Australian Galleries. March 2015
Rodney Pople’s role as an artist, he proffers, is to draw attention to the hypocrisy that underpins aspects of the modern world. In the pursuit of this mission, his practice crosses disciplines and centuries, employing diverse materials, techniques and art historical references as required. In Golden Age he comments on a 21st century society through lens of iconic Heidelberg School paintings.
Early in his career, Pople studied sculpture at the Slade School of Art in London and at the New York Studio School, so in many respects his practice originates in the three-dimensional form. The new exhibition at Australian Galleries reveals that sculpture remains at the heart of Pople’s approach to his art, which across all media is noted for its combination of precariously juxtaposed themes, visions and materials. In the past, his work was sometimes dangerous in more than a conceptual way: his piece for the 1982 Sculpture Triennale stood for a month before crashing to the ground on the last day of the exhibition, almost killing the exhibition curator and another onlooker; and his final assessment work in London was so non-conformist that ahead of its Strawberry Tea debut it was deemed an OH&S risk and taken out with the rubbish by the cleaners. Inspired by Duchamp’s The Large Glass, which combines readymade materials with accidental processes, Pople’s London work is echoed in the new series of three-dimensional works created for his 2015 exhibition.
These days his sculptures are less life-threatening, though still underpinned by a disturbingly dark sensibility and sharp wit. A harp made from found decorative furniture remnants has a golden, home-spun appeal, the images painted on its oversize soundboard recalling mythological Arcadian scenes on one side, and Heysen’s gum trees on the other. The work embodies a series of uneasy relationships. In a post-colonial age overshadowed by environmental crises and a lack of meaningful reconciliation with Australia’s original inhabitants, the harp’s two-faced composition questions the optimistic romanticism of early landscape painting in this country. The casting of uncertainty extends to the sculpture’s physical form, which prohibits the musician’s ability to elicit sound, let alone a harmonious melody.
In another sculpture, a reclining nude woman stares blankly ahead. Manet’s Olympia has here taken up arms, causally pointing a shotgun towards the target of her gaze. Her construction resembles that of an old-fashioned doll, her limbs attached with wooden pegs that allow her hands and feet to be manipulated. Yet this woman is no compliant plaything: though sucking on a lollypop and sporting infantile trappings such as a teddy bear tattoo, she is a would-be assassin, the quintessential femme fatale.
The sculptures bring to life an accompanying series of oils on board, painting being the medium in which Pople has made his reputation. He is known for re-casting iconic paintings from the annuls of art history, such as the self-portrait (now in the collection of Russell Crowe) based on Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, and last year’s Moran finalist portrait of Barry Humphries, rendered in the style of Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. The paintings here are conceived as contemporary reinterpretations of iconic works from the golden age of late 19th century Australian landscape painting. In one, the tatooed Olympia has swapped the shotgun for a baby, the pair of them confronting the viewer from the foreground of Arthur Streeton’s Redfern Station of 1893. In another work, based on Tom Roberts’s The Sunny South of 1887, she appears to have murdered one of the nude bathers of Beaumaris, proudly holding up the bleeding trophy with one hand, the bloody knife in the other.
While violence in the landscape pervades this series – as it has in Pople’s recent works based on historic and recent atrocities in Australian history, such as the controversial work about Port Arthur that won the Glover Prize in 2012 – other new paintings here adopt a gentler approach. In most he retains the fundamental composition, golden sunlight and scale of his predecessors’ paintings, his intention being to invoke the beauty of the originals to propose alternative ways of looking. Coogee 1888, based on Charles Conder’s picturesque Coogee, sees the foreground’s 19th century woman with parasol replaced with a contemporary female in an innocent state of undress. Depicted as if caught in the act by a passerby, she pulls a blue dress over her head to reveal her bikini-clad body. Pople’s first studies were in photography, a medium to which he’s returned, like sculpture, as a mature artist. This painting reveals the artist’s photographic eye in the way that it portrays the female body not as objectified nor combative, but in a fleeting moment of transformation filled with understated beauty. This capacity to see where others cannot – both the ugly and the beautiful truth – is the strength of of Pople’s insightful view of our contemporary world.