Avant-gardism for children

Queensland University Art Museum, Brisbane; Monash University Gallery, Melbourne

This combination of 'playschool fabrications' avoids a tiresome and increasingly familiar Pop framing. Curator Helen Nicholson skirts those discussed-to-death faux-naif pop pleasures that have accompanied work by Mikala Dwyer, Kathy Temin et al through the last decade. She concentrates instead on the conceptual legacy of these artists' work, along with the often overlooked relation between modernism and the nineteenth-century invention and training of children's art.

Chris McAuliffe's speculative essay takes a different tack, asking why '60s anti-formalist practices have persisted so long after the demise of modernism's cultural hegemony. Do the undisciplined processes and domestic materials found in this show still signify market resistance, decades after conceptual, feminist, punk and grunge informality have been bypassed or incorporated into our art institutions? Maybe, suggests McAuliffe, while noting that these artists do not de-skill and dematerialise the art object in the face of reification and commodification as they did during the '60s and '70s. The serial work and installations in this exhibition simply theatricalise late modern practices, maintaining a wary regard for the politics of institutional display.

Elizabeth Gower has spanned these decades, along with Robert Rooney and John Nixon. Gower's sophisticated multiple series underline the decorative dimension of this post-60s drama. Her collaged disks also hark back to the Encyclopedic aspirations of the Port-Royale scholars, Hoch and Schwitters' puns-on-paper, as well as nodding  in the direction of Miriam Schapiro's '70s analytic needlework. At times Gower's crafty refinement undercuts the show's premises regarding the politics of finish; however there are good arguments for virtuosity in play here, accentuated in the exquisite Generis series. While it is undoubtedly good, there is a lot of  Gower's work on display.

It overshadows quieter pieces by Pip Haydon and Michael Phillips, whose work suffers in this context by simply blending in with Gower to form one long wall of pleasantly modular or serialised colour and movement. More rewarding is Phillips' unfitted construction of imitation Brio, fabricated with the advice and help of his two small children. Because of the show's historical allusions to more optimistic, modernist aspirations, I wondered how this playfully triggered historical minefield would measure against the Kids' APT 'be your own engineer' bridgemaking workshop. Armed with bamboo and gaffer tape in the safe, symbolic setting of the Queensland Art Gallery, kids of all ages can still become instant Duchamps, Tatlins or even Phillips, for that matter.

Mikala Dwyer, Kathy Temin and Paul Saint add a suggestive femme-enfant surrealism that is not directly explored in the show's catalogue. The talented perversity of Louise Bourgeois has cast long shadows over post-war generations, and this installation felt like an unconscious homage to the old mistress of fort-da. Dwyer's Tube Weight and Temin's House of Cards recall the artful compulsions of Bourgeois' woman-houses, lolly-legs and cuddly penile attachments, along with the screwball busy-work of Eva Hesse. In a cosy corner Dwyer scatters the floor with brutal Teddy-bear amputations, hospitalised in terracolla blankets and swathed bandaging. Spare bear parts bristle with pearl-headed pins. Flavin-styled organza 'neon' tubing, weighted at each end, hangs down the wall, alternatively resembling traction, orthopaedic footwear and colourful fly-paper. Tube Weight is one of the artist's strongest works to date, and provides a welcome balance to Gower's neat, good-girl craftwork.

Robert Rooney's Jumble Animals take the viewer back to the artist's 'cereal' works of the 1960s. A wistful air permeates their neat formal schemas, reminding older viewers of mornings spent cutting and assembling CocaPops Monkeys and Sugar Frosties Tigers.

Rooney has always delightfully played art history and memory to confound easy critical and curatorial assessments, and his Jumble Animals series cast a parochial ('Peter Blake') Pop sensibility over the show which counters its dominant conceptual-minimalist aspirations.

John Nixon's illustrated children's 'readers', compiled with his daughter Emma, hark back to a sterner age of early childhood development. The level of sensory deprivation felt on reading these bedtime stories makes you wonder what is the lesser of two evils: instructive play as an artist's book or a conceptually edifying kids' picturebook? I don't know which is more punishing: playing 'school' with John Nixon or 'hospital' with Mikala Dwyer.

As an ensemble the work alludes to social and aesthetic disciplinary rigours and displays high-brow though inter-disciplinary craft skills. The show's clever visual puns and conceptual finesse emphasise the potential beauty of materials sourced from reverse garbage-felt offcuts, cardboard, rubber bands, margarine lids, paper plates, kitchen discards. Pace McAuliffe, surely we don't have to reprise the last thirty years of postmodern struggle-it is easier to enjoy the materiality of the work and accept the art-historical references as stylistic tropes, without loading them up with unnecessary critical baggage. The question that remains is of course: without late modernism as a handy yet overworked critical crutch, how do these works get going? The answer is that more inventive work takes us to other places.