Patrick Doherty is looking embarrassed by the question he’s just been asked. He’s standing by his large-format painting, Good Dad (Don’t Leave) (2007), which depicts a man with the head of a bird who appears to be devouring a smaller figure. It brings to mind Francisco de Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1819), but Doherty has just finished explaining that the bird–man is his step-father, and that he is not devouring his stepson but feeding him by regurgitating everything he has. ‘Why did you show the bones?’ a journalist in the audience asks. The artist looks down and mumbles his reply: ‘So that you can tell I’m talking about humans and not birds … ’cause I’m not a bird.’ Damn right. He’s an artist. And as Barnett Newman once said: ‘Artists need art theorists like birds need ornithologists.’
Theorists impose order on the mess left behind by artists. They identify common themes, isolate dichotomies, delineate lines of flight, dislocate interstices etc. All this takes enormous mental ingenuity and forms an integral part of the consecration of a large public exhibition – especially in the case of a Zeitgeisty production such as ‘Primavera’. But this year theory sits like a defensive armature about a show that has no need for such didacticism.
‘Primavera’, now entering its 16th year, is arguably the most important forum in Australia for artists under 35. Whereas on previous occasions ‘Young Australian Art’ has been characterized by a forced enthusiasm, ‘Primavera 2007’, curated by Christie Morrow, is tinged with melancholy. There is a deliberate sense of sadness and frailty, albeit one expressed in a restrained, almost covert way; the works mumble their identities in negative terms: ‘I’m not a bird.’
If many works seem either mute or inarticulate, Martin Smith’s photographs seem dumbfounded. In works such as Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night (2005) the surfaces of the images are meticulously carved with stories from the artist’s family history. Neither the anecdotes nor the photographs, which imitate the desultory snapshots of his late sister, are in themselves remarkable; rather they seem part of an attempt to unify memory and image. The attempt fails, because it is impossible to read the text and focus on the image at the same time, and the cut-out letters spill out below the picture as if sardonically commenting on this failure.
Wasted effort is another leitmotiv. Anthony Johnson purchased Ikea furniture, assembled it in the gallery and then, over the course of the exhibition, fed it into a mulching machine (Downgrade, 2007). The resulting woodchips were used to stuff a beanbag, which, swollen like an egg, might contain the mortal remains of every item of Tovik, Bekväm and Stefan furniture that inhabits today’s modern, cheaply furnished flat. The activity is both priceless and worthless, but that’s the point: it’s a declaration of what art is – a form of non-productive expenditure, of glorified loss.
Equally uneconomic, Amanda Marburg recreates stills from horror movies out of Plasticine (for instance, Marnie, 2005). Her dioramas are quickly and awkwardly made, constructed in a matter of minutes, with an urgency dictated by fear. She then spends months creating paintings of these vignettes in painstaking monochrome, concealing every brushstroke even as she reveals the indentations of her own fingerprints in the Plasticine. The paintings radiate a sense of desolation that seems a product not so much of their contents as of their manner of production, which so binds the artist to the execution of a whim.
Marburg’s conspicuous labour is matched by Honor Freeman’s porcelain slip casts of Tupperware containers (Untitled, 2005). Porcelain is a material covered by sumptuary laws – that is, reserved for aristocrats. It’s also a pain to work with, requiring constant attention and producing a fragile result. Freeman’s carefully manufactured arrangements seem not to ennoble the product so much as uncomfortably to reveal its dated domestic optimism. The works express a metaphysics of futility, of the gratuitous expenditure of effort involved in attempting to capture the transitory and the trivial.
There is a palpable grief in ‘Primavera’, but it is demure and understated. It is elegy rather than tragedy. A show this well resolved does not spring forth fully formed from a culture, but is rather the result of sensitive and consistent decision-making on the part of the curator. ‘Primavera 2007’ reflects a deeper sensibility than any checklist of criteria could have permitted, and this is certainly something to be welcomed.