Alex Vivian

Finding warmth in the pernicious world of advertising, Alex Vivian acts as a brain-stormer, composer and copywriter at Flake, Melbourne 

BY George Egerton-Warburton | 04 DEC 13 in Reviews

On 12 September, artist Adelle Mills posted on her Facebook profile: ‘@KateMeakin DID KATE MEAK NAME HER SMALL CUPBOARD GALLERY FLAKE? TOO FITTING, TOO FLAKE, A FLAKE AT THE SIDE.’ Set in an architectural afterthought at the back of her studio, Kate Meakin’s new gallery, Flake, is the latest instalment in an increasingly mythologised history of Melbourne’s artist-run spaces. New York-based writer Rob McKenzie recently wrote: ‘One particular leitmotif that I recognized as being essential to the history of Australian art was short bursts of extreme energy that never found a larger supportive economy that allowed it to survive.’ In this climate of transient micro-renaissance, Alex Vivian, whose solo show ‘To propose a petroleum jelly advertisement or campaign,’ inaugurated the new space, is a well-established name, having infamously presented 13 exhibitions in 2010 alone.

Vivian makes sculptures out of dirt, soiled clothing, and found and second-hand domestic materials prevalent in Australian Opportunity shops. On the internet and in magazines, he composes concrete poetry that sits somewhere between titles for artworks, storyboards for advertisements, and scripts for pungent fantasies that often end in “etc.” This premature end to the various storylines suggest that the artist or protagonist is at the point of lazy pleasure that would be frustrating to return from and impossible to continue articulating.

The text that prefaced the show was, as its title suggests, a description of an advertising campaign proposal. Frivolous and frolicsome, the brief describes a kind of Arcadian boardroom that includes Dalmatians, food, and ‘Thoughts […] passed about like a savoury plate at a busy party.’ It’s made clear that not all aspects will make the cut, with ideas being “discussed, changed around. Some even refused.” So the viewer is left to discern what is relevant or effective. All in a jovial tone though, such is the nature of the business.

Alex Vivian, Logo placement #1, 2013, mixed media. Courtesy: the artist and Flake, Melbourne

The exhibition consisted of a series of wall-based sculptures, Logo placement #1 and #2 (all works 2013); a small tableau, Vibrant Scene Suggestion #1; a Vaseline lathered ceramic sun, shining through the funk above the tableau; and evenly spread tufts of soft hair across every surface. The artist had brushed the tufts from the underbelly of a German Shepherd. Logo placement #1 and #2 were a series of kitsch wavy serving dishes that had been altered. Coated in domestic detritus, they each framed Vaseline stickers. Wetness, grooming, and posturing are insinuated by their materials, which included dog hair, men’s polar fleece jumper, dirt, hairspray, and glue. A sense of domestic trauma was further implied in the tableau, Vibrant Scene Suggestion #1. Here, two female dolls in ill-fitting, amateurishly made clothing sat comfortably surrounded by dog hair, white correctional fluid, and a toaster scattered with residual crumbs. The style and branding on the dolls’ outfits were clear signifiers of an aspirational lower socio-economic class with flourishes in the form of a big buckle and shady race-day hats. What might be a nasty scene is contradicted by jaunty colours, particularly in a wavy serving dish that is covered in a quilted array of striking cleaning cloths, and sitting coolly in a toaster. Style is symbiotic with filth in a scene that resembles a spread lifted from a Country Style magazine shoot at Grey Gardens.

Alex Vivian, Dalmatians run, play, 2013, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Flake, Melbourne

Dalmatians run, play, was another altered serving dish fixed to a gas pipe, low in the corner of the room. Opportunistically installed to mimic the curve of a pipe stemming from a join to its right, the various metal patinas set off the faux-Dalmatian fur that the dish was coated with. Effectively dressing up the white cube’s single functional blemish, a small, embossed arrow on the metal points to the sculpture, endorsing it. Formally this is well-charted territory. The dish-logos share the deliberate sense of colour, scale and shape that evokes drollness in Vincent Fecteau’s small architectures; the materials and installation are reminiscent of the precariously put-together scenes of Isa Genzken. With the recurring presence of a dog and Vaseline, the exhibition might bring to mind Diogenes, the original cynic infamous for his love of dogs and for masturbating in the agora. For Vivian, the marketplace is also a space of pleasure, but rather than making a cynical association between Vaseline and the idea of the art industry as mercantile circle-jerk, the work presents a joyous streamlining of the inevitable.

The show contains no explicitly sexual references, but an overriding sense of pleasure – or of pleasurable activity – is maintained throughout. Vaseline is represented as an aid in a process of self-actualization and transformation. It is ambiguous as to whether it is squeezed for its literal potential to alleviate discomfort or its metaphorical use-value as a lubricant in a difficult situation. With acute sculptural tone Vivian simulates its languid feeling with a series of eye soothing approximations. Finding warmth in the pernicious world of advertising, Vivian acts as a brain-stormer, composer and copywriter, drawing together cultural signifiers to let a narrative unfold in an infinitely expandable and collapsible boardroom suited to pleasurable dithering about ‘etc.’