Peter Dornauf – 16 April, 2013
It's a hard ask, as is well known, for art of any kind to convincingly represent the age of innocence while avoiding the sentimental. Try to read these works as some kind of contemporary Eden, and they fail. They do so because the world depicted here is too saccharine sweet, too cute, too unreal. It's all very caring and sharing but it's toothless.
Curated by Steph Chalmers
15 April - 7 June 2013
One of the things that prompted Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s particular fascination for the comic book was the old conundrum about what constitutes the defining characteristics of art. He once said he’d always wanted to know what made the difference between a line that was art and one that was regarded as a mere illustration. Then he set about demonstrating the difference. Some of those differences were subtle as he worked on minor but significant changes to the original comic book frame he’d chosen as his base.
The works of Jasmine Middlebrook, graduate from Otago Polytechnic School of Art, 2010, at the Lawson and Calder Gallery and curated by Steph Chalmers, raise the same questions.
Middlebrook works in the realist style and is, without question, a superb draftsperson, her forms meticulously and convincingly rendered. She has a sure hand and her figures, especially the foregrounded close-up images of human faces are in the photo-realist category. And yet the canvases as a whole, their content and composition - despite the fact that they are broken up with splashes and splotches of floating abstract notation, despite the fact that she collages her images into a kind of surreal collection, and not withstanding the alteration of scale within the same painting - present as illustrations.
On first sight they possess the quality of images straight out of a child’s fairy-tale book. Indeed they remind me - because of the play the artist makes with shifts in scale ( giant pumpkins against the figure of a small child) - of a specific illustrated story book I once read involving a child who imaginatively shrinks himself in size in the back vegetable garden in order to mingle happily with the slugs, mice and snails.
We are obviously here in the world of innocence. Figures of children and infants prevail. There are a couple of young teens, but despite the presence of wild animals - tigers, hippos, crocodiles, zebras - nothing untoward happens here. The wild beasts are all domesticated ‘zoo’ creatures, harmless and seemingly neutered, wandering about inside a child’s fantasy world. With references to soft focus white painted old villas in the setting, it becomes the picket fence dream in the film Blue Velvet without the reality of sex or violence or the worm in the robin’s beak - a realm in which a discouraging word is never heard.
It’s a hard ask, as is well known, for art of any kind to convincingly represent the age of innocence while avoiding the sentimental. Try to read these works as some kind of contemporary Eden, The Peaceable Kingdom of Edward Hicks for example, and they fail. They do so because the world depicted here is too saccharine sweet, too cute, too unreal, ironically. It’s all very caring and sharing but it’s toothless, particularly when you start introducing images that could have dropped straight out of Hobbiton or elfsville - nostalgic pictures of pixie houses with ye olde English stone bridge staged in the background bathed in dappled light.
The domestic appliances lying about the place - jam jars, pots, knives and forks, cups and saucers - only add to the sense of a cosy world insulated from reality. There are, it must be said, spilt vessels with the contents dribbling out of them, but it’s all just too nice for these to take on symbolic resonance.
Stylistic comparisons have been made to the early work of Jeffrey Harris - the careful delineation of a face for instance, mixed with half-finished and incomplete detail which Middlebrook also uses in her bag of tricks. The difference is that Harris’s work had edge, tension and underlying psychological trauma, qualities which the works of Middlebrook don’t possess or fail to convey. She is definitely the better craftsperson, but craft is but the first step in the business we call art.
It’s a charming world the artist creates where all the faces are healthily plump, white and well fed, a world inhabited by goldfish, puppy dogs and JuJu gum drops, a candy coloured kingdom related to Mr Sandman but without the lonely nights. Some of the paintings strive for an element of acuteness in their titles, like The Waiting Game, or We Can Go Blind but We Must Eat, or even, Though Both are Innocent, but the imagery and its treatment simply work against any darker robust reading. It’s altogether too pretty and illustrative and seen through a fleecy filtered lens.
The crowded treatment of the compositions reminded me of the work of Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter of fairy scenes of which The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke is the most famous; the same plethora of images involving a similar attention to detail together with an ethereal romantic tone.
Middlebrook certainly has the technical skills to create works of note, but this old question of the difference between art and illustration she really needs to revisit.