CONSPIRACY THEORY: POLLOCK, BASQUIAT, BENNETT
For more than a decade Bennett has pictured manifold conspiracies of modern art and colonial cultures. With time the conspiracies have widened, deepened and turned on each other. This is partly due to the maturation of his art. Bennett never sought to unmask the content of a particular conspiracy of modernism and colonial cultures because the conspiracy is not confined to a particular group, place or time. Rather it permeates colonial cultures. Hence he has been mainly concerned to picture the structure of (post)colonial conspiracies: which is that nothing escapes the other. In his earlier work he mainly imagined this structure in binary terms. In recent years, however, he has found this too limiting, and instead made painting into a syncopation machine that samples an infinite array of images; a remixing remixed in non-linear, unpredictable and continuous ways, like the jumpy rap of Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings.
Bennett's latest series continues his Notes to Basquiat, begun three years ago. Conceived as a communication with Basquiat, the black American artist who died in 1988, they have become a platform for Bennett to work through a range of ideas and feelings. Bennett has often been buoyed by an emotional rapport with other artists - and Jackson Pollock's all-over or drip paintings have been a long-time favourite. With Basquiat, however, he also feels a special solidarity with the cultural issues and rap aesthetic of his art. If other artists' works have been appropriated as signs in deconstructive discourses about the complicities of modernism and colonialism, Bennett paints in the style of Basquiat as a means to better communicate with him as an exemplary other. Further, he finds Basquiat's rap-speak liberatory. It provides a way to live in rather than just diagnose the traumas of colonial cultures. While Bennett does not paint with Basquiat's expressive touch, he uses his style as a type of language or mode of thought. With Bennett it becomes a global pigeon-speak for communicating across cultures.
In his most recent paintings Bennett also returns to Pollock, but in a different way to his earlier work. Pollock's all-over style is not juxtaposed to Basquiat's rap style with a blatant deconstructive intent, but is a conversation point in an exchange that Bennett is having with Basquiat. Basquiat remains Bennett's interlocutor. Sometimes Pollock's paintings are integrated into the Basquiat-speak of the painting's flat space. But in every painting Pollock himself is pictured painting/dancing shaman-like around a floating canvas that hovers like a magic carpet in front of the painting, jutting into our world. It recalls Duchamp's interest in dimensional shifts - though to me the effect is to make Pollock a type of ghost in the Basquiat machine. In this respect Bennett's interest in Pollock is similar to his earlier work, in which Pollock is a mythic figure in the story of modernism, and so an important player in the conspiracies of modernism and colonial cultures. Pollock haunts its discourses, just as he has haunted much of Bennett's work. So it is not surprising that Bennett talks to Basquiat about Pollock.
In this series Bennett repeatedly pictures the iconic figure of Pollock dancing around his canvas on the floor. However, in his earlier work, Bennett focused on Pollock's characteristic interlaced lines, always turning back in on themselves like the syncopated rhythms of jazz. They served as a counter to the perspectival space of colonialism. Other times they became welts or scars. Maybe they were the unconscious of colonialism. Or were they a web of conceit that captured the colonial subject, or a web of deceit that hid the monstrous faces of colonialism?
If in these earlier paintings Pollock's drip technique provided a way of picturing alternatives to the perspectival space of colonialism, in his recent work Bennett tilts the frame of Pollock's painting so that it simultaneously maps a perspectival space. But instead of the vanishing point being the all-seeing colonial eye, there is the black and pink dancing iconic figure of Pollock. And instead of the abstract web of Pollock's classic phase, Bennett samples the earlier and later work in which monstrous shadow figures of the id rage and scream. As allegory, these references to Pollock can mean anything we like. They multiply throughout his work like the lists of words that mutate across his canvases. The conspiracy thickens. There are no sides. All are implicated.
This exhibition moves through many rifts around a common set of images like a jazz concert in which every piece bounces off the other. Bennett is not appropriating, but sampling and remixing. Pollock and Basquiat had a deep love of jazz, while Bennett listens to its modern progeny, hip hop and rap. Their syncopated rhythms and improvised compositions are made by all three artists, the basis of a new type of pictorial space. The aim is to generate a sequence of thresholds and ride them like a surfer on a wave, or like Pollock dancing around his canvas on the floor. The effect is liberatory. A trauma is released so that life can be lived. But Bennett is not just an expressionist seeking release. Like a Blues artist, he turns on the trauma itself, circling its real origins in his own life, and in a larger world that still has not accounted for its colonial heritage. He circles like Pollock circles his canvas. Behind the recurring leitmotif of the dancing Pollock, a red stain bleeds from the canvas like the looming shadow in Munch's Puberty. It is the central vortex around which each painting turns. It clouds and engulfs the origin of an unspoken trauma. It is the stain of the real.
Bennett has always pictured the space of Australian colonialism within a global frame. However, if the conspiracy is global, it is the particular local resonances that most affect him. Pollock is not just a convenient image-maker that suits Bennett's taste, or a conversation point with Basquiat. Pollock is a way of bringing Basquiat home to Australia - for Pollock has a place in Australia's psyche because of the Blue Poles fiasco. Prime Minister Whitlam's approval of the National Gallery of Australia's purchase of Blue Poles made it emblematic of his government's radicalism and its determination to move on rather than remain in the past. The end of the White Australia policy, recognition of China, withdrawal from the Vietnam War, and a raft of other reforms suddenly put Australia on another course. In this surge of unprecedented social changes that is still sweeping the nation, Aboriginal issues have been the central and enduring agenda. The current Howard government is running out of fingers to stick in the dyke.
For Bennett the coincidence of Blue Poles, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Papunya art movement and Aboriginal land rights, has made them part of the same thing, part of the conspiracy. Blue Poles is for contemporary Australia what David's Oath of Horatii is for the French Revolution. Art and politics can not be untangled. Energised by recent political events after the depressing years of Howard's ascendancy, Bennett's return to Pollock is like a calling card reminding the Howard government and its constituency that the ghost is still out there.
Senior Lecturer, University of Western Australia
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