Milani Gallery, Brisbane
3–25 December 2010
Gallery Barry Keldoulis (GBK), Sydney
17 November–18 December 2010
By Dr JANET McKENZIE
The skill with which he constructs compelling visual statements indicate the manner in which he seeks to unravel received historical accounts, capturing the essence of Gayatri Spivak, who wrote: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced? Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you.”1 Ian McLean observes, “Bennett’s success as an artist derives from his understanding that at the heart of trauma is its resistance to representation. In forbidding its own representation, trauma corrodes the moral fabric of society. This aesthetic rather than political problem is the major ethical issue of modern times. Thus Bennett’s paintings are not a catalogue of crimes, they do not appeal to ‘white guilt’ for sympathy and recompense, nor are they simply a postcolonial history lesson – as some critics believe. Rather they create an opening to a field of representation that is prohibited”.2
Two exhibitions of the recent work of Gordon Bennett present his elegant and powerful works. Although Australian history remains a reference point, Bennett looks to the global roots and redolent strains of racism in Australia. Margaret Preston, whose painting in the 1920s drew upon the outward appearance of certain Aboriginal artifacts, made works that “suggest identities trapped within a lattice of representation and language, a language built around racially invidious distinctions of colour, civilization, and time”.3 In his Brisbane exhibition, Home Décor (after Margaret Preston), Bennett presents a body of work critically addressing a text by Margaret Preston in Art in Australia, March 1930. “The Application of Aboriginal Designs,” denies with asininity, the sacred origins and meaning of Aboriginal art. Primarily concerned with how shapes and colours could be adapted (without permission or respect for their purpose or for the maker), to use on household objects, she wrote, “We simply cannot get to the bottom of their minds, it is all just a little too simple for us. Also please do not bother about what the carver meant in the way of myths, rites, etc; that is not the decorator’s affair”.4
Margaret Preston has enjoyed significant status historically; indeed her modernity was illustrated in relation to the use of formal qualities that she identified in Aboriginal art, ahead of any other artist in the 1920s. Bennett’s response relegates her “modernist achievements” to a colonial waste bin – her ignorance uncovered, becomes the starting point in art historical terms for Bennett’s acerbic visual commentary. Robert Nelson has observed of the Home Décor paintings, “The pictures build out the forms in a monumental presentation that curiously resembles neither desert art nor Preston’s décor but something unsettling between the two”.5 Now dated and discredited, Preston’s views are mostly embarrassing. In appropriating Preston’s appropriations Bennett seeks to restore dignity to Aboriginal art. Although these are not angry works per se, they exist within an oeuvre that seeks to map alternative histories, to reject and question racial categorizations and stereotypes, often with the most searing and potent imagery.
Preston produced small gouaches based on the imagery she sourced from Aboriginal shield designs from Central Australia and Queensland Indigenous communities. Her article encouraged the application of such imagery onto coffee cups and tea towels. Home Décor (after Margaret Preston), 2010 developed from the 2009 series of works on paper of the same subject. The works on paper required framing with glass, to protect the works, and in doing so their status of artwork, and precious (not to be touched by the viewer), accentuates Preston’s throw-away domestic applications from the 1920s as kitsch objects, of no lasting value. In amplifying the 2009 images, Bennett reinstates importance to the Aboriginal motifs: large canvasses diminish the viewer; they assert the primacy of image. The Home Décor paintings make astute reference to earlier works, such as those in his exhibition: Home Décor (Preston + de Stijl = Citizen) where he addressed the stereotyped Indigenous figures by Margaret Preston. “Today, it is not the motifs about the Indigenous community which Bennett has lifted from Preston’s works, but rather the motifs belonging to them. Bennett’s audience is once again invited to negotiate the interconnectedness for which his oeuvre is celebrated.”6
