IAN PARADINE – ‘Morphing the Idol’

ANNA PAPPAS GALLERY - 1st November - 2nd December 2017

Bollocked (2014-7) 36 X 45cm pastel, crayon and pigment on paper

A show of eighteen pastels supplemented with other materials, ranging in scale from smallish (55.5 X 45cm) to very smallish (15 X 10cm) present an artist committed to an Expressionist vision of mostly brooding spiritual and psychological states. Paradine is new to the Pappas gallery and will be new to most of the Melbourne art scene, but in fact is a mid-career artist who until recently spent the bulk of his professional life in Europe and the UK. He trained initially at PIT (1980-82) where he benefitted from the support of lecturers such as Peter Booth and Dale Hickey and from the outset fell firmly in the Neo-Expressionist camp, very much in step with the times and in particular the Transavantgarde wing of emblematic figures. These convictions remain firmly in place, surviving even two years post-graduate work at the Camberwell School of Art in London (1997-8) from the heyday of the YBA and the reign of the Saatchi Collection at its most notorious. Not surprisingly, the artist did not find that climate conducive to his intensely private and intimate approach and soon found himself travelling widely throughout Europe, absorbing museums and eventually settling in Vienna, where he became co-director of Galerie am Karmelitermarkt (2004-11). 

Yet these travels find no real reflection in his work. The work rarely concerns itself with place of any kind. Instead the artist’s development has been to smaller, more delicate and spontaneous engagements, in which figures – sometimes just heads – encounter baffling circumstances, challenges to bodily integrity, identity at its broadest. The tone may be alternatively bleak or whimsical, the absurd and enigmatic often going hand in hand with incidents of technique or application.

A Dreadful Equivalence (2017) mixed media on paper 28 X 19 cm

The show is titled Morphing the Idol and the idol or ideal in question is surely the Transavantgarde dedication to the primitive figure as metaphor for profound emotional states. Yet the title also plays upon Romancing the Stone – a cheesy Hollywood rom-com of the eighties and it is no coincidence that both readings allude to the same period, suggest a wry parallel in cultural allegiance. In the show however, it is the diminutive scale and tremulous, filigree line work that most obviously transform the Neo-Expressionist impulse, turns away from the bold symbols of bodily immersion in situations and become more diffident even droll.

The Stairway (2016) 15 X 10cm pastel, crayon and pigment on paper

There is an understandable tendency to regard small work as minor, to look for more importance in a grander scale. But it is of course, to be resisted. Smaller works ask something quite different of our discernment, reward it for the care in which themes are disclosed within more constrained means, where effective, for renewed flexibility to our response. The things that can be said in a smaller work are not just things said with more economy but often things that cannot be said with greater means. The smaller work is no less work for working with less, may be more rewarding for simply the challenge. 

Paradine has always been attracted to a more intimate scale, a more private or obscure iconography. The watercolours of William Blake in the NGV collection were an early, decisive influence, already setting him apart from the trend to grander, more social Expressionism at art school. The current work now urges a serendipitous opportunity, a chance meeting of grave and frivolous elements that morphs idols, playfully yet painfully. The uncertainties to tone may well divide viewers between those finding the results too twee or precious and those entranced by such delicacy, relieved of a less ponderous treatment to complex themes. No approach is without risks. 

At the same time, all is conducted on the most modest of scales, the most casual of means, so that engagement is unmistakeably lessened, not exactly trivialised, but defused. Indeed, the distinctive torn edges to sheets of paper amplify this detachment with a literally fragmentary, cursory treatment. The works are first and foremost about a ragged, messy remnant, salvaged from the vicissitudes of impulse and occasion.

The Churning of the Milk Ocean (2017) 40 X 49cm pastel, crayon and pigment on paper

While the work morphs its idols, it unavoidably draws closer to other, older styles. The dream-like puzzles of Surrealism and the brittle games of Paul Klee come to mind and this kind of consolidation is characteristic not just of the mid-career artist broadening a project, but of the art scene itself just now. Recent shows by Rhys Lee at Nigel Thompson and David Hugh Thomas at William Mora similarly pursue variants on Neo Expressionism at a modest scale, in largely whimsical mood, while Seraphine Pick and Andre Piguet at Station also adopt a notably discreet scale for their respective projects (Pick most assuredly the pick of the two there). On a more ebullient note and generous scale, Gareth Sansom’s career survey ‘Transformer’ at the NGV demonstrates the persistence and popularity of a related strain to Neo-Expressionism. Taken together, the sense is partly of artists retreating to the margins by recession, partly of an Expressionism steadily dilating, to serve somewhat as counterpoint to the dominant styles of identity art and Post Modern eclecticism. The margins are unmistakeably where the action is. What we have is really the privacy others would socialise, the reverie others would politicise, quietly restated. Neo-Expressionism now becomes something lighter, more matter-of-fact and inevitably, more abstract. 

Earlier work by the artist often featured a kind of compartmentalised space for figures, so that each claimed a kind of bubble or cordoned-off area, as in The Un-hingedness of Reality (2012) but the steadily worked relations also draws the figures into more abstract territory, not unlike the schemas to recent work by Sansom.

The Un-hingedness of Reality (2012) 48 X 60cm pastel, pencil, crayon on paper [NOT IN SHOW]

In the current show this is much less in evidence, one suspects mainly because multiple figures are much less in evidence, and a more layered approach is generally preferred. Significantly, a sustained figure, as in Shelter (2017) becomes a symbol of retreat or sanctuary.

Shelter (2017) 55.5 X 45 cm pastel and crayon on paper

The theme is not just privacy at its most reclusive, but an idol in her niche, bone idle perhaps, seemingly unattended and ripe for morphing. It is a subtly troubling scenario. The artist has a way with dark places and broad strokes that perhaps owes as much to the times as a taste for skittish introspection. The show offers a useful cross-section to his repertoire of techniques and freewheeling imagery and one looks forward to further forays for this querulous, furtive vision.

Emoticons Aren’t Enough (2016) Pastel, Crayon and pigment on paper 17 X 23 cm

All images courtesy of the artist and Anna Pappas Gallery
My gratitude to both for assistance in preparing this review

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