31st August – 5th October 2013
Anna Schwartz Gallery
The exhibition ‘Strange Days’ grafts symbols of 1970s idealism onto the strategies of contemporary Occupy protests and local environmental activists. Riffing on her earlier ‘bleached’ cast sculptural works, and her hyper-realistic portrait-based paintings, Nelson’s new works continue to vibrate with the energy of the real, and oscillate between the vulnerability and the defiance of the young. Charged with the culture of youth across decades, some titles reference music, ‘Strange Days’ coming from the 1967 album by The Doors.
The three works that make up the exhibition are each 1:1 cast replicas of objects from real life, specifically from the artist’s own experience. Defiance renders a water barrier, meticulously detailed in shape and surface but devoid of any colour other than that of the cast. The object is lifted from the Occupy Melbourne protest in Melbourne’s City Square in 2011, when on the 21st October the protests peaked when the camp was barricaded by police using water barriers and cyclone fencing. Within the circle of linked barriers, one lone barrier sat abandoned inside the camp. The solitary unit, useless without its connection to its fellow barriers, is a potent symbol of how power is only achieved when individuals join together This image was galvanised for Nelson as a symbol of defiance when a single graffitied tag appeared. In ‘Strange Days’, this irreverent gesture is reconstructed with artist Sirum 1, whose Venom tag is applied to Nelson’s Defiance as a reiteration of the act of reclamation.
The tag also constitutes a step between painting and sculpture, an ongoing relationship in the work of Jan Nelson. Photography is also part of her process and it is between these three possible forms that Nelson develops, extends and re-forms ideas. Her painted works are intensely rich in hyper-realistic colour and detail but are painted to be slickly surfaced and flat; her sculptures take in every tiny pore of their object’s surface but eschew any naturalistic colour. In each mode, real objects are re-presented so that a new way of seeing is possible.
Defiance and resistance permeate Break On Through (To The Other Side), an installation of colourless objects on a dazzling yellow base. Responding to tree-sitting environmental activists, particularly Miranda Gibson (who lived in tree tops for over twelve months in her endeavour to save the Tarkine forests) Nelson has cast the remaining fragments of wood from logging coups along with tree-sitters’ necessities: ropes, packs and bedrolls amongst shards of timber. These objects equivocate between apparent realness and falsity. They are clearly manufactured, but they vibrate with optical energy; against the flare of the yellow ground they appear to move. The painted ground, like the space of the water barrier, demarcates a zone where defiance has agency and potency, beyond physical vulnerability.
The question of the individual is personified in Strange Days, Nelson’s intricately painted figure. Here, she draws on the strategies of costuming that render her painted portraits so tense and chronologically unsettling: a young woman is clothed in signs of youth and protest that might be contemporary, but could also be of her parents’ generation. The sneakers and patches come from the counterculture of the artist’s own youth, while other of her ‘props’ — the piercings, a hoodie — are more recent badges of disaffection. Here, as in Nelson’s paintings, the adolescent shuns our gaze, refusing eye contact but wearing her opinions, both received and self-generated, on her sleeve.
This figure, at once particular and generic, describes the process by which an individual voice is developed. Through obsessively observed form or saturated colour, Nelson’s works balance on points of emotional, textural and chromatic intensity, oscillating between fear and power, complacency and dissent.