MADA, Melbourne - ACMI, Melbourne

published in Memo Art Review, Melbourne, August 2019
John Meade - Automatic (2011)

The exhibition "...(illegible)..." offers a fascinating exquisite corpse for conceptual consideration: the sliced intersection between 'queer' and 'abstraction'. Their categorical differences within art channels are manifold: where queer is performative, salacious, interruptive and disingenuine, abstraction is constructural, metaphysical, holistic and earnest. That they are assumed to never categorically meet, align, breach and destabilise each other is grounds enough for curator Andrew Atchinson's conceit. His curation queers the dour historicised correctness of inflamed 80s/90s crossover of activised art by embracing extant moments and imagining future possibilities artists can voice their concerns in unfitting ways.

I am not your go-to person to commend political art of any persuasion—especially that which deploys passive-aggressive manipulations of worthiness to silence lateral critical engagement. The spread of so-labelled 'AIDS-art' of the era was important in leveraging a political platform for social, legal and health reform, but like all political art, it neither follows nor should be mandated that the art produced under such conditions be exempt from solipsistic formalism or amoral interpretation.

"...(illegible)..." exploits historical distance to recoup a mode of queer which was effectively displaced at the time. It pumps fresh air into select artists and extends their breath to vivify acts of abstraction.

Through my reading of the works exhibited in "...(illegible)...", Scott Redford is a mute patron saint of queer abstraction. My first encounter with his mid-to-late-90s AZT projects was revelatory in their colliding of chemo-medical materiality with immaterial formalist installation. Their power resonates in this exhibition, represented here by four small red-and-white variations: unframed enamel, acrylic and AZT on board, three referencing social or formal instances of abstraction and one recalling a bodily constellation of AIDS-induced skin lesions. The sealing of AZT carries on the quiet terrorism of the series' larger scale seminal works by microscopically aerating Big (Slow) Pharma's saviour compound into our mouths and nostrils as we peer into their surfaces. Grandiosely titled Untitled, they reverse-echo Duchamp's sperm monotype (Paysage Fautif, 1946) and Warhol's oxidized copper-with-urine (over 80 canvases titled Oxidization between 1977 and 1978). But at the time they also echoed AIDS panic and the way (according to tabloid logic) that off-their-face gays embed contagious hypodermics in the sand at family beaches. Deeper—or rather at the compacted molecular surface level of internal politics—these clinically infected painted surfaces were strangely open windows onto the closeted world of art and culture run by gays in power. Scott's AZT works symbolically perform like a black light forensically shining on the invisible spent cum of 80s/90s gays covertly strategizing within corridors of power.

John Meade is not represented in "...(illegible)..." by his infamous wigs, but the great thing about Meade's work is that his wigs are always present. Meade thinks of wig as a verb, and in this sense is linguistically aligned with queer. His landmark refiguring of abstraction comes about by having a wig—in whatever size, shape or colour—signify the absence of the human figure. In a prescient mode of post-humanism, the wigs' ungainly blobs of tasselled artificial fibres portrayed people without depicting them, disallowing their faces and highlighting the uncanny presence of actively hiding. Again, Warhol casts his own shadow over this due to the best performance he ever delivered: wearing a wig so obviously that you didn't feel the absence of original hair.

Meade's works in "...(illegible)..." are part of his wide-ranging cryptic 'interior design' pieces, but I have always read these as background props for the wigs that aren't there. The mode of abstraction they employ is not neo-quasi-pseudo-postmodern furniture, but the evacuation of everything meaningful in the design and production of such upwardly mobile domestic trinkets (pick any store at a DFO complex for evidence of their spread). The real queer moment here arises from the included works' suggestiveness: Automatic (2011) which looks like the tip of a flaccid uncircumcised foreskin about to pop out, while Maquette for everyday devotional (2016) would not look out of place in the background of a homely stud on the Lurid Digs website. Both 'sculptures' pout like they're things, but erect themselves as images.

Occupying a central space in the small gallery was a pile of rubbish. Mathew Jones' complexly self-referential after Silence=Death 1991 (2019) performed queerly by taking it upon itself to reconstruct its own silencing as experienced by Mathew following the critical dismissal his "Silence=Death" exhibition at 200 Gertrude Street received in 1991. Atchinson's informative catalogue essay excavates this lost moment when Mathew's perceptive refusal to 'represent' the AIDS crisis on the one hand shot over the heads of journalistic readings of political art, and on the other hand demonstrated how strategies of 'nothingness' can still voice strong socio-political concerns.

The work installed for "...(illegible)..." involves a giant padded roll which seems to have steamrolled and crushed a stretched canvas. Art referencing spikes the work: superficially, Oldenburg faux-dynamics meets Cageian non-statement. At a deeper level, one can rout this de-installation to Rauschenberg's Bed (1955), which is like lazy art made by someone who couldn't be bothered getting out of bed to make an artistic statement. Mathew seems to detourn himself into a slacker who has dumped his load onto the laps of journalists who still expect all art to be socially relevant, personally empowering and — fuck it: I can't be bothered finishing the sentence. Zeitgeist curators love this stuff — and plenty of installation artists deliver it in flat-packs — but after Silence=Death 1991 is thankfully addressed elsewhere.

Personally, I want to end the review here by stating a problem. The problem is that with curated concept exhibitions—and this is a very good one—it is very hard for the viewer to sync to the weightings envisioned by the curator. The works by elders Redford, Meade and Jones speak strongest to me due to their past engagement and their continual pressing of queer energy into contemporary zones where perversity as a practice is increasingly not welcome. "...(illegible)..." ably resuscitates these concerns that have arguably always been at the core of each of their practices.

Atchinson's experimental extension of these operations to the other works seems more programmed than palpable. The contained mannerism of the late Paul McKenzie's small oil (Untitled, 1989) traps solemnity due to biographical circumstance; the dry linguistic redistribution of reproducible parameters in Fiona McDonald's One Million Dots (Resolved) (2012/19) articulates a confined referential field in relation to Robert Barry's original one-gag conceptual non-books; and Briony Galligan's architectural deconstruction of corporate revolving doors and a rotating disco ball (Opening Appearance, 2016/19) feels bad-flimsy compared to the good-flimsy of her other de-fabricated assemblages. Other viewers might better thread all works in this exhibition, but I feel these other works had a different kind of depth better serviced by attenuation to their specific agendas and interests.

Of course the problem with ending the review like this leaves me wide open to gender bias (which I take as being inescapable anyway) but it does lead to a larger problematic of how 'genderization' intersects with 'queerdom'. Regardless, I take "...(illegible)..." as a dare to consider not only the collisions between queer and abstraction, but also the gender declarations and subterfuge invoked by both practices, which in turn fold into each other in acts of mimicry and reversible. Did female artists approach the AIDs crisis differently from male artists? Or was everyone unified in materials, methods and means? And if they were or weren't, should they be the opposite or not? Furthermore, might the more productive difference be found in contrasting queer's performativity to abstraction's constructivity? "...(illegible)..." to my eye evidenced that performed (queered) abstraction leads one down paths away from abstracted (constructed) performance.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © John Meade.