John Hurrell – 9 December, 2010
Some artists specialise in language to the degree that they truly reinvent it, but Lewis is not one. He tends to use overkill, bombarding you with words, expressions hurtling down on you from the walls as you circumnavigate the room. Having said that, the show is nicely layered with parallels between the emptying out of the Kondos' apartment and the undermining of western assumptions about Hindu practices like sati.
Ruark Lewis with Loma Bridge
In My Empty House
26 November - 23 December 2010
Ruark Lewis and Loma Bridge are two Sydney artists here collaborating at AUT on a show that is a meditation on the activity of one of their friends, Vivienne Kondos, an anthropologist who has written widely on the status of and social constraints on Hindu women in Nepal and India. In My Empty House Kondos and her husband Alex (a sociologist) are the subject of a film and photographs (mainly) by Bridge, particularly their clearing of space in their apartment while they were in the process of selling it and showing it to prospective clients, and the larger shifting of household effects when they later moved to a new location.
Lewis dominates the space they have in Gallery 1, using painted text to comment on Kondos’ ideas. He is a painter interested in the visual dynamics of abstraction and of the act of reading, one who (in this display) works on sections of loose canvas and on planks, not on stretchers or directly on the wall. He likes the use of written expression via the use of stencils (inadvertently linking his practice to Johns and Rivers) to quote aphorisms - in this case sentences from Vivienne Kondos’ essays.
The stencils have serifs which make the lettering look rural (as in wool bales) and a bit hokey - especially in comparison with a very elegant postcard work in sans serif that he has made available. The text works best on the black and red plank paintings that are either horizontal or which drop down the wall vertically to then extend out across the floor. With the words Lewis uses only one cut-out section of each stencilled letter at a time, so that you are left guessing what they might be. The works seem to be about memory loss and so some fragmented sections remain indecipherable; teasers that you enjoy for their peculiar graphic marks and odd stuttering repetitions. Some you can figure out and others remain baffling.
Lewis favours red, orange and yellow bands or squares on which to position his texts, hot earthy colours that seem characteristically Australian (as pigments) and loudly saturated in mood. The writing comments on or reflects Kondos’ thinking, particularly with paintings that say ‘I don’t want to deny women the capacity to act as agents’ or ‘I quote. We witness’. However for me the language doesn’t sparkle (metaphorically speaking), it is dead and academic, and Lewis would be better off making ‘non-objective’ paintings without texts, or writing essays as Kondos has done to elucidate nuances of argument or feeling in depth.
Some artists specialise in language to the degree that they truly reinvent it, (eg Kay Rosen: visual art; Charles Bernstein: poetry) but Lewis is not one. He tends to use overkill, bombarding you with words, expressions hurtling down on you from the walls as you circumnavigate the room. Having said that, the show is nicely layered with parallels between the emptying out of the Kondos’ apartment (‘The image provides a vision of paradise lost’) and the undermining of western assumptions about Hindu practices like sati, the suicide of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
When you examine Kondos’ essays, as Lewis and Bridge obviously want you to do (her book ‘On the Ethos of Hindu Women’ is on sale at the gallery) she is a lively thinker whose positions on various issues can never be second guessed. Even the notion of ‘agency’ which she uses to offset conventional assumptions about sati, she in turn subverts in a separate essay devoted to the philosophical term.
The St. Paul St. installation probably would work better for Lewis and Bridge with families of paintings or photographs placed on the walls together, so ideas gain strength in focussed unison. The material is too scattered to give any sense of a cohesive philosophy that has internally contrasting components. However if you, like the art historian James Elkins, believe that paintings are in fact puzzles that lead to ideas, and that installations might be too, it is a good show to investigate.
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