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The art of Davida Alien is, and always has been, excruciatingly self-referential. The content of this this private/public image making, however, is in danger of becoming more suggestive of rhetorical repetition than deeply felt experience. This is the strongest impression delivered by the survey exhibition of the artist's work recently mounted by Brisbane's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Surprisingly, the most satisfying and lively works within this fifteen year sweep were not the heavily worked and somehow too familiar canvases but the small, crucial moments of change and experimentation reflected in the mixed media series included in the show. Selected works from I Don't Want To Go Mad (1981), Death of my Father (1983) and Fantasy With A Truck (1986) proved freer than the large scale images, and displayed a whimsical, and in a sense more accessible, intimacy and honesty. These drawings form a link with an earlier trend in Davida's work, the small collages and assemblages from her post-art school days in the early seventies. Though the subject matter - Catholic, sexual and domestic identity - remains static throughout Davida Allens' career, works from that early period such as I’m No Child (1973) and Our House (1973) possess a freedom from calculation that is no longer apparent within the gestural signature style of her paintings. The development from the still impressive "breakthrough" Figure paintings of 1979 to the latest Hinchinbrook Holiday series is a matter of peripheral, elemental introductions, such as text and landscape, to a fundamentally unchanging field.
Perhaps the impression of stock-pile imagery was exacerbated by the public profiling of the artist for this exhibition. During the press preview Davida, complete with paint splattered hands, proved feisty, articulate, and largely disinterested in the hype surrounding both her Archibald win and the Sam Neill Fantasy Series. However the emotional, deliberately non-aesthetic pitch of her statements, dripping with Catholic angst and childbirth metaphors, so exactly matched the work on the walls and the cloying, "family album" format of the catalogue, that the event, and the art, appeared rather too neatly packaged. It was, nevertheless, a publicly effective performance, as evidenced by the regurgitative tone of most of the local press criticism.
There is such a sense of professional commitment and goodwill emanating from M.O.C.A., That it seems mean spirited to draw attention to the narrowness of its organisational base, and in this instance the 'curators' (none of them named) have obviously worked hard to draw objects from a wider than usual range of sources. But M.O.C.A. is not a public institution and its "product", no matter how glossy its presentation, should not be received unqualified by some crucial reservations. The Museum of Contemporary Art is largely constructed upon the taste spectrum of an individual and his commercial advisors. The Davida Alien survey is deeply, and obviously reflective of these interests. More than one third of the works in the show were "courtesy of the Ray Hughes Gallery" or from the Hughes collection; the catalogue is edited by Annette Hughes; its text is by a local 'collector', Atherton Nye.
However, the large body of paintings and drawings brought together for this show provided a comprehensive visual (albeit unscholarly) survey of Davida Alien's art and the M.O.C.A. spaces were, as usual, attractive, different, and well-managed.