Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt

New monographs appeared last month that celebrate the achievements of two artists of Aboriginal descent who have made their mark on the international art scene, Gordon Bennet and Tracey Moffatt. Both artists have engaged throughout their careers with the issue of “Aboriginality” and race in Australia. Both have widened the scope of their subject matter to encompass broader questions of race and identity. Both are so prodigious in their output and in their influences as to be often confounding to audiences who arrive at their works expecting “Aboriginal art,” and indeed, both have consciously distanced themselves from the expectations that the label raises. Thanks to the fortuitous timing of these new publications, we have a chance to explore the pathways each has taken through careers that now span two decades of experimentation in very different media.

Gordon Bennett is the subject of a major retrospective now on view (through January 16, 2008) at the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria and with additional stops next year in Brisbane and Perth. The excellent catalog of the show by Kelly Gellatly is the first major publication on Bennett’s art since The Art of Gordon Bennett(Craftsman House, 1996), and is long overdue. The final chapter of that earlier volume was entitled “Toward an Australian Postcolonial Art,” a directive that might well summarize Bennett’s career in general and serve as an epigraph for the new catalog from the NGV show.

Born in Queensland in 1955 but raised largely in Victoria, Bennett was unaware of his Aboriginal heritage as a child. He apprenticed as a tradesman and worked for over a decade as a telecom linesman before enrolling at the Queensland College of Art at the age of 30. He graduated on the eve of the Bicentenary commemoration, and the political atmosphere of the day had a significant impact on his early career.

Combining the post-colonial and the post-modern sensibility, Bennett has made the act of art-historical appropriation central to his working methods. In the early years of his career he drew upon and combined historical paintings and engravings, indigenous techniques and iconography, and Western art traditions from Renaissance perspective through Imant Tiller’s work and Jackson Pollack’s drip-stick and Blue Poles as the raw materials for his own art. His use of dots to create large parts of his compositions was equally indebted to Central Desert techniques and to Roy Lichtenstein.

This part of Bennett’s career is well documented in The Art of Gordon Bennett and well as in a significant exhibition catalog, History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett(Ikon Gallery; Henie Onsted Kunstsenter, 1999). The new catalog and exhibition from the NGV fills in the second decade of Bennett’s career. During this time, the artist’s focus has moved outward beyond Australia in a couple of ways.

For one, he has spent more time abroad, beginning as early as 1991 when he lived in France for a year after winning the Moet et Chandon Australian Art Fellowship. Other travels followed on the European continent, to the UK, and perhaps most significantly to New York. For another, his engagement with European and American painting traditions began to assume a larger and more defining role in his stylistic explorations.

Beginning around 1997, Bennett’s quotations came to rely significantly first on Mondrian (in a fascinating marriage with Margaret Preston) and secondly, after being invited to participate in New York’s Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair, on Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Notes to Basquiat series represented a new form of appropriation strategies, relying less on iconographic borrowings and more on an engagement with the style of painting and composition that characterized the work of Basquiat, who is considered the first African-American artist to achieve international renown.

Thus, in his engagement with Basquiat, Bennett continued his explorations of the issues of race and identity. Interestingly, the images Bennett now directly appropriates in these work come from his own oeuvre, as renderings of his own paintings from the late 1980s and early 1990s appear amidst the graffiti scrawls of Notes as well as among the de Stijlinspired grids of the earlier Home Decor series.

Identity is at the core of another set of experiments by Bennett that began in the 90s. In an effort to distance himself from a growing reputation and perhaps even from his own manner of appropriation, Bennett invented a persona, an artist named John Citizen, under which name he painted and exhibited works that bear only minimal similarity to those of “Gordon Bennett.” The influence of Lichtenstein is still quite evident, as is that of Basquiat’s mentor Andy Warhol. This theme of personal re-invention and transformation, be it from suburban Anglo childhood to politician of Aboriginal identity, from blue-collar worker to international artist, or back again from Gordon Bennett to tabula rasa of John Citizen, is eloquently and extensively analyzed in this new monograph.

Indeed, the great strength of the Gellatly’s catalog is its exhaustiveness. Gellatly herself contributes the major essay, which documents the variety of sources and influences Bennett has forged into his career as a painter of great complexity and subtlety. There is a “conversation” with Bennett, conducted by Bill Wright, that gives the artist a chance to speak for himself, which he does with unusual eloquence. There is an excellent and (again) extensive chronology at the end of the book that I found myself wishing I had read through first, as it provides a narrative skeleton for the changes and development ably discussed elsewhere in the book. Each section reinforces the others and builds a multifaceted portrait of the artist.

The plates are excellent in both their selection and presentation. There are well-chosen examples from the span of Bennett’s career, including recent abstract works influenced by Frank Stella and a separate section devoted to the paintings of John Citizen. The densely packed early work are done justice by facing-page spreads with the entire work presented on the left and enlarged, full-page detail on the right. A most useful bibliography of writings by and about Gordon Bennett rounds out another superb contribution to the history of contemporary (indigenous) art from the National Gallery of Victoria.

