Of Reasonable Doubt
Of Reasonable Doubt
That every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order, is a convenient statement to make now as an entry point into my meanderings here, as I tell the story of my thought embryos searching for a way to become form.
At the beginning of this writing program, I struggled to find the threads connecting thoughts composed on my mobile phone at work, at the Bar table just before court convened, in bed before sleep or just after I awoke, on the tram, trying to find a way into this exhibition through a practice of creative writing.
For example, here are my first recorded words:
“I have joined a writing group exploring new methods in writing about art. I have joined the ranks of creative non-fiction in search of lost time to explore ways of being less formulaic.”
“Do I risk wasting time swimming in the murky waters of speculative subjectivity?”
I wrote notes on the tram heading home after a workshop session as I listened intently to the other passengers, hoping that in recording simultaneously I could capture something random but uncannily relevant to my endeavour.
“What does it mean to write by “entering into the expanded field?”
Throughout the first week I punched more first sentences into my mobile device. For example:
“on doubt and vulnerability allows audiences to engage with different forms, multiplicity of ideas, rather than convey specific concrete meanings.”
Writing practices are much like exhibitions, are valorising rituals, transforming randomness into profound form, after all, art museums have a long connection with cathedrals built upon vaults supposedly containing the severed limbs of dead saints.
I am a lawyer by trade, a criminal barrister. I practice the art of reasonable doubt. I am trained to reach opinions based on relevant and admissible evidence. My views must become anchored on the factual, the material objects at hand, expressed in a technical language founded on rigorous methods which urge for “objective” application. When I speak to lay persons, my client, or the jury for example, I reduce complex ideas into a narrative story, playing with rhetorical tropes to persuade them towards a truth I have constructed from the facts presented.
I also write about art practices and regularly review contemporary art exhibitions, and though this field allows for greater creative freedom, I am unable to let a mood seep in which will allow me the freedom to move away completely from the art historical approach. Examining the art object, as evidence and as relevant fact, examining metaphorical or allegorical meaning all the while situating it in the context of the art object’s and my own historical time is how I prefer to write about art.
There are threads connecting the disparate works in On Vulnerability and Doubt, across ACCA's four galleries. Charlie Sofo’s full frontal close-up video and personal voyeuristic invitation to consider the repeated act of unzipping a crotch in Undone (2019) connects pictorially with the severed penis animation being hauled and erected as an edifice of power and oppression in Tala Madani’s The Crowd (2017), just as the act of unzipping hints at wounds and orifices, flesh and faeces that link Sofo and Madani to Brent Harris’s painting Borrowed plumage #6 (doubt) (2007). Harris's painted abstract represents St Thomas’s incredulity at that moment of transcendence, which elevated the spiritual necessity for doubt simply by inserting his penis-like finger into the Christ’s post resurrected slit-like-cunt wound.
As I wander the gallery halls, the images, direct or metaphoric, imprinting on my memory are zippers, openings, lino-cuts, wounds, severed floating (albeit animated) penises, orifices inviting penetration, probing gratification, copro-devouring children feeding off the valueless role post-Fordist society imparts on motherhood, our “shit mothers”, the similarity between clay and faeces when the scatological chain exits the picture plane to rest on the gallery plinth where sculptural works sit in a scale as intimate as turd-like bodily waste.
Linda Marrinon’s Rock with underpants (1992) is a bluestone rectangular column, dressed in cotton underwear. Although produced in 1992 – a period where 70s style feminism was becoming stale – Rock is presented proximate to Tala Madani’s The Crowd (2017), a single channel animation, where castrated penises continue to be edified and presented for worship the world over, while we reduce all that is meant to nurture us to excrement. Madanis’ two large oil paintings on linen – Shit mother (goalpost) and Shit mother (leisure) (2019) – join in the dialogue, where upon the state of our existence cannot provide a safety net, because we are drowning in an ideology which undermines the nurturing that is required to achieve a healthy society.
