William Eicholtz: True Appearance - Art Collector

Issue 44, April - June 2008

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William Eicholtz celebrates the look of things and the pleasure of looking at them. Art for this artist is a stage, and desire is an actor on it. Edward Colless attends the performance.

The best introduction to William Eicholtz’s idiosyncratic and sumptuously decorative figurative sculpture is a work that most Melbournians would have seen – if not in the flesh, then in the background of almost any TV report from the law courts. It’s also, for such a traditional public and monumental work, a figure that should be anything but sumptuous and decorative. It’s the figure of Justice on the façade of the Victorian County Court on Lonsdale Street, and it’s paradoxically one of the most remarkably yet unremarked insubordinately gorgeous public commissions in the city landscape.

Since antiquity the allegorical figure of Justice has usually been pictured as a stolid as well as solid kind of woman: we tend to think of her ideally as impassive, stable, permanent, mature … ageless and sexless. Blindfolded of course, too, so she won’t yield to any merely seductive appearances; posed frontally to us, so that she hears equally all sides; and standing firmly on the earth – or at least hovering in directionless space … in a pose without bias – so that when her scales tip in one direction they will reflect a true judgement, truly weighing up the evidence and not swayed by accident or personal whim or outside influence. We install this vigilant guardian to oversee the courts because, even if they have trouble attaining this absolute impartiality, we no less expect them to relentlessly and earnestly aspire toward its example: wherever the Law is administered, Justice should prevail!

Now look again at Eicholtz’s figure. She’s stepping forward; in fact, it looks like she’s stepping down off the façade of the building and into the real space of the street with her robes fluttering and lifting as if they’re caught in one of the gridded CBD’s notorious wind tunnels. Her whole body pitches into this asymmetric movement in a dance. Fabricated in carved and cast aluminium, she looks soft enough to buckle and lightweight enough to blow away. Her blindfold billows and trails theatrically like an aviator’s scarf behind her. This is a figure that is immersed in a flow and in a rapture, and posed like a fashion model in a photoshoot. And notice how herdress, rippling in the wind, not only exaggerates and enhances the contours of her body but also stands out in low relief away from the figure, like a cut out dress-the-dolly illustration. What this also suggests is that, at a tantalising oblique angle, you can glimpse behind her robe and see her naked. The dress is gathered like a theatre curtain, indeed like a fake curtain dressing up a bare contemporary stage or like drapes decoratively flanking a blank cinema screen. This is no pure, sanctified, ageless emblem: it’s a lithe, sexy young woman whose silhouette is burned out in the flare of a camera’s flash and who is costumed in allegorical attributes and acting out a role that carries her away.

“She’s actually a dancing Maenad,” admits Eicholtz with a sly yet also characteristically engaging and generous smile. The Maenad is a type of priestess; not a remote, strait-laced cleric, but a euphoric female attendant in the retinue of Bacchus, the intoxicated, pleasure-loving god. Yet Eicholtz’s interpretation of the iconography of Justice isn’t without imperious classical allusion: her wind-swept vigour derives from the voluptuous heroic Greek statue of the headless, armless winged nike of Samothrace (an angelic personification of victory), that occupies pride of place at the top of one of the Louvre’s grand ceremonial entrance stairways. She also alludes to the goddesses on the Parthenon’s pediments (now housed in the British Museum), whose bodies swell and undulate with erotic potency and magisterial, natural presence. But in Eicholtz’s Justice there’s something undeniably and indulgently eccentric about the twist given to this cultural pedigree: it’s not like the classical prototype is being subverted or denigrated but gloriously spoiled and sweetened by being turned into costume, like a child wearing angel wings.

Eicholtz initially studied ceramic design, at Caulfield Institute of Technology in the early 1980s, and then became immersed in Melbourne’s thriving nightclub scene and theatre world. New Romanticism was peaking, Blitz-style, with the accent on creativity, individuality, sociability expressed in fantasy appearance through costume and make-up. Leigh Bowery, who had left Melbourne for London, was an exemplar of this lavish performative idiom and life-style. “In this atmosphere I met people from theatre, and found myself making props for Melbourne Theatre Company,” recalls Eicholtz, “and doing stage sets made me consider materials for what they appear to look like, not what they might actually be. You pursue an image without making the real thing: that modernist credo of truth to materials is subverted in theatre when you look at a scene that appears solid and self-supporting from the front but around the back the scaffolding is holding it up! Things seem so substantial and real, but are fragile and thin, put on show.” And this is precisely what a show is: a façade, although one that we believe not because we are fooled by it but because we enjoy its beauty.

