Ques­tion­ing taste and privilege

Ray Edgar
The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2018

Stieg Pers­son reflects on his chang­ing approach­es in this mid-career sur­vey of his work.

In 1990 Stieg Pers­son pro­duced an ambi­tious 16-part rumi­na­tion on mor­tal­i­ty. Ethe­re­al and eerie, the series took its name from the sta­tions of sick­ness” of John Don­ne’s 1624 work Devo­tions Upon Emer­gent Occa­sions.

I want­ed a great epic,” says Pers­son, amid his 35-year sur­vey exhi­bi­tion Poly­phon­ic at The Pot­ter gallery. I want­ed to see if I could do that thing Renais­sance painters do, take some­thing like the life of St Ambrose or the 12 sta­tions [of the cross]. I used Donne as the struc­ture, which is about ill­ness and ques­tion­ing of faith.”

Stieg Perrson, His­to­ry Paint­ing (2006).

Pho­to: C.Capurro

Through­out the 80s Pers­son dis­played a predilec­tion for black­ness and dark sub­jects. But this was more than just youth­ful angst in post­punk Mel­bourne. Pers­son, 31 at the time, com­plet­ed the work as part of a four-month res­i­den­cy at the oncol­o­gy unit of Hei­del­berg Repa­tri­a­tion hos­pi­tal. Addi­tion­al­ly they rep­re­sent a poet­ic attempt to record the era’s great sickness.

This was ear­ly AIDS and it was a death sen­tence,” he recalls. Peo­ple were drop­ping like flies and no one knew why. It was a par­tic­u­lar­ly eerie time. [The series is] kind of plague paintings.”

One work, Paint­ing 1990, The king sends his own physi­cian, cap­tures the mood. It incor­po­rates text from a 17th-cen­tu­ry bill of mor­tal­i­ty (the week­ly tal­ly of peo­ple who had died from the plague), mak­ing the con­nec­tion to black death literal.

Death fills the Pot­ter gallery’s ground floor. Plumes of white vapour erupt from Sty­gian black can­vas­es. X‑rayed bones and van­i­tas skulls hov­er in the ether. It would be over­whelm­ing­ly grim if not for the dec­o­ra­tive arabesques that trans­mute the work from med­i­ta­tions on despair to a sug­ges­tion of inner peace through sen­su­al beau­ty. Among Persson’s most cel­e­brat­ed works, the plague paint­ings” con­clud­ed a dream run.

Dur­ing the ear­ly 1980s Pers­son was on a stel­lar tra­jec­to­ry,” says cura­tor Kel­ly Gel­lat­ly. At the age of 24 the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art acquired one of his works. He showed in high-pro­file inter­na­tion­al and Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions, such as Aus­tralian Per­spec­ta in 1985 and The Aus­tralian Bicen­ten­ni­al Per­spec­ta of 1988.”

Then, after find­ing beau­ty – and con­sid­er­able suc­cess – in death, Pers­son killed it off.

Stieg Persson’s The Fall (2004).

Pho­to: C.Capurro

I got sick of black paint­ings,” he says. I thought this is real­ly suc­cess­ful and I could prob­a­bly go on and make a real­ly good liv­ing out of this,’ but it would just bore me senseless.”

He even toyed with the idea of giv­ing away paint­ing altogether.

Stieg Persson’s Paint­ing 1993 Spring thaw, 1993, in pen­cil, oil and acrylic on cot­ton duck. Cour­tesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Pho­to: C.Capurro

I became cyn­i­cal with the whole scene,” he says. I need­ed to break the spell. I need­ed to try things that I knew would be dif­fi­cult for an audi­ence. That was the only way to progress the work. So I decid­ed to try and stuff it up.”

Pers­son cre­at­ed the vilest paint­ings he could. The bil­ious series of green and white exper­i­ments in col­lage and pat­tern includ­ed a sculp­ture of Manet’s syphilitic leg as its cen­tre­piece. I was try­ing to make hor­ri­ble things and make it work – how do you bal­ance and con­trol it?”

As expect­ed, the reac­tion was What the hell is this guy doing?,” he recalls.

Death and ill­ness might well be dif­fi­cult sub­jects, but ques­tion­ing good taste and priv­i­lege pre­oc­cu­pies Pers­son. How we die is one thing, but how we live might be the more bit­ter pill.

The exer­cis­ing of taste is one of the most poten­tial­ly shame­ful and expos­ing things the mid­dle class can do,” Pers­son told Art Col­lec­tor mag­a­zine in 2014. As it hap­pens, this anx­i­ety is at the very core of art and art collecting.”

One of the dis­cov­er­ies in this mid-career sur­vey is how ear­ly these itch­es are scratched. Cov­etous­ness (1983) fea­tures the Bib­li­cal com­mand­men­t’s less­er-known object of desire, thy neigh­bour’s don­key. Cir­cling the dole­ful, arcane ass are sil­hou­ettes of con­tem­po­rary mate­r­i­al obses­sions: boat, car, jet, cam­era, alco­hol. The sins of con­sump­tion and good taste” are lit­er­al­ly the sub­ject of his 2015 series, How We Live Now, in which Pers­son skew­ers the cult of food­ism. The pan­els could be wall sec­tions from a design­er café. Here Persson’s sil­hou­ettes are abstract heraldic” black chalk­boards adver­tis­ing menus and spe­cials. Each title gains its name from the ingre­di­ents that float around the can­vas. Instead of an obscure Bib­li­cal ref­er­ence, Pers­son lay­ers Poussins and Grapes (2015) with an art-his­tor­i­cal in-joke.

