Matthew Griffin: Punk'd - Art Collector

Issue 42, October - December 2007

Download PDF

Matthew Griffin’s art plays tricks with the eyes. Edward Colless plays along, and is amazed by what he sees.

You could call him an art punk. Or maybe that should be: it’s his art that’s punk. Or maybe, it’s that we’re punked by his art. After all, Matthew Griffin surely outdid even the celebrated “lo-fi” installation idiom of his peers in the 2006 Primavera at Sydney’s MCA with his infamous caddyshacklemenot: a plastic bucket half full of water in which an unwrapped Pollywaffle chocolate bar floats suggestively like a turd bobbing in a makeshift toilet bowl. Allegedly a homage to a scene from the 1980 movie Caddyshack, it’s also unmistakeably an allusion – in a cocktail of fortuitousness, accident, lineage and luck – to Marcel Duchamp’s epochal punking of an art exhibition in 1917 with his pseudonymous entry of an upturned urinal, titled Fountain. Duchamp’s derisive humour cast the objet d’art as a useless piece of plumbing re-oriented, with a sphincter-like hole pouting forward at the viewer, to resemble equally a cubo-primitivist abstract face and an organ that just might piss into the exhibition space. Griffin’s excrementally fuelled jokes – while discovered, like the Dadaist getsure, within the banal mechanical material of quotidian life – are, on the other hand, eminently practical. That bucket could really do the job that Duchamp’s urinal refused to do.

The comic pitch of the Dadaist “found object” was its nonsensical value, generated by urbanely inverting or perverting the ratio between utility and aesthetic aura, such as using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. But while Griffin’s constructions allude to this kind of slapstick, they’re far more sensible; like most practical jokes, they need to work no matter how bent they are. His strategy upgrades Dadaism with a D-I-Y practicality, all the more weirdly inventive because his objects and photographs demonstrate expedient and even exemplary solutions to clumsily tactless or impetuous demands. “I don’t like to get too sophisticated,” Griffin remarks. Having grown up on a farm just outside of Bendigo, there’s still an evident edge of attraction in his method of assemblage to the kind of practicable and even down-to-earth syntax of objects that one could almost call rustic. But Griffin had also grown up on that diet of hip hop, punk and gangsta rap familiar to most disenfranchised teenagers anywhere, and which enlists them in an international metropolitan insurgency; so that when he moved in the mid90s to Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts (where he now teaches) he already had a sturdy urban fluency from playing in numerous garage bands. He’s still in a local band, even while his artwork travels through European shows. A working drum kit sits comfortably and inconspicuously among the works in progress and the wild litter of research material and off-cuts in his Gertrude Street studio. “I enjoy grunge, vulgarity, hardcore punk. Sure. But the thing still has to work,” he explains. “I’m a natural born tinkerer. I get frustrated when my students lament that everything’s been done. But you can always play with things in new ways; making work that’s fun and funny. Even”, he adds, “sometimes wondrous.”

That wondrous quality illuminates his work more often than not. It radiated from the centre of his installation in the large gallery of Gertrude Contemporary Art Space back in 2005, Das Bogus Journey, where an upturned black mountain bike had been converted with a crazed and spindly web of straws and skewed candles, gaffer taped together into a majestically grunge Goth candelabrum. Duchamp’s upturned bicycle wheel on a stool was an ironically anthropomorphic portrayal of the artist, with head spinning freely but pointlessly in space: an allegorical emblem of art’s sterile production, of the artist in a masturbatory reverie. Griffin’s bogus bike, in contrast, is a piece of revelry. Clumsily yet exaggeratedly instrumental, in an outsider way it’s got a crafted beauty to it that fits its ad hoc function. Just the kind of dangerously home-made device – with the ornate intricacy of a palatial chandelier – you’d expect to find manufactured in the living room of a share house on a drug binge. Indeed, encompassed by massive wall drawings about dead rappers or monumentally scaled schizoid rants (at the magnitude of Renaissance fresco cycles dedicated to the lives of saints or princes), Griffin’s installations can generally suggest the sort of visionary home renovation carried out in a crack-house. The objects have a doomed, forlorn aura, on the brink of failure the way mad momentary inventions with household debris – assembled in either idle tedium or an intoxicated haze – can seem inspired and hilarious yet also look like melancholy junk or a cruel joke.

