In the early 1990s, the first hints that movements (-isms) had been replaced by tendencies (things artists were ‘interested’ in) began to emerge. ‘Grunge’ and its cousin ‘abject art’ led the charge, to the immediate chagrin of virtually every artist involved. ‘Rad scunge’ featured works by artists associated with a Sydney grunge push (whether they liked it or not).
There is an air of defiance to this exhibition, an iconoclastic challenge to polite art society that is typical of its curator, Dale Frank. A determinedly shabby accumulation of cardboard, plastic, and wool litters the gallery. Soft drink bottles, beer kegs, carpet and knitting demand to be accepted as art, even as they refuse the accepted conventions of the fine art object. Yet there is a familiar tone to the gesture which is reinforced by the title Rad scunge. It implies that a radical, vanguard position can be achieved through a theatrical inversion of norms. This is not to say that the work itself is not challenging, but rather to point to the paradoxical status of the contemporary vanguard—the establishment of radical difference can itself be the product of convention.
What struck me about the exhibition was this apparent appeal to a by-now familiar tradition of using refuse as a gesture of refusal. It was as if the artists had to raise once again the issue of margins, of the boundaries between art and non-art. Just how cruddy can an art work get before we cease to see it as art and put it out with the garbage? Or is it that our garbage has been art all along? What has to be done to garbage in order that it be read as art? Is it to be rendered anthropomorphic and totemic, as Adam Cullen does in Cosmological satellite mother denied depressed speech (1993) in which a beer barrel becomes an allegorical torso or womb. Is it to be structured into quasi-minimalist seriality, as is the case with Tony Schwensen’s The new gen (1993), a relief of Pepsi bottles and packaging. More likely, it seems to me that the artists are playing the margins, triggering patterns of interpretation which enable the viewer to salvage some metaphorical or art historical credibility for the objects, only to have the pieces collapse back into non-art status under the sheer weight of their tackiness. The viewer’s almost desperate need for these objects to be art—to will them into artness—is mapped by Justine Williams’s Untitled (1993). She places a magnifying sheet over an op-shop painting, suggesting that the object can be willed into art status by the viewer’s persistent, fetishistic attention. This play of inside and outside may well be a perennial trope yet it is a game that is still worth playing. Only by repeatedly making the challenge can artists hope to stay one step ahead of an ever more inclusive art scene.
This expectation that the artist’s task is to transgress raises the question of latitude; how much leeway do we grant artists, why do we grant it to them. Nike Savvas’s Untitled (1993), for example, consisted of object-like glazed frames which served as fish tanks. Blackened and unaerated, these mock-minimal pieces inevitably suffocated the fish within them—one of the four had succumbed when I visited the exhibition. It was here that I drew the line; I could not see the works as anything other than a reminder that, within the realm of art, the rhetoric of transgression is rarely accompanied by one of ethics. It was as if all those elements that the transgressive practices of artists brought to the fore—politics, history, even metaphysics—had been left behind, reducing art to the level of empty and cruel mischief.
Original publication: ‘Trad Rad’, Art and Australia, vol 31, no 1, Spring 1993, pp 142–44