The Age

Of gentility and heebie-jeebies

Date: 09/03/2011
Words: 705
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 19

Penny Byrne

Deakin University Art Gallery,

221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, until April 2

CAUGHT in a turn of perfect equipoise, a couple in 18th-century frilly costumes dances arm in arm, with a hand held behind the back. The bodies lean backwards so that the faces can see one another even while side by side and oriented in opposite directions. Their intimate gaze, mid-fling, is adorable.

Why, though, are these fond lovers wearing helmets over their wigs? Why are they holding machine guns, have grenades strapped to their middle and why is their exquisite clothing rendered with camouflage, as of army fatigues?

The little porcelain figurines of Penny Byrne blow up the rococo tradition with the most grievous corruption. To create the freakish pieces for Commentariat at the Deakin University Art Gallery, the artist has collected sweet pieces of old-looking ceramic, the type that you might have found in grandma's cabinet. To these sentimental idylls of early love, Byrne attaches arms and explosions from the toy soldier collection that you might find in a kid's basket under the bed.

The two genres of miniature were never intended to come into contact. With malicious glee, Byrne sets the genteel up with the military. Gorgeous rustic swain and lass are shattered by mines, a ballerina has sliced off somebody's head, intimate musicians blast one another with their sonatina, young lords and ladies in orange strike their delicate poses in blindfold and manacles, a letterato wears a gas mask, and a clock surrounded by gentleman and damsel turns out to be a nuclear time bomb, for which the aristocratic pair is prepared in masks and lead.

Byrne places the two narratives in stressful contrast, right down to the medium, because blood and porcelain don't mix. She hacks into the hard and brittle mineral and attaches anachronisms to it. And, finally, she desecrates it with paint. It's part of the upset.

The paint is an overlay, like the toy soldier equipment that leans and perches precariously over the smooth original sculpture. The paint isn't knitted into the ceramic: it isn't like the fired glaze that is integral to the seamless continuities of the original construction. The paint is an adulteration of the prior integrity of body and surface, which is prized in ceramics.

On aesthetic grounds alone it gives you the heebie-jeebies; but as a condiment to so much contradiction in subject matter, the incongruity adds yet more horror. Much is capricious in the blend of bliss and blast; but there's also much that takes the work beyond a macabre prank.

In European cultural history there's a bizarre and fateful alignment of cultural virtue and violence. It's seen at root in words such as "chivalrous", which derives from the ethos of honourable knight: you use courtesy instead of the intimidation in your power. Half the august streets of Paris are named after generals; and my own naval namesake decorates Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery in London.

Behind the sentimental dapper aristocrats that Byrne undercuts is a system of privilege; and, right to the present time, such privilege is based on various forms of threat and subjugation, which we call power in shorthand.

With a rich theory as backdrop, the broken blandness of Byrne's irksome work is promising. My only criticism of this engaging gore is the titles, which are topical and sometimes amusing, as of political cartoons. The problem is that the works aren't cartoons but sculpture; and the titles need to reflect a greater claim on a more timeless condition rather than being confined to the anecdotal.

To call a work Gitmo Bay souvenirs. Closing Down Sale. All Stock Must Go! creates a farcical air. In that sense I prefer the more poetic titles of Margaret Ackland's Histories at Flinders Lane Gallery, which also beautifully portray antique costumes and lacy gauzes with an unsettling ghostly emptiness.

Mind you, the essayist John McPhee reminds us that not everyone gets Byrne's messages, even given the directness of the work. The messages, some of which include a strong ecological theme, are arguably too urgent to leave to aesthetic ambiguity. But just the same, I think the work would hit harder with fewer explosives detonated in the right place.

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