The heroic fanaticism of youth culture – its importunate optimism as well as arrogant capriciousness – provides the perfect habitat for these sorts of ill-fated exercises. One of Griffin’s favourites is the “straight edge” cult: a US punk movement originating around 1980 of ascetic discipline, so focussed on the effort to redeem the political and aesthetic vigour of punk music from what the straight edgers perceived as its lifestyle corruption that they adopted an exclusive regime of monastic severity. No sex, no drugs, no booze, no smoking, no caffeine. “They’d get tattoos that proudly said, ‘Straight Edge Forever’,” reflects Griffin, “projecting what they feel at the age of 17 or 18 as a lifetime’s commitment. Then of course they quickly discover that things aren’t that straight, or that easy. But I admire the clarity of vision, the empowerment, even if it doesn’t work out.” How cruelly ironic that tattooed pledge must look on someone pushing 40, trying to pick up at a bar on a coke high. It’s in scenarios of this sort of farcical overconfidence that Griffin exposes and exploits an abrasive absurdism. He has, for instance, an as yet unrealised – and perhaps unrealisable – project to get a dolphin tattooed with an image of a hippie holding a peace sign, and then set free back among its clan to sport its new look. “A woman in Nimbin gets a tattoo of a dolphin on her shoulder,” says Griffin, “but what if the dolphin had to carry the weight of its own celebration by new age hippiedom?” It would be a ridiculous role reversal; but, because it attributes a sense of blame as well as pride in the animal for its own mythification, the gesture – meant as a sort of malicious gift – would also be a wicked jack-ass style of stunt.

Just as this dolphin would be forced into signalling something it had no responsibility for, Griffin’s portrait photographs – which may be heading for an international exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2008 – also trick their subjects into utterances and facial features that have nothing to do with their identity. A fashion model posed in a studio has a white plastic bag, imprinted with black and white image of a woman’s face, pulled over her head as if it could suffocate her. The face on the mask is of Griffin’s girlfriend, Cath Martin, a professional photographer who was doing a fashion shoot with that model at the time. As he describes the image, it’s a “Spare Girlfriend” because “the idea is that you could stick it on anyone’s head.” Griffin takes his portraits piggybacking on Martin’s photo-sessions, “using her large format gear and adding an extra shot at the end, but shooting the back of the model’s head.” False bulging eyes and piggy noses stick out of luxuriant drapes of hair, with word-balloons graphically vomited out in cascades from a buried mouth. The text – fragments of death metal or rap lyrics – is usually cut out of paper while Griffin waits for his opportunity to get the shot.

These portraits are like high-end party gags, but they’re also slightly creepy mug-shots of a homeless, dog-faced, pathetic contingent from toon-town. Their detachable novelty store physiognomies configure the comical and devlish backside of human identity, in effect, its arse-end; and we see this ludicrous face bared – sometimes with sinister glee – in many of Griffin’s sculptural assemblages. A plastic chair – almost disconsolately lurking in the corner of one of the derelict hotel rooms appropriated by Melbourne curator Mark Feary for the show Relentless Optimism, early in 2007 – was tipped perilously backward with one front leg balanced on the nose of a cheap ornamental leaping dolphin. A hairdryer, jammed into a hole cut in the seat, directed a blast of hot air upwards to hold a rotating white balloon aloft, on which the words “anywhere but here” were handwritten like a plea for help. “It’s the lame plight of the balloon and of the artwork,” says Griffin, “stuck in this monotony of spinning in the air.” Art is a cartoon speech bubble that is also the empty decapitated head uttering the complaint, animated by the enthusiasm of the hot air vortex issuing from the hole in the figure’s seat, or arse, raised obliquely to let out a noisy fart. Or, in another work, it is a bloodshot eye drawn on a ping pong ball that spins in a hair dryer’s jet stream, activated by motion sensors when the viewer approaches. The eyes shoot up out of their sockets in delirious excitement, wildly staring around as if in a sexually agitated paranoia.

Griffin’s disembodied and dismembered figures are victims of this aesthetic delirium, performing with the feral panic of an emaciated speed-freak. At his most recent show in Gertrude Contemporary Art Space two white billiard balls hang low to the floor from impossibly thin long strands of coloured chewing gum, attached like spitballs to the ceiling, and are suspended over a dollar sign made of fake shit that sits on a black garbage bag. Are these distended eyes greedily stretched on their stalks in hyperbolic voyeuristic anticipation of some sort of cash value prize? Their spindly ducts of chewing gum come from the artist’s mouth, rather than from an eye socket, and are spat out as his sculptural material, just like the dollar from the anus. How amazing is that, to hang those balls from that thin filament of gum; or mould excrement into a sign! Art is there in that leap of wonder and amazement when shit looks hot.

Share this page: