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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Emotional distance, ethical objectivity

James Lynch: Always in our thoughts
Michael Lett
5 August – 5 September 2009

Melbourne artist James Lynch’s paintings are conceptual works that play with historical narrative and community protest by illustrating the contents of the daily news by placing it in an imaginary doll’s house or child’s mini-theatre. In these sets cardboard cutouts of pickets are the main props.

The work begins with the artist making such props which he then arranges in a large room and photographs. Those photographs are used to make the oil paintings.

The work is extremely ambiguous with its use of mental distance and avoidance of empathy with the political content. It is really about conflict and not about specific issues, though some might see it as ‘progressive’ – as a collection of images motivated by a desire for unspecific political change. Others might see it as a form of black (or sick) humour, looking at the social conflict that continually surrounds us and using that anger as a suitable provider of decorative images to sweeten up our lounges. A disturbingly cynical interpretation.

Not only does Lynch play with emotional distance by rendering angry people (and the various Australian Prime Ministers who are the objects of their scorn) as cardboard cut-outs, but the way he paints these props onto the final picture-plane of each canvas is peculiar. The edges of each fragment are raised, as if they are from pieces of glued-on collaged canvas – which they are not. He seems to be making jokes about unity of surface as well as the notion of cohesion between the props themselves and their possibly disparate source material.

These works then are the opposite of ‘protest paintings’. They observe the conflict coolly through several strategically placed filters – without urging you to participate or get too involved, or without actually opposing the contested ideas either. They remind me of some of the notions of the British ethics philosopher Bernard Williams who argues against the views of Kant or Utilitarianism, saying that you cannot objectively determine the answers to moral dilemmas, that it is impossible to find resolved positions that can consistently be normative. Lynch’s art, like Williams’ writing, seems to take a pessimistic position on ethical debate and watches ideological clashes from afar, going right against the prevalent politically-driven tendencies of the contemporary art world.

Lynch also has sculptures. Some of these are highly entertaining. One is a wardrobe painted in camouflage colours, perhaps for storing military fashion apparel or to disguise a fashionista mindset. Another is a burnt chair that might be a design object, a chic furniture item cynically nodding to ‘the Revolution’, the world in turmoil far beyond the owner’s hypothetical grilled gates, surveillance cameras and security guards.

There are three chairs in the show in total, symbols that collectively stand for the artist’s ambivalent self perhaps, an embracing of no movement, of stasis - a trope for calculated inaction. Maybe they mean a sitting-on of hands. They seem to work as clever extensions of the paintings, sculptural props that enrich the show - taking the 2D content to another level.

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