Hard Feel­ings’ at the Hon­ey­moon Suite

Anna Parlane
The Memo Review
When The Hon­ey­moon Suite opened in 2016, it was with Rose Coloured Glass, an exhi­bi­tion of work by four artist cou­ples that flir­ta­tious­ly invit­ed view­ers to guess who was dat­ing whom. Rose Coloured Glass won­dered: can romance blos­som from a shared pas­sion for abstrac­tion? Or vice ver­sa? The Hon­ey­moon Suite was estab­lished as a plat­form to bring emerg­ing and estab­lished artists togeth­er, and the fris­son of inti­ma­cy has remained part of its pro­gram. From the bod­i­ly and mate­r­i­al explo­rations of artists like Mar­i­an Tubbs and Kate New­by, to the inter­twined col­lab­o­ra­tions of Isado­ra Vaugh­an’s Recal­ci­trant Bod­ies, 2017, or the dry humour of Jessie Bul­li­van­t’s Guin­ness World Records-style cer­tifi­cate Cold­est Feet (Liv­ing), 2017, it has con­sis­tent­ly shown works that explore inti­ma­cy in both human rela­tion­ships and art prac­tice. Hard Feel­ings, curat­ed by Ser­e­na Bent­ley, declares the hon­ey­moon defin­i­tive­ly over. In the Suit­e’s final exhi­bi­tion before it clos­es in June, unrea­son­able, con­tra­dic­to­ry and some­times ugly feel­ings — petu­lance, resent­ment, brava­do, bore­dom, jeal­ousy — have risen to the sur­face. Sar­cas­tic com­ments and escapist day­dreams are erod­ing the rosy glow of those new begin­nings. Bent­ley’s line-up assem­bles New Zealand and Aus­tralian artists who, in her words, aren’t afraid to get per­son­al.” Works by estab­lished spe­cial­ists in emo­tion­al hon­esty Jen­ny Wat­son and Anas­ta­sia Klose are jux­ta­posed with those of younger artists Kather­ine Bot­ten, Natasha Mati­la-Smith and Rea Bur­ton, rare ear­ly paint­ings by Sask­ia Leek and two works by Kay­lene Whiskey who recent­ly came to promi­nence as win­ner of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 2018 Sul­man Prize. The exhi­bi­tion piv­ots around the fig­ure of the strong woman with strong emo­tions, and leans heav­i­ly towards fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings and draw­ings with an anguished or con­fes­sion­al tone. The self-con­scious, and often self-dep­re­cat­ing, diaris­tic rev­e­la­tion is a well estab­lished and famil­iar fem­i­nist trope. For me, the most inter­est­ing aspect of Bent­ley’s exhi­bi­tion is the degree to which the works use this for­mu­la to express some­thing slight­ly unhinged and less eas­i­ly cat­e­goris­able. The grand dame of punk-influ­enced fem­i­nist con­fes­sion­al prac­tice, Jen­ny Wat­son, is clear­ly the matri­arch of this exhi­bi­tion. The admi­ra­tion of strong women is a cura­to­r­i­al theme (and also, I sus­pect, a cura­to­r­i­al method­ol­o­gy) and Bent­ley has cho­sen to include Wat­son’s paint­ing of screen idol Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor instead of one of her bet­ter-known auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal works. Wat­son’s Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor in But­ter­field 8’ on But­ter­cup Yel­low, 2011, revis­its Tay­lor’s role as a promis­cu­ous socialite in the 1960 film But­ter­field 8. Tay­lor report­ed­ly hat­ed the film, regard­ing the script as near-porno­graph­ic,” but appeared in it to ful­fil her con­trac­tu­al oblig­a­tions to MGM Stu­dios. Tay­lor’s frus­tra­tion coloured her per­for­mance of a char­ac­ter who was also trapped in the role of a sex object by a patri­ar­chal social struc­ture that cel­e­brat­ed female sex­u­al allure while being unable to tol­er­ate female agency. Wat­son’s paint­ing, in which Tay­lor’s nég­ligée-clad fig­ure appears behind a veil of sheer organ­za, cap­tures a com­plex facial expres­sion which sits some­where between des­o­la­tion, scep­ti­cism and sim­mer­ing rage. Hard Feel­ings does indulge in emo­tive mono­logu­ing. The morose, anx­ious cat depict­ed in Anas­ta­sia Klose’s draw­ing Bun­ny Boil­er, 2012, loads on the guilt: Why don’t you call me any­more? I know you have heaps of shit on, but so?” The texts on Natasha Mati­la-Smith’s satin wall-hang­ings also nar­rate roman­tic dys­func­tion and tur­moil. How­ev­er, as Wat­son’s paint­ing sig­nals, there is more to Hard Feel­ings than melo­dra­ma. At its best, the exhi­bi­tion offers raw, tight­ly wound expres­sions of intense and com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings. Bent­ley’s cura­to­r­i­al focus cen­tres on the inter­ac­tion between female agency and emo­tion­al inten­si­ty, it is not sim­ply, or even, a plat­form for purg­ing. This is reflect­ed in the fact that almost all of the works are phys­i­cal­ly dis­crete, wall-hung paint­ings and draw­ings. The only work that is not wall-based is Mati­la-Smith’s Life is Hard With­out You Near Me, 2018, a con­tin­u­al­ly replen­ished sup­ply of fresh flow­ers that the artist invites view­ers to posi­tion in the exhi­bi­tion. The grad­u­al­ly wilt­ing blooms endow the gallery with the trag­ic air of a DIY road­side memo­r­i­al to an acci­dent vic­tim, but as a whole this work feels sup­ple­men­tary to the exhi­bi­tion’s main focus. Rea Bur­ton, deploy­ing my dreams in a sen­si­ble way, 2018, mixed media. Cour­tesy the artist and Ivan Antho­ny, Auck­land. Pho­to: André Piguet. The most inter­est­ing works in the show are those that are the least marked by artis­tic fash­ion. Emer­gent Auck­land tal­ent Rea Bur­ton’s works do a deep dive into some com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings, sur­fac­ing with sur­re­al and grotesque sub­ject mat­ter that is con­veyed with unapolo­getic inten­si­ty. Bur­ton’s deploy­ing my dreams in a sen­si­ble way, 2018, is far from sen­si­ble. A mad, altar-like assem­blage which draws on an Art Brut aes­thet­ic, it evokes a dream state or out-of-body expe­ri­ence. Even more than her inten­tion­al­ly provoca­tive paint­ing mum­my loves you, 2018, in which a human pyra­mid of high­ly sex­u­alised god­dess fig­ures lac­tate copi­ous­ly into a giant rain­bow-coloured bowl, deploy­ing my dreams has a sav­age, uncom­pro­mis­ing qual­i­ty. It is also a plea­sure to see ear­ly works by estab­lished New Zealand painter Sask­ia Leek. Bent­ley has dug out a num­ber of her grunge-inflect­ed and nar­ra­tive-ori­ent­ed paint­ings of the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s. Works like Rot, 2004, demon­strate that the punch and humour of Leek’s prac­tice comes from her long-stand­ing inter­est in found, kitsch and low-grade imagery. While Leek’s paint­ings have nev­er been as pur­pose­ful­ly provoca­tive as Bur­ton’s — their idio­syn­crasy tends to be charm­ing rather than dis­com­fort­ing — both artist’s works are dis­tin­guished by their com­mit­ment to a sin­gu­lar and eccen­tric point of view. Kay­lene Whiskey, Cher and the Water Snake, 2017, acrylic on linen. Cour­tesy of Sims Dick­son Col­lec­tion, NSW. Pho­to: André Piguet. Like Wat­son’s paint­ing of Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor, Kay­lene Whiskey’s works adopt a fan girl stance to depict naive­ly ren­dered pop icons. In the par­al­lel uni­verse of Whiskey’s work, Cher, Katy Per­ry and a col­lec­tion of music-video par­ty girls hang out in the local set­ting of the artist’s home of Indulka­na, South Aus­tralia. In this par­ty atmos­phere, roller-skates, Diet Coke, thigh-high boots and short shorts min­gle seam­less­ly with mingkul­pa chew­ing tobac­co and local wildlife, while a quan­dong fruit tree is watered by a benev­o­lent water snake spir­it coiled amongst the clouds in the sky. Whiskey’s pan­theon of deities cen­tres on Cher, whose pow­er pose and shiny high-heeled boots reveal her to be the aspi­ra­tional pin­na­cle of female strength. Kather­ine Bot­ten’s video Depres­sion Cher­ry, 2017, stands as a dark inver­sion of Whiskey’s upbeat pas­sion for her role mod­els. A mon­tage of footage and images har­vest­ed from the inter­net, Depres­sion Cher­ry cen­tres on a video mono­logue uploaded by a man who — hav­ing endured all 8:34 min­utes of his reflec­tions on home­less­ness, suc­cess and goal-set­ting — I can con­fi­dent­ly say is the worst per­son in the world. Bot­ten has spliced this aspir­ing moti­va­tion­al speak­er’s com­ments togeth­er with images of lux­u­ry real estate, art­works, fash­ion mag­a­zine spreads and pre­scrip­tion med­ica­tion. The work is a bru­tal stream of con­scious­ness in which (anti-) aspi­ra­tional fig­ures appear, as in Whiskey’s paint­ings, along­side the minu­ti­ae of the artist’s life. Hav­ing plumbed emo­tion­al depths, the strongest works in Hard Feel­ings suc­ceed in releas­ing some­thing inchoate and slight­ly unhinged. This is most clear in the com­plex expres­sion Jen­ny Wat­son cap­tured on Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor’s face, but it’s also evi­dent in Kay­lene Whiskey’s unwa­ver­ing pas­sion for Cher, and in Kather­ine Bot­ten and Rea Bur­ton’s raw aggres­sion. These feel­ings are hard because they are strong — but also because they are com­pli­cat­ed and dif­fi­cult to express or make sense of. The effort to do so could be described in terms of a fem­i­nist method­ol­o­gy, but it could also be seen more broad­ly as an eth­i­cal stance, an attempt at hon­esty and integri­ty. The hon­ey­moon may be over, but break-up is not nec­es­sar­i­ly on the cards: it might just be time for a real­i­ty check. Fea­tured image: Jen­ny Wat­son, Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor in But­ter­field 8’ on But­ter­cup Yel­low, 2011, Liq­ui­tex acrylic on silk, organ­za over­lay, shan­tung bow. Pho­to: Andre Piguet. Arti­cle link: here
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