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How vital is context? How much do we need to know about why a work of art exists and the circumstances of its creation? Is it possible to divest a work of context?
The works gathered for ‘Tender Exotics’ arrived contextualised. Can anyone look at the singular pencil creations of Bobby Beausoleil and not think of his complex history? Even if you do attempt to ignore the infamous narrative, do you ever really escape it?
Whatever the reason for his lengthy incarceration, Beausoleil has found a method and is making what could be described as intensely honest, perhaps even ‘pure’ art, as his seclusion would seem to have freed him from much of the taint of the art world. His work displays an untrained meticulousness that—well, looks strange. It is not ugly, it is far from unskilled; it is very worked and precise in fact; but there is a palpable quality that feels peculiar. It is all too easy to ascribe this to Beausoleil’s own narrative, but this is a red herring. His work’s singular feel is the result of someone consciously developing an artistic vernacular unique to themselves within the confines of an institution. It defies simply being ‘art made by an inmate’, nor does it sit comfortably in the dubious arena of outsider art. It is also remarkable: there is an undeniable level of personal endeavour, persistence and adaptation displayed in the artist’s ability to make the best of arbitrary limitation. Beausoleil can only have access to certain materials to make his images: he has learnt to stretch these materials, pushing their capabilities to an extreme. Making art would seem to be Beausoleil’s sole occupation; the result is that his images are arresting.
‘Tender Exotics’ is more than Beausoleil, however; it is a careful selection of very disparate works by Lisa Campbell-Smith. Her curatorial premise begins to emerge with inclusion of Margaret Stones’s beautiful botanic illustrations; these works are indeed exotic when considered against what might be standard in the art world. Stones was a remarkable and accomplished Australian botanic illustrator, and is nothing like Beausoleil, except when she is; Stones is also the product of an institution. She studied Industrial Art at Swinburne Technical College on a scholarship. It is something of a long bow to draw, but the prison, the gallery, the academy and the museum are institutions by which culture is crafted and shaped. Comparing Stones with Beausoleil is a surprising and possibly disconcerting parallel to consider, yet this is bolstered by a peculiar detail: when inquiring about the availability of images to accompany this review, it was revealed that Stones’s work may not be reproduced; there is a level of institutional control around how these particular works may be seen, just as there is control over the materials Beausoleil uses. Again, though, it is important not to get too involved in Stones’s narrative but to engage with the art itself. The presentation of these exquisite botanical drawings in a gallery setting allows for a particular kind of appreciation: the documentary purpose that drove the creation of these images is backgrounded, allowing the talent of Stones’s hand to shine along with the sheer formal beauty of these drawings.
Nik Kamvissis does not draw from nature, but accesses a kind surreal, Art Brut inflected, mental space. His work is raw and rough, but it is no less considered or worked than anything else it is placed against here, and it is hard to truly describe Kamvissis as an outsider, except possibly to the formal art world. Kamvissis’s art, as seen here, is far more free of restraint in its creation than anything else in the exhibition, demonstrating a joyous exuberance and a classic sense of the absurd in its formal concerns. Yet as free as it is, Kamvissis accesses shapes that do echo forms that occur in nature itself, especially as seen in plants—and indeed as seen in the works on display by Stones. Kamvissis’s work oddly blends the works of Stones and Beausoleil: his drawing from an imagined, reflective mental space is in a faint parallel with Beausoleil, who must imagine all that he makes images of, yet the abstract forms that emerge from works such as his Pop-up Puppet (2015) have a common resonance with the plant-structures of Stones’s work. Next to those strict and beautiful works, Kamvissis’s works almost shift before the eye, from exuberant scribbling, to a considered attempt to draw something akin to natural forms, but also subverting Stones’s material in a gentle way, reminding that it is simply marks upon paper, as are all the works collected for this show.
Alan Townsend’s work Strange Fruit (2015) inverts even that simple element though; this work is wallpaper. Townsend comes from an historical background rather than an artistic one, but he has a most unique practice: he re-creates historic handmade wallpaper for heritage buildings. Strange Fruit features adapted designs by 18th Century Scottish botanist and designer, John Claudius Loudon, of a building that would seem to be a hothouse of some kind. It is a building transformed into art using a re-discovered process that produces something that looks authentic, but is not. The work displays plans for a building that was a site for display and categorisation in an almost comic act of subversion, changing them to decoration, or perhaps even art. Here the contextual experiment of ‘Tender Exotics’ is revealed most fully: the question of how an institution might alter art is revealed by altering an institution.
Parallels, echoes and hints: ‘Tender Exotics’ is full of them. Prisons and museums shaping and attempting to control what art is and what it could be, and how the overall framing created by the institutional context suggests a particular kind of viewing. What is it about art that requires it to be in a gallery, created by a registered artist, if there is such a thing? Is Beausoleil an outsider, and if he is, where do we place Townsend, Kamvissis or Stones? Their work does not change physically by being given a new context, but rather the contextual conceit is revealed, and the controlling paradigm of the institution is exposed. The critical work of ‘Tender Exotics’ is to examine these institutions, consider how they manufacture culture and finally expose the links: why does the prison have something in common with the museum? The elegance with which this is accomplished is the feat beyond the work, with the discussion initiated not didactic, but open-ended.
Nik Kamvissis, Pop-up puppet, 2015. Pencil on paper. Courtesy the artist.
‘Tender Exotics’ was part of the Contemporary Art Tasmania curatorial mentorship program.