It seemed appropriate that the gallerist was buffing the super-reflective custom spray-painted surfaces of Patricia Piccinini's latest work when I made my visit. For the spot-lit sculptural objects dispersed around the gallery floor in 'One Night Love' look like oversized mutant bumper cars, naked in a showroom. And their automotive sheen is crucial, both seducing and deflecting the gaze. Indeed, these smoothly rounded chunks of multi-coloured fibreglass, dubbed 'car nuggets', are miraculous fetish objects.
Each 'nugget' resembles the morphed vestiges of a small car, but with overlapping contours that hover at the point of recognition (a large bolt-head emerges with other organic shapes, such as fish gills and human curves). Forget post-Fordism, here the process of computer modelling has produced seamless forms that appear as fleshy phantasmagorical projections. Like Piccinini's earlier 'Truck Babies' (1999), these objects fuse biology and machine technology but produce an unexpected 'cuteness', inert, globular, even womb-like: the catalogue shows the proud artist-mother overseeing the 'birth' of a 'nugget' in a clean workshop, as if to underline the absence of mechanical origin.
Car advertisements deal in personalized images, but most cars are a standardized, managerial collaboration between marketing teams, engineers and designers. Seemingly in homage to the fanatic devotion that hot-rod lovers give to their machines, Piccinini's three basic models are lent individuality by graphic paint styling - generic flames, swooshes and skull motifs. A tension emerges between the schmaltzy titles - Arctic Heat, Fireball, Summer Love and Tangerine Dream (all works 2001) - their status as garish subcultural symbols and their context within the Minimalist gallery setting.
Several sets of wall-mounted 'panel works' accompany the 'nuggets' - series of moulded flat plastic squares spray-painted in various metallic shades. Again suggestive of automobile surfaces, each of these is carefully gouged and scalloped, creating ambiguous forms that - once divorced from their usual context and enlarged - are familiar yet alien, sensual but totally synthetic. It is as if the car, the quintessential commodity form of the 20th century, had been flattened to the scale of a large abstract tableau (one set is comprised of 39 separate panels and stretches six and half metres across the wall).
Piccinini has been called a 'Plastic Realist', a term that captures the sincerity of her re-articulations of popular techno-culture. But her creations have become increasingly suggestive. The twist to this exploration of the quasi-erotic investment we have in shiny car surfaces is a newspaper portrait of the protester killed by Italian police in Genoa last year. Repeated Pop-style in different colours along one of the sets of panels, Carlo Giuliani - imperfect martyr to the anti-globalization movement - adds a bemusing dimension of the real to this fantasy world. Against the pristine forms the flawed hero comes to represent the contingent and the accidental - in a word, the historical. Or at least a memorable news event.
Well known for her slick and satirical digital prints of genetic manipulation gone awry and for her computer-generated video installations of 'artificial nature', Piccinini moves effortlessly across different media, with an extraordinary knack for collaboration. With the ubiquitous automobile at the centre of a quotidian sublime, the work twists its unfulfilled promises with near-mutant consequences.