George Gittoes

June 7, 2014
George Gittoes, 'Congregation' (2013)
George Gittoes, 'Congregation' (2013)

George Gittoes has given us the most horrible show in Sydney in 2014, or perhaps it’s the year’s greatest horror show. However one defines it, George Gittoes: I Witness at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery is a harrowing experience.

Gittoes (b.1949) cut his teeth in the early 1970s with psychedelic paintings and puppet shows at Sydney’s most famous artist co-operative, the Yellow House. Almost from the beginning of his career he was experimenting with a wide variety of media, producing paintings, films, installations and large-scale performances. Never satisfied with any one means of expression he was equally concerned that his works engage with important issues, from Aboriginal rights to environmental activism.

A turning point came in 1986 when Gittoes travelled to Nicaragua, where the revolutionary Sandinistas were engaged in combat with the death squads Ronald Reagan called “freedom fighters”. The so-called Contra War gave Gittoes his first taste of life on a battlefield, where the stakes were life and death. It was a far cry from the comfortable left-wing protest politics to which he had been accustomed.

The trip inspired the film, Bullets of the Poets (1986) and a series of large-scale drawings. It was the start of Gittoes’s romance with war zones, a subject that dominates this retrospective. Such an emphasis means the show, as curator Rod Pattenden puts it, is “far from comprehensive”, but as this is Gittoes’s fourth exhibition at Hazelhurst since 2000, perhaps comprehensiveness is not really necessary. There seems to be another survey every few years.

The focus on war and global conflict means there is only a single drawing from the Heavy Industry series of 1989, which remains one of his finest achievements. These images of industrial sites in Newcastle and Wollongong have given way to more confronting work based on the artist’s trips to Africa and the Middle East. As the title of the exhibition suggests, Gittoes presents himself as a witness to violent struggle, injustice and atrocity in those parts of the world most of us never visit. He claims to be motivated by compassion, not the adrenalin rush that comes from facing danger, but his case is very similar to those journalists who become addicted to war reporting. After you’ve experienced scenes of death and destruction first hand, everything else feels trivial.

The first trouble spot Gittoes visited after Nicaragua was the Philippines in 1989, where he found a brutal civil conflict that barely made it into the news. The most striking picture from this trip was Salvage (1990-92), which shows a mutilated corpse trussed up like a roast. The body had been left in this state as a warning to the rebellious sugar industry workers Gittoes had befriended. Looking at this painting is like being assaulted with a blunt instrument, but it is only a foretaste of the horrors to come.

During the 1990s, Gittoes visited Somalia, Cambodia, Western Sahara, various locations in the Middle East, Rwanda, Mozambique, Bosnia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Bougainville, China, Tibet and East Timor. He operated independently, but often in association with Australian peace-keeping forces. Every trip produced a volume of images, recorded in diaries that combine drawings, written accounts and collage. Back in the studio he would create large-scale paintings from his drawings and photographs.

I Witness includes only a small selection from a vast body of work, but there is no ambiguity about the messages Gittoes sets out to convey. He wants to jolt us out of our complacency; to make us realise that the world is full of pain, sorrow and hatred. By depicting the most extreme situations he points out the chasm that exists between our lives, and those of the masses we see only fleetingly on the nightly news. I don’t imagine he expects us to sign up for voluntary charity work in Africa – it’s more like an exercise in consciousness-raising.

This is signalled by the long captions that accompany so many of the works. Gittoes may want to shock his audiences at first acquaintance, but he also craves understanding. He is not interested in creating an air of mystery, and never in any doubt about how these pieces should be read. He is always didactic, almost evangelical in his need to reveal the dark side of human nature to viewers who might be happier to think of art in the way that Matisse did, as a ‘comfortable armchair’ for a tired bourgeois.

For sheer impact, there is nothing in the show to match the images from Rwanda. Gittoes was with the Australian Army Medical Force in Kibeho, on 22 April 1995, when soldiers armed with guns and machetes massacred some 4,000 people. Of all the sights Gittoes has endured, this is the one that seems to have burned itself into his brain most powerfully. It’s the kind of experience that leaves witnesses traumatised, and seems almost beyond imagining when we read the accounts.

Gittoes’ challenge was to find a way of depicting the inconceivable. The iconic painting from the series is The Preacher (1995), which was awarded the Blake Prize for religious art. It captures a moment of hope before the massacre, when a local preacher pleaded the cause of peace and understanding. The other pictures from the Rwanda series provide a graphic account of the aftermath – split skulls, severed limbs; a woman whose right breast, nose and lips have been sliced off.

It doesn’t get any darker than this. While Gittoes continued to visit trouble spots and war zones, he gradually changed his approach. Instead of an unrelenting focus on death and disaster, he sought another way of capturing the atmosphere of these places. In his film, Soundtrack to a War (2004), he spent time with the U.S. forces occupying Baghdad, asking the soldiers about their tastes in music, which ranged from country and western to heavy metal, to rap. The everyday dangers of the occupation, and the psychological effect it had on the troops were conveyed obliquely but effectively.

Gittoes has since gone on to make a film with a group of rappers from an impoverished part of Miami, and another in which he tries to singlehandedly revive the Pashtun film industry in Peshawar. His latest project has been to open a new incarnation of the Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In all these projects there is an absurd humour, as Gittoes plays the role of Gonzo journalist and self-styled action hero.

There is nobody more impervious to embarrassment than Gittoes, who shows himself clowning around in a region in which people are routinely murdered for the smallest offences. His courage sits awkwardly with his self-indulgence. His messianic attitude towards every oppressed group is at odds with his shambolic comedy.

At the same time, Gittoes’s paintings have taken a Gothic turn, depicting soldiers as demonic figures or broken automatons. In the final picture in the show, Belly Up (2013) he portrays himself in the same manner – laid low by prostate surgery, dual knee replacements, and a bout of internal bleeding. Given his life-style for the past ten years, it’s hardly surprising he has paid a price.

The eternal dilemma of Gittoes’s work is that it defies standard forms of art appreciation. In terms of technique, his paintings can be pedestrian and slapdash, regardless of the gravity of their subjects. His films display the most rudimentary cinematography and would benefit from more rigorous editing, but he seems unconcerned about these details.

One could argue that his taste for exaggeration and caricature tends to undermine the impact of much of his work. A simple photograph may be just as potent as a large, expressionist canvas showing the same figure transformed into a cartoon monster. When the subject itself is so overwhelming, there’s a compelling case for understatement; when the drama of a scene is so obvious, there’s little need to for melodrama.

There’s no denying Gittoes’ value as a witness, but he never pretends to be simply providing documentation. Everything is filtered through the artist’s own subjectivity, taking on a grotesque theatricality. While Gittoes has no time for those artists who follow fashion and shun commitment, beneath the armour plating he remains a dedicated aesthete.

George Gittoes: I Witness
Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre
Until 27 July.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7  June, 2014