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It has become customary to introduce exhibitions of fan Howard's work with lengthy preambles focussing on art produced up to twenty-five years ago. This is testament to the single-mindedness with which he has pursued and continues to pursue the pervasive influence of the military-industrial complex on contemporary life.
Howard's first exhibition at a commercial gallery in Brisbane expanded upon this frame of reference to deal with 'economic, cultural and political developments that occur inevitably within the context of the land, landscape and property'. The ambitious nature of the undertaking was matched by the scale of the works. Twenty-two large billboard-type images made up the bulk of the show. Howard transferred 35 mm slides of his own work (based on earlier photographs, sculptures and installations) onto a heavy duty vinyl using a computer printing system developed by Metromedia Technologies. These were then collaged with fragments of discarded billboard advertisements (shots of Coke bottles, pristine forests, road accident victims, luxury cars) resulting in a series of discreet, though multi-panelled paintings.
The fragmented perspectives and juxtaposition of images Howard employs simulate the form and style of contemporary billboard advertising, the like of which is produced by Metromedia for multinational corporations and is distributed to a burgeoning market in both Australia and abroad. In this respect his use of all-too-familiar techniques may be read as an attempt to decolonise a form of electronic imagining originally developed by the United States to document the Vietnam war and now open to accelerated and more widespread dissemination through recent developments in digitalised technologies.
The granular surface of the images thus drew attention to the artificiality of the image-its distance from reality and its positioning as an imaginary construct of desire. The purposely bland style stems from the artist's long-held interest in the nature of surface and surfaces (although the matt finish was engineered in part to assist readability), and has parallels in the obsession of our military and bureaucracy with management systems based on soulless efficiencies.
A dialogue between past and present is set up through the inclusion of a pair of early serial works. 8 Times We Came To The Plains (1968) and Stone Bomber Story (1975), a demonstration piece used by Howard in slide lectures in North America during 1975/76, framed the entrance to Savode and revealed the artist's earliest forays into the intersection of military and civilian cultures. What seemed to amount to the disruption of quasi-utopian communities and visual systems encoded in these two works is something of a conceptual pivot for Howard's current investigations into the conflicting ideologies, values and interests invested in nature, resources, technology and the land. One point of difference between these earlier pieces and the new works lies with, or is undercut by, an awareness of the precarious or, at least, provisional nature of apparently transparent configurations in the making of the 'new world order'.
Utopian fictions were everywhere in evidence from the reference to postwar reconstruction in Vietnam, the dismantling of the former Soviet Union nuclear arsenal and the promise of a nuclear-free world, ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia, to tongue-in-cheek reconstructions of pre-modern agrarian communities and quaint scenes of uninhibited rusticity. The images that worked best in this respect were those that dealt in a less obvious way with the concepts of institutional forms of address, for example, the notion of power and the control of social space encoded in the scale and symmetry of a town hall in Southern China, the continued use of frequently heavily- textured walls to evoke (seemingly) impenetrable political barriers, and the use of decor as a setting for the anticipation as much as the playing out of power games.
Several of the paintings make reference to Vietnam and its aftermath. In this, Howard brings to the fore a preoccupation that reaches back to the 1960s. Similarly, he continues to explore notions of gender and the positioning of the sexes as both subject to and victim of social conditioning. Unlike the original images from which they evolved, these works figure among the least impressive paintings in the exhibition.
The use of the billboard form has been previously used to strong effect in this regard. Maria Kozic's work Maria Kozic is Bitch comes to mind as an arresting and witty image which successfully grabbed our attention amidst a forest of signs. Howard's exhibition is disappointing in this respect. The works compete for attention yet a significant proportion of the paintings do not have the necessary visual impact to stand alone. This shortcoming is exacerbated in those works which rely heavily on formal considerations for their interest.