Tuesday, May 17, 2011

eX de Medici

eX de Medici's exhibition titled Need Head  is a disturbing exhibition that left me frustrated with its ambiguity and opacity. It is currently on at Sydney's relocated Sullivan and Strumpf gallery in Zetland.

The title of the exhibition Need Head is detailed with a graphic of a small headless man. The exhibition features a series of  military helmets. Each is embellished with its own military idiosyncrasy, the character of the upturned Japanese helmet is distinct from the pert Standard Adrian Model 1915 Horizon Blue Infantry from France, for example. Collectively the series has significant gravitas. The majority of the helmets depicted have been worn in current and recent conflicts. The older WW1 French Infantry helmet is an exception; yet little has really changed over the decades. A soldier's 'brain bucket' is still basically that, an ugly yet crude protection that contrasts sharply with the technological obsession of the military-industrial complex.

#9 Standard Adrian Model
1915 Horizon Blue Infantry
France (Nick Fletcher Collection) WW1, 2010
Image Courtesy of Sullivan and Strumpf

Yet the title Need Head seems to refer to more than a line -up of helmets without soldiers, eerily melancholy and abandoned. A small speckle of gold paint and gold leaf embellish each painting, a sparkle of grandeur, a  frisson of some significance. Need Head has a sexual allusion and it is this double entendre that  hints at the duplicity inherent in each of eX medici's depictions that I found puzzling. When seen collectively the helmet line-up is either the deification of military apparatus, specked with gold, sanitised, unbloodied and utterly de-contextualised. Are we seduced or disgusted?

 #13 Australia/Afghanistan, Douglas Stuart collection
Special Forces 2010

eX paints beautifully, wielding watercolour with caution and unparalleled control. The centrality of each helmet, the sheen, shadow, exactness of detail afford these ugly, brutal military headgear a regal honouring. Detached and disembodied, it is of no significance if the owner of the helmet is now dead or alive - brutalised in Afghanistan, or toiling in Iraq. There is no context, no comment. Does this absence, this void, result in a collusion with power or critique?

We live in such a conservative era, snuggled up to some of the biggest war mongers of all time. There is scant artistic critique of why Australia is deployed in  numerous conflicts alongside the US. eX de Medici, like Wendy Sharpe, have worked as official Australian war artists (de Medici was stationed in the Solomons) and yet one wonders if these official collaborations are the artistic equivalent of the media being "embedded'' with the army. In a time when  independent, anti war critique is often viewed as unpatriotic, it strikes me as 'more of the same' to have art failing to not clearly have a position, however aesthetic the work is.

Australia. Boarding Helmet
Tampa (war on refugees 2000) 2010
Image courtesy of Sullivan and Strumpf

eX has often painted violent imagery and her artistic persona, cultivated and guarded, is of a person who is a subversive, fascinated by power, violence and authority. She chose to embark on a long career as a tattooist as a reaction to the conservatism of the Australian art scene (and at the time the pay was better). She grew up in the punk scene in Canberra. I guess if you're not from Canberra, a punk scene there is hard to imagine, amongst all that ordered Walter Burley Griffin layout and deciduous trees, but a punk scene there was, and it was hard core and notorious.

During the John Howard era Australia's politics lurched to the right and de Medici's work was fueled by the anger she felt towards Howard's conservative, right wing policies, domestic and foreign. Her work was often loaded with references and ideas, they packed a punch and they were unequivocal, always beautifully composed and technically enthralling. As the Howard era dragged on, de Medici changed strategy. She wanted to paint the symbols of war and violence, the guns, grenades and helmets, in such a loving, meticulous and beautiful manner that the images would appeal to the putative right wing, as well as to her established followers. According to this tactic the subversive intent would lurk behind the beautiful detail and smack the viewer (Liberal or worse) between the eyes.

Bearing her strategy in mind I studied the monumental centerpiece of this exhibition, Cure for Pain, 2010. Stretching 415cm across, this vast water colour tableau views like an exquisite Persian tapestry except it features a plethora of abandoned military helmets and gas masks strewn across the boundary of a rapacious jungle of flowers. A riot of flowers abloom in this killing field accompanied by a Prussian eagle, wearing its 1947 Victoria Cross, and pigeons from around the world (German, French,Japanese and Iranian). A number of mechanical birds, perhaps referencing the ''twitter revolutions" active in the Middle East peck about a treasure trove of guns, grenades, bullets, belts and leather sheaves. The flowers depicted vary from the Australian wattle, the Japanese chrysanthemum, the Flanders poppy sold in Australia to commemorate the fallen and the Opium poppy.

Cure for Pain 2010 (114cm x 415cm), Image Courtesy of Sullivan and Strumpf

This tableau alludes to the internationalisation of conflict, the involvement of Australia (many of the helmets are Australian) with the conflicts of other nations (keep in mind that we have now had a Labor government for years and our foreign policies are as hawkish as ever). Behind this morass of military hardware, the vast unbridled narcotic poppy thrives.  The contrast between the fecund decorative flowers and the helmets and military paraphernalia is subtle. Both are beautified, decorative and seductive. Compared with de Medici's earlier work, Skinny Day Ambush (Super Family), 2007, where the pile up of skulls is menacing and horrific, this painting is just exquisitely beautiful. There is no sense of the horror of war, there is no visceral anti-war undercurrent. It is aesthetically sumptuous and delicately nuanced with soft politic but I fail to be moved. The flowers embellish and camouflage, colluding with the birds to celebrate the military regalia. There are no grotesque colours, nauseating and intense. The helmets shine resplendently and the composition is perfect.

Skinny Day Ambush (Super Family), 2007
My personal discomfort with this deification of war was reinforced by reading the cumbersome, painful essay written by Dr Jenny McFarlane, for the exhibition brochure. I haven't read anything as patently obfuscated as this for years (a gentleman in the gallery snorted derisively whilst trying to work through it as well), and ripe for a send-up. It was just hopeless. It read, '...this feast for the eyes leads us into a baffling oscillation of meaning. Deeper and deeper we sink into the madness of received military logic',  and '..the viewer struggles under the weight of images and the attempt to compute such an overload of material, the computation is impossible. there are no easy answers'' . Finally the confused writer concedes, '... one possible effect of this loss of logical outcomes is vertigo and nausea', and on and on it went. Clearly I'm not the only fan struggling to comprehend where de Medici is heading.

The only vertiginous quality here has been the stratospheric rise in the prices now sought for eX Medici's work. The "Cure for Pain' was listed at $220,000 and it has now sold and the smaller helmet paintings for $8,800. Not surprisingly many of the buyers are male. Her work is increasingly popular and she has a strong cult following. I too have been a keen follower of her work for many years. Her paintings are technically extraordinary.Yet I left that exhibition perplexed, and its impact was profoundly frustrating. I imagined what I would have thought of it all if I'd never seen her work before, if I loved military regalia and spend my free time perusing war memorabilia. Yes, I would have loved it. However, I  like my anti-war art straight up and uncompromising.  Earlier eX de Medici work resonated strongly with me; no sleeping with the enemy, a clear moral compass on view. Cure for Pain, as the center piece of this exhibition, reflects the artist's ambivalence and opacity towards the symbols of power and military might. Need Head needs exactly that, it needs people, heads, physicality, the contextualisation of war as it really is, with bloody visceral honesty.

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