One might imagine there is no need to explain why Matthys Gerber’s survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art is called Matthys Gerber, but curator Natasha Bullock tells us “it is in keeping with Gerber’s belief in the pre-eminence of the artist over art above all other considerations.” (Italics in the original)
It’s not exactly clear what this means. Does Gerber believe the artist is the important thing, and all his or her works mere emanations of a transcendental personality? Is he suggesting we should think of the artist as a celebrity, like a movie star? Does he view individual works as being less important than a career strategy?
Whatever the explanation, I’ve always thought precisely the opposite: we judge an artist by the quality of his or her work. While it’s possible to take the long view and make allowances for a few less convincing performances, our idea of an artist is determined by what we see in the gallery. Without being personally acquainted, any thoughts about his or her character are sheer speculation.
Looking only at his work, generations of art historians have praised Rembrandt for his sensitive understanding of the human soul. Yet his biographer, Gary Schwartz, decided the artist had “a nasty disposition” and was largely responsible for his own downfall. Perhaps this proves that even nasty types can make wonderfully sensitive paintings.
I won’t speculate about Gerber’s personality, but his paintings are anything but sensitive. In one large gallery there are works of all shapes and sizes: hung high, hung low, stuck on the walls of a makeshift wooden compound plonked in the centre of the room. It’s a mess, but worst of all, it’s a deliberate mess – a cunningly crafted shambles intended to show the artist’s iconoclastic attitude to that institution we call Art.
The fact that he’s launching this subversive assault from within the walls of a leading art museum is either an irresolvable contradiction or a devastating irony. The latter would be a more sympathetic interpretation, but as Robert Hughes put it, “irony is the condom of our culture.”
The ironist’s revelation is that art is a profoundly unnatural business. What gives an impression of deep spirituality is only a façade; a window onto the world is nothing more than a stage set. The deeper our emotional response to a piece, the more completely have we been duped.
The answer, for Gerber et al, is to take pleasure in the unmasking of this deception – to enjoy the wit, the cool intelligence, the critical insights of works that refuse to play the game. This is where one becomes aware of the chasm that exists in the visual arts between theory and practice.
Most viewers are happy to embrace art’s illusions, just as we might enjoy a novel without constantly pausing to complain that it’s not a true story. As Picasso said in 1923: “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.” This is often paraphrased as: “Art is a lie that tells the truth”.
Although we recognise its artificiality we can still be moved by the experience of a painting, responding as if it were as real as anything in the world. Take away the “as if” and art becomes a cerebral exercise.
The alarm bells start ringing when Bullock talks about “the ‘idea’ of painting” in her catalogue essay. All of Gerber’s work is idea-based, which may be why it gives the impression of such bewildering variety.
Most artists have a signature style but Gerber is one of those rare beasts who allows himself the freedom to jump around between styles. Between the poles of figuration and abstraction he gives us psychedelia, calendar-art kitsch, several kinds of portrait, photo-realist images of billowing clouds, paintings emblazoned with words or catch-phrases, soft-core eroticism, geometrical compositions, abstract expressionist experiments, even a wooden ball drilled full of holes and dipped in black paint.
It would be difficult to say which work is the ugliest, although a 1993 collaboration with Adam Cullen called (Wednesday) Rome ‘71 takes some beating. There is much talk about Gerber’s love of colour, but his palette is so garish it looks as if he had decided to launch a terrorist attack on the concept of good taste.
Paintings such as Rola Rola and Black Mojo (both 2007) are large, decorative doodles made in the manner of Rorschach blots. The symmetry adds another degree of monotony to pictures that revel in their own superficiality.
Other pieces such as Web Painting (2001) or Family (2011) are reminiscent of the kind of work that began to surface in the late 1980s when it became apparent that Modernism and Post-Modernism had spluttered to a conclusion. They are abstractions that seem to be straining towards recognisable imagery without ever reaching their destination. One might see them as cartoon versions of cells and atoms, seen through an imaginary microscope.
By contrast there are intentionally frightful pictures such as L’Origin du Monde # 1 (1992), which reconfigures Courbet’s famous erotic painting as a woods-and-waterfall landscape from a badly printed calendar. Having kitschified one of the most sexually confronting paintings in the history of art, Gerber attempts to eroticise the monochrome in his triptych, The Supremes (1994), in which three white panels contain ghostly images of black dominatrixes.
Other works use words to create semiotic discord. Let it be me (1988) writes the title of a corny popular song in Islamic-style lettering against a floral backdrop. The entire ensemble is set off by two decorative borders. Another word piece from 2003 features the slogan: Sydney It Could be Soooo Good, as if this were a veiled critique of the city’s inflated self-confidence. It made me think of that segment called The Pitch from the ABC’s The Gruen Transfer – “Give us a campaign that makes Sydney people think twice about the place where they live.”
Sprinkled throughout the show are works by artists such as George Tjungarrayi, Yves Klein, Georges Mathieu and Tim Johnson, which Gerber would like us to view as touchstones of inspiration. This only adds to the sense of self-consciousness that fills the room like hallucinogenic gas. It feels as if we’re trapped within Gerber’s personal thought bubble.
The saddest part of this escapade is that many clued-up viewers are only going to see Gerber’s show as a dim echo of Martin Kippenberger. Although Gerber (b.1956) and Kippenberger (1953-97) are near-contemporaries, the German’s work underwent a phenomenal surge in popularity after he managed to drink himself to death. It’s the melancholy fate of the Australian artist – including the Dutch-born Australian artist – to be considered a follower, even if you were there first.
A more significant difference is that Kippenberger was a wild man whose style-shifting paintings had an undeniable edginess. By contrast, Gerber’s many different incarnations feel dry and calculated, like a free spirit designed by an academic committee. The endless games with abstraction are scoring points off formalist schools of painting and Abstract Expressionism, when those battles have passed, long ago, into the history books.
One truly impressive aspect of this show is the catalogue designed by Fabio Ongarato – a volume that would make any artist look like a superstar. It rounds up the so-called “structured chaos” of Gerber’s work into a very slick package.
This is appropriate for an exhibition that tries so hard to undermine any spiritual or romantic dimension in a work of art. We end up with a ramshackle group of artefacts that flaunt their own absurdity like a badge of intellectual superiority. Despite the relentless colour and activity these pieces have a cynical aspect, suggesting that any one image, any one style, is as good as the next.
The viewer’s taste and judgement are neutered because it is futile to say a painting is lurid and ugly when this is precisely what the artist intended. We are left with the sole option of accepting or rejecting Gerber’s ‘idea’ of painting. There are those who will enjoy seeing painting demystified in this manner, but most of us would probably prefer to keep our illusions intact. If we don’t believe in the pre-eminence of the artist over art, it may be because we like to make up our own minds about artworks, rather than follow the blueprint of the all-seeing, all-knowing Creator.
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 6 December
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 17th October, 2015