The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt by Catherine Summerhayes (Charta, 2007) is not entirely, as one might at first suspect, about the artist’s career as a filmmaker. Certainly, the analysis of Moffatt’s films takes pride of place in this volume. The delightful, superb, and copious illustrations by means digital stills taken from the films, some reworked by Moffatt especially for this publication, can at times approximate the experience of viewing the cinematic work.

And that observation comes close to the central thesis of Summerhayes’s argument: that the films and the photographic series (like Up in the SkyLaudanum, and Guapa) are manifestations of the same creative impulse, and that their execution interpenetrates one another. The films are made with a photographer’s attention to the composition of individual frames, while the photographic series are comprised of instances of a narrative that seem dislocated from an unmade film. The photographic series can be seen as moving images: moving (emotionally evocative) and requiring the viewer to create connections between the discrete images as she moves from one to another.

Summerhayes takes a chronological approach to Moffatt’s career, noting as Gellatly did with Gordon Bennett, the arc of involvement from primarily indigenous Australian themes and images to a more cosmopolitan engagement with race and identity that parallels the artist’s emergence onto the international contemporary art scene. Each of her chapters focuses on a temporal slice of Moffatt’s body of work, looking at both the films and the photographs and using one to illuminate meaning in the other.

Summerhayes is at her best in discussing the early films, Nice Coloured Girls and Moodeitj Yorgas, where she locates and explicates the themes and techniques that will resonate through the rest of the work. She notes the importance of documentary technique in Moffatt’s largely fictional body of work, and recognizes at the same time that evenMoodeitj Yorgas, which is the closest to straight documentary among Moffatt’s major films, participates in the styles and techniques of fictional cinema.

There is an extensive analysis of Night Cries: a rural tragedy, which is generally acknowledged to be Moffatt’s most important film. Summerhayes devotes even more consideration to beDevil, the feature-length 1993 collection of three ghost stories that is the most demanding of the artist’s films. Summerhayes does a good job of explicating the cinematic influences and examining the complex construction of images in the three separate stories, each of which contains multiple narrative threads. She is less successful at interpretation, at extracting meaning from the experience of the film. She may correct that Moffatt herself is more interested in questions than answers in her work, but I found being told that a less than satisfying critical encounter.

I was similarly somewhat frustrated by the incomplete selection of reproductions from the photographic series. I should hasten to reiterate that the compilation of stills from the films is outstanding, particularly since, as Summerhayes emphasizes, the detail and careful construction of images in these movies repays close scrutiny. But if her premise is that the photographic series, especially those from the 1990s, are narratives in themselves, then the choice of a mere handful out of a total of a dozen or two dozen images that comprise the series seriously affects the reader’s ability to grasp the points that Summerhayes is making.

Luckily (and perhaps for that very reason) there is a rich store of reproductions of the series available in other publications, and having those books to hand when reading The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt will compensate. The catalog from last year’s exhibition in Milan, Tracey Moffatt: Between Dreams and Reality (Skira, 2006) is the best choice for extensive documentation of these series. The earlier New Zealand catalog, Tracey Moffatt (City Gallery Wellington, 2002) covers much of the same ground but adds a selection from Invocations series which nicely supplements the images Summerhayes reproduces.

Between 1999 and 2007 Moffatt has collaborated with Gary Hillberg (“wonderful film editor and film buff” in Moffatt’s words) on four short cinematic narrative collages: LipArtist,Love, and Doomed. In each of these, short clips from Hollywood films are strung together to tell a simple, almost archetypal story. Lip is a collection of excerpts showing black woman “talking back” to white women–often maids and their mistresses. Love traces a Tinseltown trope from boy-meets-girl, through passionate love to passionate hate, to girl-kills-boy.

As reproduced in stills at the end of The Moving Images, these four films argue Summerhayes’s thesis strikingly well. Each of the short clips is iconic, most well known to film fans, for instance Hattie McDaniel from Gone with the Wind in Lip, or Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the tideswept beach of From Here to Eternity in the early minutes ofLove. They function as disparate moving snapshots, sequenced and spliced together to tell an altogether new story.

The book ends with a scrapbook of personal photographs that captures Moffatt’s humor and irreverence as well as illustrating once more the fine line that she treads between autobiography and fiction, between Tracey Moffatt as artist and as character in her own creations.

Both of these volumes, Gordon Bennett and The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt, offer a fascinating opportunity to reflect on conceptions of Aboriginality at the start of the 21st century. The collision of the traditional and the modern, of high and low culture, of the local and the international, of colonialism and globalism play out, quite differently, in the works of these two artists. Their fortuitous publication within weeks of one another has added to the inherent value of each.

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