Pat Hoffie's Cultural Arrangement

Pat Hoffie: 'Fully Exploited Labour – A Survey Exhibition'
University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
21 October – 26 November 2006

‘Fully Exploited Labour’, the title of Pat Hoffie’s survey exhibition, refers to the artist’s prevailing concern of the last ten years with exposing the exploitation of labour in the Philippines. Hoffie’s method of ‘exploiting’ Filipino billboard painters to execute her art draws attention to the socio-economic inequality that generally falls from notice within global cultural exchange. Authors in the Fully Exploited Labour exhibition catalogue contextualise Hoffie’s art within the impoverished state of the Philippines today and elucidate how her collaboration with billboard painters, such as the Galicia family, attempts to personalise this situation and illuminate life behind the art. Hoffie’s point of impact in her work is how it ‘composes’ cultural disparity. Contested value systems and differing categories of art are brought to bear in the work where modernist constructivism meets Filipino folk art, and mystical icons find company with so-called souvenir art. The mix is an elegant arrangement that disguises the disparity of its elements. Is this the elegant arrangement of globalisation in the era of advanced modernism?

All of the works in the exhibition involve arrangements of elements or objects that overwhelm disparity with elegance. The series of ten double-panelled paintings titled Madame Illuminate Crack’s Pictorial Guide to the Universe 1999 is an example. Each of the paintings involve the pairing of two different panels—one a plain flat colour with a small figure and the title of the work in the centre, and the other panel depicting quasi-mystical scenes derived from tarot cards. Individual titles in the series, such as Creation, Seduction, Ambition, Deliberation, suggest a theme of personal destiny. However, the titles develop toward a collective Filipino destiny in the sequence of Domination, Exploitation, Fermentation, Revelation and Nation.

Silk stitching is included in the panels of flat colour, providing a kind of folk art invasion of the modernist aesthetic. The craft of silk stitching is a Filipino skill involving significant labour but attracting little value in the global scheme of art. The cool modernist cohesion of the series absorbs this skill as an almost invisible seam in its dominating arrangement.

The issue of cultural (non)recognition is apparent in Hoffie’s application of scale. The folk aesthetic of tarot card illustration becomes ‘art’ within the inflated scale of her paintings. One of the artist’s huge billboard-scale paintings also features in the exhibition. These massive paintings are based on cinema banners painted by Filipino artists before mechanical printing costs became more economical. In collaboration with Hoffie, a number of these painters now engage in contesting the standards of cultural representation in the global arena by transforming their commercial status to that of ‘art’.

‘Fully Exploited Labour’ includes iconic pieces of Hoffie’s oeuvre such as No Such Thing as a Level Playing Field 1994. This banner-size painting was installed over the entry to the Adelaide Cricket Ground during the 1994 Adelaide Festival. In a manner similar to the Madame Illuminate series, the painting employs a strategy emphasising how conventions are used to compose and control disparity. For this work the Galicia family were commissioned to paint a large scale detail reproduction of J.M. Crossland’s portrait of the South Australian Aboriginal boy Nannultera. Nannultera was infused into a standardised western way of life when institutionalised into Christianity and cricket.

Across the face of this canvas Hoffie has painted the title of the work in an incongruous collection of typefaces. The different characters of these words are obviously awkward and resist cohesion but are nonetheless composed by the overall arrangement of the text. Different characters are made to fit in the big picture. Nanulterra’s eyes stare directly at us with an expression of someone who is trapped but defiant.

The defiant presence of difference within an elegant dominating arrangement is the most forceful message of ‘Fully Exploited Labour’. Whilst the common rhetoric of international contemporary art sustains a theme of celebrating cultural difference, Hoffie’s work suggests how contemporary art actually exploits cultural difference. The coherent elegance of her work and its careful spatial arrangement inevitably overwhelm the ‘souvenir’ status of monkey pod bowls installed in a collage design on the wall, and the cheap avatar dolls hung in careful sequential order. The languages of difference are forced together in a universal voice of global exchange that is ultimately a deeply western construct of culture.

In Hero 2003 the message is succinct. A reproduced painting of a Filipino billboard is cropped and re-arranged to resemble the aesthetic of Russian constructivism. The heroes of Filipino billboard art are turned on their side and re-presented in the language of western modernism—as if to say, ‘now’ you are a hero. It is the elegance and the beauty of this exhibition that is most challenging because its appeal is so clearly configured on western modernist terms. International contemporary art maintains modernist conventions throughout its so-called ‘discovery’ of cultural difference. Hoffie’s art draws on a Warholian strategy of simultaneously exploiting and subverting the phenomenon so that the message of the art remains a question.

Pat Hoffie, No Such Thing as a Level Playing Field, 1994

Madame Illuminate Crack's Pictorial Guide to the Universe, 1999.