I am alerted to an irregular ping, that echoes through ACCA’s cathedral-like space. This calculated noise, brings to my attention the role of sound. John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) interventions on silence, flood my mind. The ping influences my existential awareness and brings a new awareness also to the random coughs, whispers, and footfalls of other audiences moving across the exhibition floor. Sight and sound are insisting that vision is capable of traversing multi-dimensions and I share space with others.
I contemplate our collective fears as well as drift into thoughts that we might just return ad infinitum as formless consciousness drifting aimlessly inside the infinite abyss. I stand in front of a series of large prints, depicting beggars in their various acts of begging. I am suddenly alerted to the incongruence of my fanciful meanderings, which are acutely felt across the bodies of the homeless and the marginalised. I do not seek canonisation by hinting at my own daily activity representing the incarcerated poor, I only need to point out that ACCA is so far removed from the homeless begging and sleeping on the sidewalks of Swanston street in order to confess the nausea induced by Andrea Butner’s Beggar (2016), a series of large pastel coloured woodcut prints.
Explicitly political works such as Archie Moore’s, Under my skin (2019) photograph and digital print on t-shirt installation work deals with the on-going colonial project. Whilst Cherine Fahd’s agitprop photographs, articulating all the fears plaguing us and making us vulnerable in society, an explicitly political and inter-textual artistic intervention which leaves me with the question, “is this enough?”
Yes, it is with dead saints that I wish to end this writing exercise, not simply because Brent Harris’s modern abstracts grapple with themes most familiar to art historical concerns (and especially the role of iconography in an era of post-modern reductionism), but also because these works were immediately understood by me without the aid of the catalogue, dealing as they do with the limitations and contradictions of painterly representations.
To my left in ACCA's gallery three, Harris's large panels are appropriately spaced along a comic strip inspired sequence. Geometric forms contain lurid colours. Black circles evoked constructivism, yet the undulations in the lines injected a quiver into abstraction. The artist as inquisitor asked questions of painting founded on doubt.
Harris and Wellman’s works were the final works I encountered in ACCA's galleries. Harris’s religious themes made the point we were inside an architectural leviathan which has taken the place of the temple and church on the outskirt of Melbourne’s inner CBD, where a visit feels like a pilgrimage. Contemporary art museums fill the void, providing us with spiritual-like experiences to compensate for the vacuousness we experience in these spectacularly secular times.
Before murals covered the walls, church and temple walls were prepared with white gesso plaster. White light filled the nave and the artists’ eyes reckoned the blank walls with anticipation of that gesture that will leave a trace behind. Works of art, to some, are as such talismanic and prophetic, as icons and idols are across different cultures.
Inside the spectre of the great white cube and against two exhibition walls I began to look more closely at these works facing each other.
Brent Harris, a senior New Zealander artist, has spent much of his practice trying to find the middle ground between abstraction and representation, in the nascent hyper-consumerism period of pop art’s early years. His works invoke Roy Lichtenstein and Fernand Léger.
On the other wall, Ambera Wellman’s smaller pink-like-naked-skin, delicate works are on full display. Naked bodies exhilarating in the act of fucking, pornographic and explicit in presenting the messy act of fornication, I found myself stirring a desire to consume my lover raw. The ferocity in her brushwork captured and erased enough to leave me in a trance, my voyeurism so enticed, I found myself standing close, to inspect all the detail in her painterly strokes. I notice my breath in the cold room taking shape as I imagined Rubens taking the brush again after learning from Matisse and Kirchner. I sensed that her work was at once baroque lurking somewhere inside the dark depths of German expressionism trying to find a way to express sensuality after the wars that followed wars meant to end all wars.
Harris’s religious interrogations works were situated directly across from Wellman’s exquisite intimate oil paintings of carnal pleasures, flesh-like pink swirling with the chocolate-like corpo/copro/reality of bodily fluids. The tensions between the works created relational interpretations, between abstraction and representation, between rigid geometric forms and fluid expressionism, between tradition and experimentation, between ideas and forms, between mind and body, spirit and flesh, between vulnerability and doubt. As the final works in the exhibition, they summed up a central thread running across the exhibition and a poetic refrain - to consummate and commune, to understand, to be understood, to insist on the legitimacy in art and in life of the sacred and the profane.