Gordon Hookey: Pelvis Deadly the Black Elvis - Art Collector

Issue 45, July - September 2008

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Among the sight gags, verbal puns and political burlesque of Gordon Hookey's paintings and sculptures, there are jokes that only connect with people who speak the same language, writes Timothy Morrell. His in-jokes are the urban equivalent of secret-sacred meanings embedded in desert painting.

One of Gordon Hookey’s recent sculptures is a jester’s hat displayed with ceremonious dignity high atop a four-metre column of stacked plastic milk crates, coded in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. The joke, he explains, is over people’s heads.

His work is nearly always funny and most viewers do, in fact, get it. At least they think they do. Among the sight gags, verbal puns and political burlesque of Hookey’s paintings and sculptures, there are jokes that only connect directly with people who speak the same language. The indigenous populations of Australian cities and towns have developed an intensely ironic humour and a distinctive vocabulary that Gordon Hookey has recorded, and plays back with the volume turned up high. He depicts such characters as Pelvis Deadly (the black Elvis) and Bitumen Barbie (the personification of bitumen blondes, which is black city slang for indigenous women who bleach their hair). His work speaks the same inventive, ribald, disorderly language as thousands of indigenous people, an authentic culture that is normally overlooked by the discourse of Australian art.

Hookey’s in-jokes are the urban equivalent of the secret-sacred meanings embedded in desert painting. He does not, however, expect non-indigenous viewers to adopt the same sanctimonious attitude toward these mysteries that they feel compelled to express when the meaning of traditional imagery goes over their heads.

He makes art to get a message across, and also to entertain. He follows the principle that humour is a vastly more effective vehicle for social and political commentary than undisguised anger. Hookey doesn’t see himself as an angry or bitter artist. Exuberance rather than fury creates the full-on impact of his luridly colourful, highly animated work. Race relations figure prominently as a subject, but so do nuclear proliferation and cricket sledging.

Text is integral to nearly everything he makes, and his words are never simple protest slogans. He plays with words and invents new ones, based on deliberate, pun-infested misspellings that sometimes incorporate Aboriginal slang. The barrage of language helps to make the work look noisy, as if the colour and imagery weren’t enough. A huge amount of information, both strident and esoteric, gets packed in.

The result has something in common with a wall inscribed with multiple layers of graffiti, as if the artist were having a lively conversation with himself. Ideas appear to generate new ideas while he works. Circled details are enlarged for emphasis, the way the art editors of trashy picture magazines highlight the juicy bits of a photograph. Despite the appearance of vigorous spontaneity, everything is actually based on careful planning. Hookey draws fluently and well (he received conventional training as an artist and graduated from the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts in 1992). After executing a confidently suave preliminary drawing, he sets about making the finished result look as raucous and arbitrary as possible.

Originally trained a sculptor, he continues to work in three dimensions. His most recent paintings have significant details recreated as sculptures that accompany the big picture. Hookey’s humour is both in your face and in your space. •

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