With­in the his­to­ry of paint­ing there are is an old Renais­sance quar­rel that dis­eg­no – draw­ing – is most impor­tant while oth­ers thought colour was more impor­tant. Draw­ing [advo­cates] were Poussin­ists’. One of the first books on paint­ing talked about Titian’s grapes. Instead of draw­ing each grape, he paints the bunch’. It’s a philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence, but it’s a painty’ one. It’s ridicu­lous­ly obscu­ran­tist, but it keeps me amused.”

In this archa­ic debate Persson’s pre­cise­ly han­dled imagery places him clos­er to the draw­ing camp. But his approach to pic­to­r­i­al space fol­lows the lib­er­a­tion of art after 1945.

I’ve always liked that idea of the pic­ture as a field on which some­thing hap­pens, rather than a depic­tion of some­thing,” he says. The fig­u­ra­tive ele­ments become punc­tu­a­tion points with­in that.”

Still lifes, van­i­tas sym­bols, Male­vich black squares and bizarre quo­tid­i­an items like email spam may fea­ture in Persson’s fields that range from rel­a­tive­ly min­i­mal­ist to high­ly lay­ered can­vas­es. That diver­si­ty of sub­jects explains the Poly­phon­ic title of the sur­vey. What unites the works is a keen sense of dec­o­ra­tion, an idea often at odds with avant-garde sensibilities.

The dec­o­ra­tive is a state­ment of hon­esty,” Pers­son argues. What does a paint­ing actu­al­ly func­tion­al­ly do? Dec­o­rate a room. We nev­er dis­cussed this [in art school]. Why were we hid­ing this? It’s an essen­tial part of the func­tion of what a paint­ing is.”

Where fil­i­grees and arabesques fea­ture in Persson’s ear­ly paint­ings, lat­er works update them with a street flour­ish, tag­ging. Against the icing-white back­grounds of the How We Live Now series, Pers­son incor­po­rates graf­fi­ti tags lift­ed direct­ly from his toney neigh­bour­hood. Paint­ing the tags gold aligns the work with the accou­trements of Roco­co rich­ness, accord­ing to Pers­son. It’s neo-lib­er­al self­ish­ness done by kids in Brighton,” he says derisively.

There’s always been a theme [in my work] to do with priv­i­lege,” says Pers­son. One of the things I find extra­or­di­nary is although there’s a rev­er­ence for the ascetic, we live in a hedo­nis­tic sphere. We’re all guilty of it. F – k I live in Brighton! Par­tic­u­lar­ly with the lat­ter work the visu­al exu­ber­ance of it is meant to reflect that hedo­nic world.”

The deca­dent spoils are evi­dent in the abject good taste of Frenched (2007), where the greedy smears of greasy lamb-chop bones are used to paint the canvas.

Under­stand­ing Persson’s antag­o­nism to priv­i­lege (and its abus­es) helps explain the odd­est work in his career, the Gothen­berg Cross­es (19967). Con­ceived dur­ing his first trip to his ances­tral Swe­den in the 1990s the series was inspired by Scan­di­na­vian Death Met­al bands.

I don’t want to be preachy or moralise,” says Pers­son, recall­ing the shock. But at the same time this was bizarre. Here’s the chil­dren of the social demo­c­ra­t­ic utopia, the wealth­i­est pop­u­la­tion on earth, who’ve been edu­cat­ed, had their health looked after – and they turned virulent.”

Indeed, not only did the bands espouse hatred and extreme neo-nation­al­ist views, the sub­ject of one paint­ing Unti­tled (199697), Varg Vikernes, was con­vict­ed of mur­der and accused of burn­ing churches.

Soci­ety’s ugly under­cur­rents are not all sub­cul­tur­al. Clos­er to home a state-sanc­tioned killing incurred Persson’s ire in what he con­sid­ers one of his most impor­tant pic­tures, His­to­ry Paint­ing (2006).

A small screwed-up news­pa­per floats over a field of colour and two cross­bones over the can­vas cen­tre. Close inspec­tion reveals a name, Nguyen. It’s a death notice.

[Caleb Nguyen] was the [Mel­bourne] kid who was exe­cut­ed in Sin­ga­pore [in 2005] for car­ry­ing drugs to bail his broth­er out of trou­ble,” Pers­son explains. I thought, no one will remem­ber that kid’. But I did. It still upsets me now.”

Giv­en the gen­uine emo­tion the inci­dent elic­its in Pers­son, why is the work so sub­tle? Why not trum­pet the anger in a tabloid painting?

That has always been with­in the sen­si­bil­i­ty of the work,” he says of his vel­vet glove” approach. It’s nev­er shouty’ because I want the aes­thet­ics of the work to take auton­o­my. I’d rather peo­ple just look and get some enjoy­ment before they start. Hope­ful­ly if I’m doing my job, they’ll piece togeth­er the ele­ments within.”

As Gel­lat­ly observes, Persson’s beau­ti­ful­ly pack­aged obser­va­tions are … at once accusato­ry and strange­ly seductive”.

Stieg Pers­son: Poly­phon­ic The Ian Pot­ter Muse­um of Art, Uni­ver­si­ty of Mel­bourne Until July 1; art​-muse​um​.unimelb​.edu​.au

Pho­to: Eddie Jim

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