Scott Redford: The Passing of the Popular - Art Collector

Issue 32, April - June 2005

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In ironic tribute to Baudelaire on Manet, Rex Butler salutes Brisbane artist Scott Redford as "the last in the decrepitude of his art".

Scott Redford likes to talk. In virtually every show the Brisbane-based artist has been in over the past five years, there has been an interview in which he speaks his mind. In a recent exhibition at the Queensland College of Arts, he says of the attempt to do away with the difference between high and low art: “I prefer to imagine that one day the distinction between them will disappear”. In the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2004 show, he speaks – a little ironically, considering where he comes from – against the Sydney-Melbourne bias of most accounts of Australian art: “Australian art equals Sydney and Melbourne art, with Canberra added on account of the money”. In the 2003 retrospective of his black works held at the University of Queensland’s Art Museum, he takes aim at some poor unfortunate: “A New Zealand curator came to look at my work. He mentioned that he had seen the large black painting, Anti-Matter, in a show in Auckland and immediately thought of John Miller. The inference was that I must have copied him from an art magazine, even though I had been making the work for some time. Knowledge is one thing, but the Antipodean reflex determined my place at the end of the food chain.”

What all this tells us – because, certainly, the interviews do not add up to a coherent artistic manifesto – is that Redford has a lot to say. And his works are relentlessly discursive, being full not only of actual words and references to other works of art, but also quite explicitly about art-historical debates and issues. His early sculptures, in which assemblages of everyday objects were mounted on the wall and spray-painted black, were a response he admits to Imants Tillers’ essay Fear of Texture. His 90s remakes of such gay icons as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg can be seen as part of a more general project of queering mainstream art that ran throughout the decade. His depictions of his hometown of Surfers Paradise – blonde board-riders, high-rise units, girls in bikinis – replay certain critical arguments concerning the power of regionalism in Australian art.

But the miracle Redford effect is that all this appears irrelevant when standing in front of the work. Redford has a flawless aesthetic touch in all those old-fashioned things like composition, design and colour that runs throughout his collage-based project, whether it be the exact shade of pink with which to tint his sunsets, the choice of images to put together in his paper cut-outs or the hanging of his own shows and those he occasionally curates. A good piece by Redford possesses a kind of minimalist elegance, with the satisfying sense of a lot of artistic decisions – involving even the most unorthodox of materials and subject matter – got right. The works might sit still and composed in their frames, but they still buzz from the imagination and attention to detail that put them together.

Now, of course, to the contemporary spectator, all of this good taste can seem a little prettifying, a bit too much like Queer Eye tszujing and fussing. And that is why, like all good modernists – for when all is said and done Redford is a modernist of the heroic type – the game he sets himself is to subvert his own taste. Take, for example, the collages from the recent 1/2 Way show at the Queensland College of Art. Full of the ephemera of popular culture – pop song music titles, ripped out pages of gay porn, soapie star posters, the usual smattering of famous-for-15-minute hunks – the pieces are about as disparate as Redford can make them. And the very title of the show, 1/2 Way, is meant to conjure up this sense of the tossed off and inconsequential, the idea that the work has been caught in the process of composing itself, coming into being.

And yet for all that, the works – stitched together Frankenstein-style with broad swathes of tape and arbitrarily applied stencils – do in the end hold together. In nearly all of them, we find something visually crafty and intelligent, some piece of sly wit that the great thunderers of Australian art could never get close to. The language is anathema to Redford, but we are nevertheless tempted to say that what we see there in these works is the sublimation of their artistic materials. And it is perhaps this that Redford laments: that he cannot simply immerse himself in that imaginary plenum of popular culture his work evokes. It is this he seeks to come as close as possible to, in order to capture the energy and vitality he believes has long ago left art, but it is what withdraws as soon as he approaches, turning once again into what it is not.

It is this too that accounts for the persistent sense of nostalgia that runs through Redford’s work, the whole theme of dead youth that stretches from the early Hero Boy Dies (1987) through the homages to River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain and The Smiths and on to the recent remake of Marsden Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer (1998). It is a mourning not only for Redford’s own youth, in which his pleasures in the popular were presumably simpler, but also for popular culture itself. For the surprising fact his work touches on – and he is right when he speaks of the divide between them closing – is that it is not so much high art that disappears today beneath the onslaught of the popular as the popular that more and more takes on the trappings of high art. It is not, at a time when a TV show like The Simpsons can come on like a post-modern jukebox, high art that cannot cope with the attractions of the mass media, but the mass media that already exhibit the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity previously granted only to art.

Thus we would say that those figures ripped out of old black and white porn magazines with their lumpen features and outdated haircuts are desirable to Redford not so much sexually as for the kind of anonymity and immanence they embody. Pornography is utopic for him not for what it represents but for the private, non-mediated – let us say, non-artistic – mode of consumption it makes possible. It is an immanence that is shattered at the very moment he would seek to pay tribute to it, when he attempts to shine the light of a certain aesthetic attention upon one of those faceless legions. It is a contradiction that runs throughout Redford’s work, conferring its success in the very terms in which it would measure its failure. It is for this reason that we cannot watch his epic night in the back room of a Berlin leather bar, I Need More (2003), without thinking of the Viennese Actionists. It is why we cannot see Sunset, Then Night (2004), an uncut 103 minute video featuring a TV screening Gus van Sant’s paean to unrequited gay love, My Own Private Idaho, against a Gold Coast skyline, without thinking of Warhol’s Empire. It is why we cannot view his droll series of performances involving models in bikinis sawing up surfboards at the plush Palazzo Versace, Dead Board 3 (2003), without thinking of Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its own Making.

In fact, what we come increasingly to realise is that the popular was always one of those artistic others modern art invented so that it could transgress itself, increase its aesthetic reach in appearing to breach its boundaries. There never was any such thing as the popular except within the imagination of artists keen to annex it to their endeavours. But art lives on through its engagement with its outside, as Redford proves. And today it is art that is disappearing with the closing of this gap between the high and the low, with its success in colonising the popular (that is, when something like The Simpsons is no longer a threat to high culture because it already is high culture). In a way, therefore, we might say that Redford is actually trying to keep art alive by insisting that art close this gap, as though it still exists. I commend him in this, echoing Baudelaire’s words to Manet – perhaps the inventor of this high-low dialectic – “Scott Redford, you are the last in the decrepitude of your art”.

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