Marcus Canning, Pink Wienie (detail), 2010, installation. Photo: Jenni Carter.
In 1972, reviewing an exhibition of art in LA, the American critic Harold Rosenberg asked whether art made outside New York really mattered. The large canvases of Ed Ruscha on show there were about the great spaces of Los Angeles, its service stations and drive-ins, freeways and billboards. But at the time nobody cared except the people living in LA. So Rosenberg argued that LA art represented a regionalism that was, ‘the revolt of geography over history’, the local over the universal pretentions of the New York art scene. Art produced in Perth brings up similar questions. Is there such a thing as a Perth vision, a distinctive art that belongs only to Perth? Probably not, and instead it is possible to think of Perth’s artists in terms of their relationship to other places.
So, when George Egerton-Warburton built an IKEA version of an Italian fountain at the Goddard de Fiddes gallery recently, he literalised this nostalgia. He sat beside the fountain every day for the duration of the show, waiting for people to talk with. All around him were paintings large and small, but one untitled canvas stood out not for its impressionistic depiction of a garden but for being priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. This painting was for sale with the proviso that Egerton-Warburton will buy a cave in Italy, which he will co-own with the buyer and that he will meet the buyer there in a year’s time, to discuss the meaning of the painting itself. Only by being surrounded by the certainty of Italian stone will they be able to work out the meaning of this artwork that is made in Perth. Egerton-Warburton’s fantasy of talking about his work somewhere else, not in Perth, represents the loneliness of the artist in a city dominated by mining and its support industries. He wants his fountain to be like an Italian piazza, where people come together to sit, smoke and discuss the latest affairs of the community. Egerton-Warburton’s fountain cannot be the centre of Perth’s community, however, since the centre is already occupied by the high-rise towers that run the great mines to the north.
Egerton-Warburton is perhaps the most sincere of the younger generation of Perth artists who make models of antiquated European architecture. The most successful of these model makers remains James Angus, whose journey from Perth to New York was made on the back of 3D computer print outs of doubled German castles and a twisted Italian renaissance palazzo. In their turn, Joshua Webb and Marcus Canning have made failed Euro-icons out of Styrofoam and silicone. Webb’s The Gift (2006), a garish church altar, came apart while on show at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), while Canning’s giant, blow-up castle did not blow up for Primavera 2008. Canning went on to celebrate the success of his failure, the symbolism of the deflated pink expense coinciding with the Global Financial Crisis. It is as if these artists unconsciously want to redress the hypermasculine industrial proficiency that drives Western Australia’s endless mining boom with slack, outsourced monuments. Old Europe looms large in these returns of the colonial repressed, their ironies thinly concealing an anxiety spurred by the lack of anything in Perth to make art about.
Australia’s version of Harold Rosenberg might be Rex Butler, whose theory of UnAustralian Art was based on the idea that most Australian art is not strictly Australian. UnAustralian art has long been made by artists who think that the best art is taking place elsewhere, whether this be in Europe or the US, and who spend inordinate amounts of time there. If Australia is at one remove from the centres of art production, Perth is at a second remove, since it is always looking east to Sydney and Melbourne for its identity. While artists from Sydney and Melbourne move to Berlin, Perth’s artists move to Sydney and Melbourne. Perth’s is an Un-Un-Australian art that, as a double negative, returns to the positivity of garish, hyper-coloured castles and collapsing Styrofoam monstrosities. This logic of masculinity unable to find the proper place for its ironic seed instead spills out where all can see, among the toddling quasi-existentialism of a bored Australian art scene. The truth of these monuments that defer to European art lies instead in the might of the mining corporations who design whole cities, train lines and industrial complexes from their Perth towers. By comparison, Perth’s art world appears puny, scaled and priced out of doing anything of significance, its collapsing Euro-sculptures are signs of both an impotence and unwillingness to tackle the everyday truth of life in the West.
Even the Aboriginal art of Perth’s Nyoongar people has difficulty finding an appropriate content, an imagery to match the angst of the West. Shane Pickett used to paint psychedelic scenes from the Dreaming, great washes of colour over local landscapes, but found more commercial success doing giant abstractions of brownish white and whitish brown. Pickett was painting his country of the West Australian wheatbelt, and as Nick Tapper presciently points out, these works represent a land that has been destroyed. Yet these were immensely popular among the local mining literati, who anointed Pickett their favourite at the West Australian art awards two years running, while buying his paintings at tens of thousands of dollars a pop. The market for abstract painting certainly explains something of the late 20th century Aboriginal art boom and here the buyers were probably not aware of the fate of the country that these abstractions described.
Another Nyoongar artist illuminating an aesthetic of displacement is Pauline Moran. Paintings of her life growing up on a mission at Roelands, now destined to become a part of Perth’s ever expanding sprawl, show happy scenes of rural bliss. Children slide down hills and bathe in creeks, inventing games beneath a bright blue sky before retreating to oversized schoolhouses. The simple joy of a shared childhood, in greens, blues and sandy yellows, confuses the narratives of a suffering Stolen Generation. In Going to Church (2007) children are getting off a tractor and disappearing into the forest, as if nature itself is the site of worship. These paintings are nostalgic for a time before the present, for a displaced time that has already been displaced through forced adoption. These works are the Nyoongar equivalent of Canning’s collapsed castle, as they celebrate that which we would otherwise understand to be a failure.
