Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Grotesquerie fused with caricature

Robert McLeod: Great Moments in the History of Painting
Bath St
5 November - 29 November 2008

Robert McLeod is well known for his skills as a skilled colourist and inventor of bizarre hybrid forms. In this spectacular mural/installation, he has carefully constructed a sequence of cut-out and painted plywood forms, and pencil-over-oil-on-cardboard drawings, leaning them on or screwing them into the four walls in a linear progression like musical notation. The resulting long configuration is like a parade of clusters of human bodies, and punctuating single units. Within it is a variety of intriguing image types, ranging from Elizabeth Murray style, cartoon-based, flat abstraction, to satirical caricature in the style of Bryan Dew. These juxtaposed or overlapping negative and silhouetted forms constantly provide surprises for attentive viewers as they trek the edges of Bath Street’s large L-shaped space.

Most of the satire mixes Mickey-Mouse heads with leering and groping old men, hairless but coy naked babes and urinating dogs, all linked to splattered plywood shadows on the floor and spasmodic references to McLeod’s own painting process.

Portions of these different body types are recombined to create new morphological surprises like in a Picasso drawing, and it is this playful aspect (improvisation for its own sake, and not to defame) that takes much of McLeod’s imagery away from satire into the realm of the grotesque. The hybrid body forms are deliberately ugly. They reject elegance, being histrionic, heavy-handed in their condemnatory tone and repulsively deformed. The show is a celebration of the misshapen. Yet within these angular, elongated and lumpy inter-tangled body parts, McLeod shows his skills as a colourist. His palette can be delicate and nuanced, even when mischievously placed alongside stickily dripping hues that are abrasive and strident.

The relationship between the grotesque and caricature is a fascinating one. Robert Storr discusses it at great length in his catalogue for the 2004 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, as does Mike Kelley in the ‘Foul Perfection’ essay that he wrote for artforum in 1989. Kelley sets up an argument placing the tradition of ornamental painted motifs discovered in the late fifteenth century in the subterraean ruins of Neronian Rome, in opposition to Adolf Loos' famous anti-ornament, modernist diatribe where decoration is perceived as immoral. Though ‘grotesque’ is often synonymous with ‘ugly’, and applied to works like that of Quintin Massys the earlier mentioned sense of a playful shuffling of facial or bodily components is more useful, particularly when the purpose is to surprise the viewer rather than to malign any subject.

It is interesting to see McLeod do both, for on occasions he does occupy a moral high ground attacking lust, vanity and human stupidity in general - and he is corny in his attacks on lecherous (rich?) old men preying on defenceless bimbos. Yet this work is very different from any fingerwagging lecture, and initially not easy to like visually. Like the works of say, Peter Saul or Ashley Bickerton, these images are not décor, but will dominate any room and any visitor’s mind with their lack of repetition, subtly placed colour and inventively shaped construction.

No comments: