and 2002, which most certainly makes for a very narrow ‘historical perspective’ from a highly specialised gene pool.
Creating a ‘fictional’ tableaux from which to paint is hardly a new thing; many of the Surrealists, to cite one example, were masters at this. Starr mentions other examples of contemporary Australian artists such as Ricky Swallow and Callum Morton, which begs the question as to why she decided to restrict the exhibition to one of only painting.
Minor quibbles aside this is an excellent selection to illustrate Starr’s central thesis. The strongest works here are, without a doubt, those of Amanda Marburg. For some years now Marburg has refined an unusual and brilliant aesthetic. She, of all the artists here, takes her modelling extremely seriously. Her objects and figures are first crafted, with a deliberate and wonderful appearance of naivety, in plasticine and then painted with a sense of meticulous realism. The results are surreal and beguiling, they are ‘fun’ but weirdly chilling, as though one were entering a world of dark magical realism or a film set designed by Guillermo Del Toro. They are executed in what could almost be described as photo-realist tonality giving her decidedly un-realist subject matter a strange gravitas.
McHaffie’s approach is softer in some respects, but no less odd in subject. Like Marburg he seems intent upon creating an alternate world, but one full of pop-cultural hints. The results hint at a balancing act between melancholia and humour.
Of the four, James Lynch is clearly the most serious when it comes to socio-political commentary. His carefully constructed tableaux are clearly cut-outs which are then painted, allowing a montage-like effect, but in this context, contrasted with the other artists, they seem somewhat heavy-handed.
The least successful here is arguably Moya McKenna. Her works seem haphazardly rushed and tonally dull. They most certainly lack the ‘smartness’ of the other artists, both technically and conceptually. Like Lynch’s work McKenna’s paintings come across as sketches for later, more resolved, work.
This criticism most likely comes from the contrast of these works with Marburg’s, whose paintings in this show are the most resolutely realised. In that regard the selection seems lopsided. McKenna’s rapid-fire paintwork and (perhaps deliberate) naivety pales in contrast to Marburg’s meticulous and luminous surfaces. It is somewhat like comparing chalk with cheese. While in purely conceptual terms there are clear links between these four artists, aesthetically they clash something terrible, which goes to prove that concept alone is never enough to create a coherent visual experience.
Amanda Marburg, Happily afloat on the swirl of a sinking ship, 2007. Oil on canvas, 168 x 122cm. Private collection, Sydney. © The artist.
Amanda Marburg, Giving the devil his due 6, 2004. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40cm. Private collection, Sydney. © The artist.
Amanda Marburg, Giving the devil his due 2, 2004. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40cm. Private collection, Sydney. © The artist.
Amanda Marburg, Giving the devil his due 19, 2004. Oil on canvas, 102 x 133cm. Private collection, Sydney. © The artist.
1. Curator, Bala Starr, in conversation with the author, and quoted in ‘Model Pictures’ Media Release.