Peter Madden: In the cut - Art Collector

Issue 60, April - June 2012

Peter Madden’s precisely crafted collages are maddening in their scope, presenting a swirl of images and references that are at once frantic, puzzling and infinitely complex writes Edward Colless.

In a dazzling essay on New Zealand’s Peter Madden, published as a monograph on the artist by Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art last year, Tessa Laird professed – and justifiably so – that she had “an inexhaustible supply of things to say about Madden … because his works are infinitely complex and endlessly surprising”. Even a brief encounter with Madden’s work will prompt unreserved agreement. That’s to say, the more you see of Madden’s work… well, the more you see in it. And the more compounded, explosive, effusive, multifarious, delirious, obsessive and extravagantly puzzling it seems to become. To appropriate Laird’s smart turn of phrase, the more familiar you get with his work the more maddening it gets. Frenzied, daft, even vexing. In a gesture like a baroque contrapposto, this spin on punning the artist’s name (which Madden himself seems to enjoy doing as well) grammatically entangles adjective and verb. Indeed, this name isn’t just a descriptive signature on his work; it becomes a boundlessly emphatic action – maddening.

Surprisingly, however, despite the mad eruptive blooms or cascading multitudes of imagery that populate Madden’s art, the emphatic action at its core is unassuming and even nostalgic. His vast iconographic repertoire is almost entirely drawn from the photojournalism of National Geographic, by patiently and meticulously cutting up its pictorial spreads on natural history and environmental, cultural and ethnographic tourism. Still retaining ghostly traces of its original late 19th century graphic design, and the spirit of its founding masculinist explorers’ club, this is a journal that appears picturesquely anachronistic no matter how recent an issue might be or how topical its editorial. In the era of online image search engines and trawl-nets such as Google, Madden’s perseverance in hunting, month after month, for analogue source material in old magazines is like steadily rummaging through op shops rather than logging onto the bidding of an eBay auction. In fact, being more precise, Madden’s sourcing of motifs is not so much a process of cut up but of cut out – using surgical accuracy with a scalpel and the sort of anatomical exactitude and focus that leaves the rest of the magazine respectfully intact.

That may not sound such a significant distinction, but it does show up both in the work’s detail and in its large-scale compositional strategy. Cutting up something is to subdivide it by dissection. Body parts are disjoined violently and ruinously. Attempts to put them back together accentuate the atrocity. This is the principle behind so much of our modernist sense of montage as a means for generating new meanings out of the clash of fragments of appropriated images. Think, for instance, of John Heartfield’s photomontages or (apparently an inspiration of Madden’s) those of Hannah Höch and you see a strange, sometimes blackly comic, satirical or phantasmic vivisection … as compellingly monstrous as Victor Frankenstein’s marvellous patchwork of dead body parts into a living work of art. In cinema, too – at least its older analogue formats – we use the term montage to describe cutting up a continuous piece of footage and physically joining it across the cut to a disparate shot. One of the maestros of modernist cinema, Sergei Eisenstein, was intensely alert to what he called the “shock” of that cut. Think too of the dadaist cut-up technique popularised by the writers Brion Gysin (slicing randomly through newspaper articles) and William Burroughs (arbitrarily dismembering and shuffling his own literary narratives) as a sort of disemboweling divination – of reading through the prosaic narrative of the world to a shocking, hidden realm only accessed through this sort of mad sacrificial surgery. Modernism might well be summarised by JG Ballard’s literary rhapsody on paranoid conspiracy theory and photographic montage, The Atrocity Exhibition.

We are spared this sort of atrocity in Madden’s work, but are no less confronted by an engagingly bizarre metamorphosis. Moth wings and butterflies delicately and deftly cut out of National Geographic’s pages seem to have weightlessly escaped from a two-dimensional world, and entered this one by unfurling as laurels or roses from an animal skull, or clustering on the inside of an old pair of brogues as if they were fusty mushrooms grown in the back of a mildewed wardrobe. A foetal black skeleton, seemingly weathered into shape like driftwood on a beach sprouts tentacular branches shooting upward like a pollarded tree, with butterflies either alighting on their tips (and drawn there by some sticky sweetness) or having budded from the dead branches like fungus. Worms and centipedes wriggle and squirm out of the pages of a dictionary clamped shut. For all its grotesqueness and inclination toward gothicism, the ambiguity in Madden’s metaphors is actually more sensitive to whimsical fantasy and to the allure of kitsch – of souvenir bric-a-brac, pressed flowers, of the sentimental collaging of fridge magnets or the consumer fantasia of stickers on the cover of a school exercise book. In an equally compelling idiom, looking into his swirling clouds or jostling congregations of chairs, birds, insects, fish, flower petals, leaves, eyes, lips, rabbits and reptiles it’s hard not to be reminded of the host of soaring putti and birdlife in rococo decoration or the militia of faeries riding through the sky in late romantic fantasy painting. But perhaps, more than anything else, his imagery repeatedly suggests an Edenic and encyclopaedic proliferation – an image of worldly creation in which all things come into being fully formed. The myriad cut-out components of his scenes are each marvellously and miraculously undamaged, intact, integral and animate. Hallucinatory in the clarity of their outlines within the swarm, each element is a unique item in an infinite list of its type.

For all its delicacy, this florid energetic outflow of imagery is overwhelming – a disgorging abundance or cornucopia. For all their rickety poise or fragile tracery, Madden’s two- and three-dimensional collages are as dense and deeply knotted as a briar patch. Tessa Laird imaginatively associates Madden’s intricate constellations with the weave of a spider’s web and with the Buddhist cosmological emblem of Indra’s net, in which every nodal point of relations between things reflects jewel-like every other one. That’s persuasive and agreeable, although its the profligate detonations rather than the infinite weave of Madden’s work that I find wonderfully maddening – a hellish lunacy in the endless enumeration of all the things that can be diabolically summoned into our world. •

Peter Madden’s exhibition Ravaged Ground: The Morning After will be at Fehily Contemporary in Melbourne from 24 May to 16 June 2012.

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