‘Like Mike’ was a series of five exhibitions curated by Geoff Newton (director of Neon Parc) that paid homage to Mike Brown, an Australian artist who emerged in Sydney in the early 1960s and continued producing work until his death in 1997. (The shows coincided with a retrospective of Brown’s work at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, titled ‘The Sometimes Chaotic World of Mike Brown’, which runs until 13 October.) The exhibitions brought together work by contemporary artists who have either been influenced by Brown or are working in a similar mode – which is to say that they somehow engage with collage, assemblage or installation, images of pornography, an eclectic approach to painting or political agitation. Newton clearly detects in the singular figure of Brown an important precursor to key concerns in contemporary Australian art. As such, the exhibitions – a roll-call of 37 prominent, mostly Melbourne-based artists – read as offering a biennial-like statement on local trends through a reappraisal of Brown’s historical significance.
Brown’s approach to painting – which spanned Henri Rousseau-like naïve landscapes to hard-edge abstraction – was reflected by contemporary artists who employ a conceptual and often ironic approach to painting. These tendencies were exemplified by works such as Lisa Radford’s bright, delicate abstraction, Furniture Painting (Brooklyn) (2012) – from a series of transpositions of bus-and-train-seat fabrics designed by city councils to deter graffiti into acrylic-on-plywood paintings. Julia Gorman’s installation Moroccan Style Wall Drawing in Pink (2013) at Utopian Slumps gallery – colourful strips of vinyl stuck to the walls that unfurled in ribbon-like loops up onto the ceiling – drew an arc between Brown’s tendency to make site-specific paintings and collages, and the manner by which much contemporary painting has abandoned the canvas in favour of the spatial environment.
Collage, however, was the operative logic that held the ‘Like Mike’ exhibitions together. Damiano Bertoli, a student of Brown’s in the 1980s, is an artist whose practice pivots around theories of collage and the 1960s – particularly the countercultural projects of that decade which drove so much of Brown’s work. Bertoli showed a series of six black and white collages that brought together an imaginary cast of figures and art-historical objects to populate the stage of a play written by Picasso in Paris in 1941 titled Le Désir Attrapé par la Queue (Desire Caught by the Tail), but never properly performed due to the German occupation. In Bertoli’s series ‘Le Désir … Rehearsal’ (2013) at Charles Nodrum Gallery, the play was refracted through the prism of collage as a means for connecting the dyssynchronous: photographs of stacked canvases in Picasso’s Paris studio in the 1940s; images from happenings in New York in the 1960s; and documentation from Bertoli’s own exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney in 2011 and 2012 are brought together on the same pictorial plane.
That the ‘Like Mike’ exhibitions functioned as more than a straightforward tribute to Brown, however, was evident by the inclusion of artists who are critical of his work. Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s Untitled collage from their 2007 series ‘Social Economy’, shown at Neon Parc, rebuked Brown’s ostensibly uncritical use of images of heterosexual porn as just another readymade material in works such as Pussy Galore (1979–86). At the centre of Burchill and McCamley’s collage is a mirrored image of a female statuette whose eyes, neck and breasts are bound by buckled black leather harnesses. Flanking the figure are excerpts from an anonymous text that compares the ‘look and feel’ of an AK47, explicitly likening the gun with women’s breasts (‘Who cares what they’re made of if they look and feel good, right?’).
Paul Yore’s installation functioned in a similarly deconstructive manner. Everything is Fucked (2013), shown at Linden Centre for Contemporary Art, is a type of cubby house, whose every surface is cluttered – with toy dolls rearranged to appear engaged in anal sex, colourful beads, dildos, spinning records, rotating objects, flashing lights, silver foil, Justin Bieber posters, children’s musical instruments and hand-painted signs – with a vast network of allusions to queer identity across and between everyday objects. A local councillor took issue with a collage that depicts children’s faces stuck onto pornographic adult bodies; this resulted in a police raid, confiscation of the offending materials, and the unexplained closure of Linden for a week. A media campaign circulated the threat that Yore faced up to ten years’ imprisonment – thus rendering Yore, as many commentators have noted, even more ‘like Mike’, the only artist in Australian history to have been successfully prosecuted for obscenity, in 1966–7. In this way, the hysterical reaction to Yore’s installation also completed it: by drawing to the surface the covert paranoia and overt parochialism of the culture from which Everything is Fucked gleaned its many parts.