James Guppy

December 18, 2010
James Guppy, Love in Kuwait, 1993
James Guppy, Love in Kuwait, 1993

This has been a forgettable year for the commercial galleries. Not only are sales down, even attendances have been disappointing. It is as though people don’t trust themselves to visit galleries in case they are tempted to spend money. Art dealing, after all, is a glorified form of retail, and the economists are telling us that the retail sector is going through a lean patch.

It’s no surprise that the exceptions to the rule of neglect have been big-name, blue chip artists whose works are treated as investments. There has been an overwhelming reluctance to buy pieces by less established artists, regardless of their quality or originality.

Going into the end of the year many galleries put on group exhibitions, as if to offer a broad selection of last minute Christmas gifts. Although it may seem unlikely that many people will be spending thousands of dollars on artworks for friends and family, it is a time when a lot of smaller pieces and prints are sold.

A number of galleries are defying the season and the market by holding solo shows. Without going into any great depth, a selection would include a very strong exhibition of abstract paintings by Aida Tomescu at Liverpool Street Gallery, and a typically complex group of sculptural assemblages by Richard Goodwin at Australian Galleries. Ray Hughes is showing abstract pictures with landscape overtones by the promising Miles Hall, while Damien Minton has mixed media works by the fabulous Strutt sisters.

Apart from Ray Hughes, who will soldier on until Christmas Eve, all the above-mentioned exhibitions close today. Damien Minton is finishing in style, with a party and a sale of jewellery made by the Strutt twins, from 2 to 6 pm.

I could go on but I don’t want to finish the year with a gallery guide. Suffice to say that the art dealers have sent a collective wish to Santa to bring them some customers today and new clients in 2011. With the current state of Australian cricket there’s no incentive to stay home watching the box.

Brenda May has the best of reasons for holding an exhibition of new work by James Guppy (b.1954) because it coincides with the arrival of a travelling survey at the Manly Museum and Art Gallery. While the show at the Brenda May Gallery closes tomorrow, Seduction and Subversion: The Art of James Guppy 1989-2009, will run until the end of January.

Susi Muddiman, the director of the Tweed River Art Gallery who initiated this event, says she has been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of other regional centres. Manly is the eighth venue of ten, with only Coffs Harbour and Albury still to come.

At face value it would seem that Guppy’s work must have a very broad appeal, but the exhibition sends out a different message. Guppy is a sensationalist – ‘a stirrer’ in vernacular terms – who takes an obvious delight in confronting taboos, upsetting conventions, and creating odd, disquieting imagery. The title of the show is only partly convincing, because there is a lot of attempted subversion in Guppy’s pictures alongside a very dubious form of seduction.

‘Subversion’ is a dud word, being one of the most overworked terms in the contemporary art lexicon. The seductive bit lies in Guppy’s ability to paint figures, flowers and landscapes with the exacting precision for which few artists today possess the technical skills or the patience. Yet this approach also allows a very small margin for error. Every departure from near-photographic realism, any odd proportion or fudged bit of background, tends to spoil the illusion. This was also the case with a Surrealist such as René Magritte, with whom Guppy shares a few tricks.

Magritte painted bizarre images in a realistic manner, blending familiarity and uneasiness in the viewer’s mind.In a big exhibition Magritte is consistently disappointing, as one studies the comparative crudeness of his technique. What looks like a miracle in reproduction becomes ordinary when viewed a metre from the canvas.

Guppy suffers from a similar problem, as paintings that look extraordinary in the catalogue are revealed to have laboured, unattractive surfaces and drab colour.

Magritte owes his success to the underlying strength of his ideas and the iconic simplicity of his compositions. Guppy is a more complicated proposition, leaping from one theme to another as he begins work on each new series. The show begins with small Surrealist assemblages, featuring a range of objects attached to the canvas. Pictures such as Love in Kuwait (1993), are oblique narratives, in which a stout, matronly woman and a rather hangdog man act out scenarios that must remain a mystery to the viewer.

Another series of works place large-scale domestic objects into landscapes borrowed from Old Master paintings or perhaps just inspired by such works. A telephone receiver and an iron, for instance, are turned into monumental works of sculpture in picturesque settings. This would be more startling if the Pop artist, Claes Oldenburg, hadn’t already made a career out of using giant-sized objects as public sculptures.

In 2004 Guppy painted small suburban vignettes on square canvases tilted so they appear diamond-shaped. Figures float in the air as if suddenly released by gravity. One thinks of those Renaissance pictures of saints borne aloft by God’s grace, levitating in ecstasy or ascending to Heaven. There is a charm in these pictures that is not often found in Guppy’s work, which tends to favour more confronting imagery.

Spoiled or disfigured beauty is a consistent theme, as is the sexual impulse. He paints Rock Hudson with a huge scar running from the corner of his mouth across his cheek, and a Pre-Raphaelite beauty with a red birthmark splashed across her face. At one stage Guppy produced a series of aged female nudes, replete with wrinkles and folds of excess flesh. These were not like Degas’s women in bath tubs, they were history paintings, taking their themes from the Bible and classical mythology. It was impossible to ignore the disjunction between the ideal figures painted by the Old Masters, and the all-too-human bodies that Guppy prefers.

Paintings such as Romantic Interlude (2003) and Man and woman copulating (2004) are sex scenes that keep a fastidious distance from pornography. In a series called Peeping Box, he reveals a taste for erotica that is almost Victorian in its play on what-is-concealed and what-is-revealed. Man Raising a Woman’s Skirt (2004) comes across as a piece of amateur erotica from Edwardian times. A middle-class woman looks decidedly unhappy as she allows a man in a tweedy suit to lift her skirt, revealing pudgy legs in stockings and garter belt.

James Guppy, Man and woman copulating, (2004)

Although Guppy has an undeniable fascination with this antique porn, his renditions are not merely prurient. He is interested in that nebulous borderline between erotica and pornography, which varies between historical periods and individual mentalities. By re-presenting vintage porn as acrylic paintings, he creates a perverse form of portraiture, in which the anonymous figures offered up as commodities become individualised. Who are they? What led them to model for these pictures?

James Guppy, Man raising a woman's skirt, 2004

We also become aware of the comparative innocence of these images in an era when the pornographic mentality seems to have infected both fine art and popular culture. In the past pornography copied art, but now the reverse applies.

Having given these works the benefit of the doubt, and analysed the artist’s intentions, there is still a creepy aspect to Guppy’s sex paintings. No matter how they are re-packaged, the images retain a sense of their original, utilitarian purpose as aids to titillation. By stressing the imperfections of the figures and the amateurish nature of the scenes, Guppy allows us to read the pictures as sad and sordid. I’m not convinced that anything sordid requires – or sustains – an extended deconstruction.

In later works, Guppy abandons the vile bodies in favour of gigantic flowers floating in tempestuous skies, or the billowing smoke from explosions, presented as a contemporary version of the Sublime. Here, his studied ambiguities are more successful. The smoke clouds have exactly that element of beauty and terror that artists of the early nineteenth century found in deep valleys, craggy peaks, stormy seas or erupting volcanoes. One cannot see a great cloud of smoke without thinking of 9/11 and its associations with a form of terror that has nothing to do with Nature. But who’s to say what’s natural and unnatural in these confused times? The post-Punk band the Gang of Four had a song called Natural’s not in it – an excellent alternative title for this exhibition.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 18, 2010

Seduction and Subversion: The Art of James Guppy

Manly Art Gallery and Museum, December 3, 2010 until  January 30, 2011