Inspired by the self-conscious artifice of theatre, by its scale, its imaginative pretence, its fantasy, and its challenge to modernist doctrinal purity, Eicholtz went back to art school at Monash University at the end of the 1980s, this time to furiously study the engineering of figurative sculpture, the scaffolding that holds up the fake materiality of the object. What are almost pre-modern techniques of armature construction, of molding, casting and gilding now give Eicholtz the expert facility to employ surprising materials with unexpected results: polymer cement casts with synthetic glazes that dribble and settle like chunky lacquer or that set with the cool finesse of finish on Staffordshire or Meissen porcelain. At the sort of scales – from pedestal to monumental – that Eicholtz clearly relishes, this can have the disarming, even disturbing, look of ceramic Rococo tableware figurines or mantle-piece souvenirs inflated to dream-like dimensions of flamboyant preciosity and costume-party eroticism. “These techniques allow me,” says Eicholtz with gleeful confidence, “to marry materials that are in reality utterly incompatible, in fact physically impossible.” It also permits genuinely oddball, nonclassical and ingeniously hysterical configurations of figures, such as putting Benvenuto Cellini’s famous nude heroic figure of Perseus (slayer of the Gorgon) astride a massive garden snail, much like one of Remington’s nineteenth-century bronze sculptures of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco. Eicholtz’s hero is a homoerotic icon, showcased with the sort of faux classicism of male nudity in Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photography; but the undulating phallic form of the slug rising out from its cornucopia snail shell between his legs also opens up as a huge vaginal mouth. Perhaps he’s riding the Gorgon. “It’s classicism as bedroom games,” says Eicholtz, “a sort of erotic grappling and wrestling, tumbling and climbing over objects that are like furniture.”

The Comrade’s Reward, which justifiably won the 2005 Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award, is a three and half metre playful hybrid of Donatello’s intimately supple and paedophilic bronze of the Biblical David with Michelangelo’s gigantic, anxiety-ridden and six-pack laden version of the same hero. Putting a sickle in his hand instead of a sling comically accents the castrating fantasy in the mythological reference, and turns the figure into a camp emblem of erotic bounty, like a propaganda image of the pumped up agricultural worker – the boy from Oz, wild colonial boy, the Soviet peasant, performed by a Calvin Kline model? A solar panel on the top of the hat charged up during the day, to light by night the boy’s “jewels”: the huge rhinestones set in his groin and in the sheaves of wheat that resemble ornate cowboy chaps or some kind of fetish parlour costume slipping off his body. And these jewels, of course, are an element of the theatre of desire. The jewel in the crown – the sex in the body – can only be possessed, harvested in effect, as stage-effect or ornament. “When I was young,” Eicholtz reflects, “I looked at the images in art history books wondering where is this in my life? Where is all this beauty: the statues, ornaments, palaces; and why am I in a suburban world? So I started making them with what I had at hand. I make things I want to exist for me, but which I don’t find anywhere. I want to make the sort of gorgeous décor you’d find in a Baroque church, even though we don’t experience the religious ecstasy of the church anymore.”

But today we do experience another sort of rapture: consumer ecstasy; and in consumer culture, artistic value is expressed through an erotic theatrical effect. Eicholtz’s art is driven by this staging of desire, staged as a tease, as an imitation of the elusive object of desire, an imitation that is not a lesser but an extravagant, sumptuous and decorative version of that indefinable object. Art itself – an exorbitant possession – is the object of desire for Eicholtz, and so art imitates itself extravagantly and ornamentally, celebrating its summit of value in the fetishistic finery and consummate impersonation – the costume – of the museum facsimile. His sculptures are the labour of love for a beauty that will be celebrated as the copy of something priceless, unavailable, uncollectable. And the reward for this labour, the harvest, is the joy of seeing a true and just beauty gleaming in the sensuality of appearances.

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