The key to understanding the conservatism of Perth’s artists, their deferral to Europe, their retreat into abstraction and the depoliticisation of displacement, lies less in contemporary times than in the recent past. Perth thinks of itself as being at the beginnings of a third golden age, as new, multi-billion dollar gas projects work up to operations in the Pilbara and Kimberley. The end of the first golden age was marked by the stock market crash of the late 1980s, its depths symbolised by the imprisonment of Alan Bond and his turn to self-portrait painting. The end of the second golden age was the Global Financial Crisis that panicked Perth’s new rich, tradesmen and engineers into selling their new V8 utes and third houses. While Paul Keating’s liberal economics enabled the first age of wealth, John Howard ensured the second. It was also in Howard’s era, in which this Prime Minister ruthlessly defined Australian-ness, that Butler conceived his idea of an UnAustralian art.
Toni Wilkinson, Truth, 2005, c-type photograph.
In the depths of this time, and at the peak of the second boom, Toni Wilkinson’s 2005 Prolepsis show at PICA lined up large photographs of children wearing their school uniforms, peering back at us from the bright daytime. They recalled the children overboard incident that was engineered to ensure Howard’s 2004 electoral victory, in which photographs of children being lowered into the ocean from a refugee boat were cut so that that the freighter ready to transport them to Perth was no longer visible. Howard claimed that refugees were not suitable Australians, as they could be seen throwing their children into the water. So in Wilkinson’s photographs the children are at odds with their place in school uniforms emblazoned with ideological messages for their future: Truth; Courtesy; Caring and Sharing; Stepping Stone to the Future; Strive for the Highest; Go Forward; Loyalty and Service; Honour Before Honours; Aim High; With God for a Leader; and Serve God Serve One Another. These slogans set in place a conflict that expresses itself on the faces of these youth. Their attitudes are always their own, disjointed from the uniform and its assumptions. In the program catalogue, PICA curator Amy Barrett-Lennard finds these children straitjacketed by the nationalistic turn in school education. Yet it would be a mistake not to see this Australian regime as part of the identity of these children. The ideas of aiming high, having honour, being ‘trustworthy’ and so forth also act to define their own personalities and aspirations. In this sense Wilkinson’s photographs play out the Australian and UnAustralian, the child’s body that is both inside and outside national regimes of truth, courtesy, care and so on.
Nathan Beard, 100 Croissant Applications (Mouth), 2007, digital photographic print.
Nathan Beard, Store Intervention (Cabinet), 2007, digital photographic print.
We can return to Egerton-Warburton’s installation as one that engages with the processes of institutionalisation that informs art in the West, and by implication, in Australia. The artists’ desperate plight to stage authentic communication remains bound by demands to be true to both their local milieu and the greater demands of a global art world. In Moran’s case this is the contradiction of being a part of the Stolen Generation but having had a good childhood, while Wilkinson prizes open the space between the child and their enculturation. Nathan Beard, another young Perth artist, addresses the plight of the artist by documenting his working life at Croissant Express, a job that put him through art school. In the photograph 100 Croissant Applications (Mouth) (2007), Beard absurdly holds an entire croissant in his mouth. In Store Intervention (Counter) (2007), he lies beneath the glass counter that he has just polished, displaying himself as the hyper-visible commodity that he has just slaved himself to. They are part of the Factotum series, and unlike the trend to upscale contemporary photography, are prints of only 15cm by 10cm. His photographs are hyper-banal; his attempts to produce art in these conditions near impossible. Beard installs these photographs beside copies of his communications with galleries, who demand he pay money and explain himself before exhibiting in the space. Even Beard’s exhibition at the Kurb, perhaps the most radically inclined and least bureaucratised exhibition space in Perth, assumes the air of painstaking labour, the vitality of art exhausted by a seemingly endless correspondence and clarification of conditions.
Nathan Beard, Store Intervention (Counter), 2007, digital photographic print.
If Beard is pleading for autonomy, illuminating the impossibility of autonomy while working for a multinational chain, his art is contrary to the bombastic embrace of mining corporations who foster a working loyalty among their employees. If Perth’s wealth and financial security lies in highly paid positions setting up drills, driving trucks, making meals, operating remote control excavators, building virtual mines and negotiating with Aboriginal communities, service industries still rely on casual labourers forced to struggle with the rent. The truth of the Euro-monuments that Angus, Canning and Webb build in Perth’s name lies less in their irony than in a mining industry that has the ability to move mountains, conjure townships and lay electricity grids. In the shadow of these, the most fantastic artworks one could ever conceive, the tendency toward showy installation art, appears only facile. Instead, the more humble of artworks appear to simulate the situation of those who do not work for the companies. If Egerton-Warburton’s fountain is also one of these monuments, his sincerity in sitting beside it every day appears as a tonic to their flippancy. If he is mostly alone, reading a magazine or staring at the white walls of the gallery, this is a monument to the displacement of the artist in a city that looks elsewhere for its meaning.
 Harold Rosenberg, ’The Art World: Place, Patriotism, and the New York Mainstream,’ The New Yorker, July 15 (1972): 52.
 Rex Butler, ’A Short Introduction to UnAustralian Art,’ Broadsheet 32.4 (2003) 17. This article is also available online through the University of Queensland’s espace library.
 Nick Tapper, ‘A Little-Known Place: the Art of Shane Pickett,’ Art Monthly Australia 220, June (2009) 6-8.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 18 , EXPECTATIONS, Autumn 2011, pp 34 – 39.
Images of George Egerton-Warburton’s work have been withheld at the request of the artist.
Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history at the University of Western Australia. He has published on Australian art in Artlink, The Blackwell Companion Guide to...