Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK
The use of appropriation in painting has led to some of the least engaged, market-fuelled art of the last 20 years. Thankfully, a recent generation of painters has taken the exploration of code beyond the first ‘oh-look-at-the-incongruity’ generation of Salle and Schnabel. One example is Gordon Bennett, one of Australia’s most uncompromising (and successful) political artists.
Looking at one of Bennett’s recent large paintings Home Decor (Algebra) Ocean (1998), the initial response is a familiar post-Modern pleasure of identifying art quotes. A Basquiat head, a Guston Klansman, a Lichtenstein mirror, a Reinhardt cruciform, some Pollock drips and Aboriginal dots are enmeshed in an overall pattern borrowed from a mix of Mondrian’s late ‘Broadway Boogie-Woogie’ style and his transitional cross-hatched works circa 1928. Bennett’s Mondrian grid also imprisons a pair of 70s flying ducks, a large Noah looming over a children’s book Ark, and the heads and feet of derogatory cartoon ‘coons’. Other little racist vignettes include a Guston KKK hood terrorising a Basquiat-man (whose T-shirt sports the Aboriginal flag), Captain Cook ‘discovering’ Australia, and one of Basquiat’s satirically primitivist ‘savages’ reflected in a Lichtenstein mirrors. One small advent calendar window depicts a naked black baby, drawn like an alien, being breast fed by a story book white saint with a yellow halo, no doubt illustrating the shockingly recent government policy of taking Aboriginal children away from their parents and placing them in Christian missions - which is what happened to the artist’s mother.
The ‘Algebra’ of the work’s title can be cross-related to a companion painting, Daddy’s Little Girl (1998), which has the letters A, B and C floating like primary linguistic building blocks on the picture plane in red, yellow and blue. This analogy is made explicit in a little off-centre inset 50s-style illustration of a small white girl playing with wooden blocks, watched by her father. The girl spells out ‘abo’, ‘boong’, ‘coon’ and ‘darkie’ with her blocks. Behind the girl, a couple of black devils, like those found in images of Hell in Medieval paintings, saw the body of a white woman in half. Higher up and on the left, Captain Cook, painted in Aboriginal dots, looks on, his mind’s eye focused on the small head of a ‘noble savage’ boxed in by a perspectival cube - a recurring Bennett motif. Again, cartoon-like ‘savages’, not unlike the devils, dance in the boogie-woogie grid. The ‘Home Decor’ paintings infer that racism is a mindset that begins at home, from the very moment of language acquisition, and is as ordinary and ambient as wallpaper.
Bennett was brought up like an average white Australian, kept in ignorance of his Aboriginal heritage. Exposed to casual racism in his eleven years working for Telecom, his decision to make art was inseparable from his struggle to recover his lost identity. As a result, his work is often heart-stoppingly sad. Some of Bennett’s more narrative-based works (often the jewel-like watercolours), tell the history lessons he wasn’t taught at school, in a style reminiscent of the Italian ‘primitives’. Mutilated saints are replaced with the bleeding, naked bodies of Aboriginal victims of boozy white settlers in works whose delicate aesthetic, like early religious painting, belies the horror of the incident. As for anger, there’s not a sight more coolly gruesome than Bennett’s transformation of Pollock’s drip into whiplashed, scarred skin. But at their most optimistic and liberating, the Ab-Ex whiplashes and colonial newspaper illustrations Bennett often appropriates the look of, begin to give way to patterns derived from tradition Aboriginal painting.
If Bennett’s work sometimes appears didactic, it is because the act of making it is part of a learning process - as all sincere art should be. This auto-didacticism interweaves Aboriginal culture, Western art and Australia’s colonial history in such a way as to create complex new relationships out of old repressive binaries.