Gordon Bennett was raised unaware of his indigeneity as a child. After working for some 15 years in various trades, he decided to attend art school, aged 30. His own questioning of identity coincided with Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations and so fuelled his desire to question Australia’s postcolonial culture. Nick Waterlow, Director of the 1979 Sydney Biennale: European Dialogue, enabled the first exhibition of Aboriginal art within an international context. In 1988 Waterlow was director again. From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940–1988 was a revisionist narrative of 20th-century art, enabling important links between European, American and Australian artists to be reassessed. His biennale centerpiece was The Aboriginal Memorial, 200 hollow log grave posts from Ramingining in Arnhem Land. It was in this climate that the work of Gordon Bennett found a receptive audience. He was included in the prestigious Australian Perspecta (1989) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, just a year after completing art school and was awarded the Moët et Chandon Australia Art Fellowship in 1991. Perhaps the most significant consequence of the perceived importance of his practice was later the same year, when Bernard Smith chose his winning work, The Nine Ricochets (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella) 1990 as the back cover image for his updated classic, Australian Painting.7 Wary of promoting an artist prematurely, Smith recognised the unique vision and historical significance of Gordon Bennett’s work. Arthur Boyd’s painting, selected for the front cover, has also been known for its “difficult” subject matter, his searing and prophetic works addressing issues of war and human folly and environmental destruction. Gordon Bennett’s disturbing and provocative paintings, prints, installations and performances have explored the Indigenous Australian experience drawing on global issues and using artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat to “highlight the savagery of language, the body in trauma, and the manifold entanglements of art, history, empire, and race”.8 Most recently a major survey exhibition was staged by the National Gallery of Victoria (2007–2009), which travelled to interstate galleries.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, in 2007, chose to exhibit the work of Bennett to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in 1807. Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt (Violence and Grief Remix) (1996) sought to explore the wider practices of slavery and enslavement, through Bennett’s work, “In this context, an Australian perspective may appear oblique, perhaps hardly necessary. But Bennett's work catalogues reverberations of the histories of slavery, across oceans and centuries. In the Museum, his art reminds us also that we must see collections such as those from Australia as the products of a troubled frontier history”.9
Nicholas Thomas pointed out then that Bennett recognised that slavery was not confined to a historic period or place; rather it resonates through history by way of institutional practice and language embedded with prejudice. Through a major series of history paintings produced in the 1980s and 1990s Bennett created images “associated with voyages of discovery, historic moments such as declarations of possession, and figures such as that of the heroic pioneer”.
He incorporated these icons of colonization, the canonical dots of Aboriginal art, and Jackson Pollock's swirling drips into mesmeric, turbulent compositions that suggested an interplay of myth and violence. In some cases he painted over Pollock's driplines, which then assumed the appearance of the welts on a whipped body. The surfaces of Bennett's paintings, in a number of his series, are the surfaces of bodies in trauma, bodies that have been subjected either to this awful form of work-discipline, or - in the case of the Suprematist Paintings - some form of ritual incision, that fuses skin and language, an inscription on the body of highly charged terms such as 'purity' and terms of racial abuse.10
Gordon Bennett uses himself as a vehicle to explore myths surrounding the construction of identity. He has said: “I’m trying to make it obvious … how open it is; how it’s a process of the negotiation of these different sites of memory, human relations. It shouldn’t be a thing that constricts nor should it be an imposed thing, from outside oneself, like a prison.”11
In his Sydney exhibition earlier this month, Abstraction (Citizen) Bennett adopts his artist’s name of John Citizen to explore notions of identity and community. Most are works on paper, however two are large paintings on linen, and although the works are influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s style, they are not appropriations. The artist includes texts on the bottom of each of the works, all drawn from a thesaurus – and relating to the word “Citizen”. The pink outlined male and female “white” personalities were not chosen to match the specific texts – rather a formal compositional decision – relating to the orientation of the image to fit the black and white figures beneath. The Abstraction (Migrant) – (Tony Blair) and Abstraction (Metropolitan) – (Justin Bieber) are compelling coincidences ascribed physical (and psychological) significance as a result of a random match. Barry Keldoulis explains:
In this series Gordon returns with a hint of Basquiat meets Salle in the Northern Territory.
Traditional Aboriginal concerns are land and country, and individual and community. This series adds a contemporary twist with the floating pink faces being sourced from magazines, part of the media bombardment of celebrity identities, which has skewed our sense of familiarity and community. Sometimes it feels like we know these people more intimately than our friends and family; we certainly see more of them! Though they appear to float, the pink faces actually rise out of the red base.12
Abstraction (Citizen) continues the dialogue Bennett developed with Jean-Michel Basquiat, using the technique and choosing the freedom enjoyed by graffiti artists. His confrontational imagery and the intensity of the drawn image force the audience to re-think personal beliefs and their place in society at large. Bennett’s work resonates with the personal anguish that resulted in being raised as a white child, whilst unknowingly black. The search for identity became imperative: “I was socialized to believe that the [Eurocentric] ‘I’.. included me, totally. When I discovered my Aboriginal descent I first denied it and repressed it. When the repression became unbearable, and that was a true de-centering, not a matter of ‘failed locality’ [Tillers] but almost of my entire system of belief – I mean psychic rupturing.”13
The immediacy of Bennett’s drawn images, are a vital aspect of his questioning of identity, for the hard-hitting message he felt compelled to express. Bennett’s art grew out of psychoanalysis and was integral to the healing process. In the work of Basquiat, Bennett found a fellow traveller. Since his first major solo exhibition in 1989, just one year out of art school, Bennett has achieved international recognition as a critically engaged artist, whose work mapped alternative histories, bringing into question racial categorizations and stereotypes. His knowledge of Australian and international art inform his work, his dialogues, real and imagined with a range of artists: Imants Tillers, Vincent Van Gogh, Colin McCahon, Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Questioning is Gordon Bennett’s stated objective; he has brought issues of European supremacy and the dispossession of Aborigines into focus. The use of traditional dot painting is combined with the dot screen of photomechanical reproduction. He also uses mass media cartoon images and graffiti-style graphics, a visual short hand, somewhere between “writing” and art, and affiliated too with the deeper socio-economic relevance of their work. Bennett points out that he never set out to make political art, and has changed his work in stylistic terms throughout his career, in order to resist stylistic categorization. In a posthumous letter to Basquiat, 10 years after the artist’s death, Bennett sought to highlight “the similarities and cross-connections of our shared experience as human beings living in separate worlds that each seek[s] to exclude, objectify and dehumanize the black body and person”.14 The initial Notes to Basquiat series (1998) comprises 21 works on paper. In contrast to his own earlier work, Notes mimic Basquiat’s street art. Combining Australian elements, the Notes to Basquiat series strongly resemble the young New York artist.
Basquiat (b1960) was raised in Brooklyn as a middle-class, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual child of the African diaspora, whose distillations of the outside world as pithy text messages as graffiti, were principally concerned with, a direct representation of an African cultural heritage within the Western artistic tradition. The half-knowing, mystery within familiarity, that characterizes much of Gordon Bennett’s work in Australia can be described in remarkably similar terms to that of Basquiat, yet Bennett traverses this dialogue with great skill and originality. This series exemplifies his desire to reach out from an autobiographical account to issues of global racism and injustice. Exhibited in the 1998 Drawing Biennale, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Nicholas Thomas observed: “Bennett uses script to catalogue the slang and the brand names of Australian colonialism. His sources include books of Australian trademarks, icons and ‘symbols,’ which themselves range from the locally specific, such as ‘Coo-ee Brand’ to terms associated more with Afro-American histories and slavery. These works, like Basquiat’s, are deeply concerned with the human body. Whereas the writing on the works frequently itemizes and stipulates identities, the bodies are hybrids in some cases, and often opened up, ribs and skeletons exposed. In part, these bodies exhibit pain and anguish, but they also display the sameness of humans beneath colour and beyond the operations of naming and misnaming.”15
The inclusion of text, of lyrics from rap and hip-hop music is a further tribute to Basquiat, marking Bennett’s own allegiance for music with rhythm that has grown from authentic urban culture. Using cut up music and imagery from computer software, Bennett creates a combination of drawn and printed images. He comments: “The inclusion of text reads something like spoken word lyrics or poetry. Any viewer of the work will no doubt be drawn to recite the text in their mind [as they read it] so the work acts to enter the viewer something like a song can ‘stick in the mind’ or a poem can create an image in one’s mind. Poetry doesn’t seek closure on its meaning. I think it seeks to go beyond the words on the paper into a world of metaphor, allegory, images and ideas in order to say ‘something’ that may not be said with just words.”16 The Notes to Basquiat series was a culmination of Bennett’s postcolonial project. He admits to the content of the work affecting him emotionally and post 2003 “sought to paint in an overtly ‘abstract’ manner to ‘go silent on the issues involved and yet still keep painting’”.17 This recent body of abstract work is intended to separate himself conceptually, with the tortured soul content of the work.
7. See review of Bernard Smith’s work on Studio International website.