Cover image of the review
Installation view of Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer and Simon McGlinn (Greatest Hits), Bird feeder (Chest), 2018, fiberglass, paint. Courtesy of Neon Parc.

  • Audrey Schmidt

16 Feb 2019
Neon Parc 1 Feb - 2 Mar 2019

The Facebook event for Carny—a two-part exhibition curated by Neon Parc director Geoff Newton and held at both Neon Parc City and Neon Parc Brunswick—describes it as “a new exhibition of works by established and emerging artists.” While distinctions between emerging and established artists can seem entirely nebulous, in Carny the emerging artists (except Matilda Davis) were all confined to Neon Parc City, which opened a week prior to the Brunswick gallery.

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin defined one of his four categories of the carnivalesque (what he termed carnivalistic mésalliances, literally “mismatched marriage”) as that which allows “everything that may normally be separated to reunite”—the young and the old, high- and low-culture—in the riotous festival format of the carnival. At the carnival, unruly mingling of what's normally kept apart upsets the authoritative voice of hegemonic order, at least in theory. At Neon Parc, however, the clear curatorial segregation of artists at different stages in their career (emerging and established) seemed to enforce rather than upset traditional hierarchies. Less carnival, more marketplace, Neon Parc City presented itself as more accessible for early-career artists and Neon Parc Brunswick as more prestigious (the demographics of the different crowds at each opening seemed to attest to this distinction).

Installation view, Neon Parc City.

It is not the carnivalesque, however, that the exhibition took as its explicit reference point. Instead, it claimed to take its cue from the 1980 film, also titled Carny, starring a young Jodie Foster, which had virtually no plot and relied on the exploitation genre staples: sex and violence.

Neon Parc City's (over)crowded “works-for-sale” walls had the feel of a school fete. The (zealous) inclusion of seven colourful airbrush-effect oil paintings from recent graduate, Nick Mullaly, competed with Spencer Lai for wall space. It was, however, Hayley Arjona's central “standin” or “carnival cutout”, W.E.N.D.Y (2017-18), that truly dominated the gallery. First exhibited in 2017 at Trocadero Art Space in Footscray (although listed as 2018 on the website and room sheet), Arjona's W.E.N.D.Y is debaucherous Mad Magazine meets fashion label DI$COUNT UNIVER$E colour palettes and insignia (e.g., the eye of providence, a unicorn and marijuana leaves in neon and pop-art brights), recalling the early Tumblr aesthetic that DI$COUNT so heavily relies on. On the verso-side of the carnival cut-out, sphincters frame the holes intended for visitors to po(o)p their heads through and become a part of Carny history with a photo memento. Assholes littered the work. Often they were placed out of context: on a tit, in the place of a cherub's mouth, a body contorted to insert its head into its ass and so forth. Drawing on the history of mural painting (and its colloquial, public and interactive connotations) the work's subversion was that an accessible “for the whole family” structure was, in reality, comprised of very “naughty” adult content.

Works by Hana Earles, including her aptly titled Old painting (2016), were not new to me either. Meow (2018) was a part of Spencer Lai's exhibition at Bus Projects late last year: A smile forms into a grimace mid-slumber as the earth spins — it's funny, such is the sound of laughter — it is like god's hands on the shoulders of a troubled world. The painting features the text “Meow!” in purple on black bubble writing that recalls 80s horror comedy animation like The Trap Door, with the ears and tail of a kawaii (Dalmatian?) costume popping out of the canvas' sides like a Kit-Cat Klock. At Bus Projects, the work was originally hung on one of the many corporate felt partitions installed by Lai and was accompanied by a grimy, well-used plinth, the paint worn away in parts to reveal a palimpsest of gallery-white. Two of the four sides of the plinth were covered in peacock feathers slicked to its surface with glue like greasy hair on a balding head. At the back of the partition was the empty box of an LCD screen TV strapped in place with packing tape and family photographs. In Carny, the Meow canvas was joined instead by a much-abridged hotel-art imitation of peacock feathers in gouache on canvas entitled Public Painting (2018).

(LEFT) Hana Earles, Meow, 2018, acrylic on canvas and cotton stuffing. Image courtesy of Neon Parc. (RIGHT) Hana Earles, Public Painting, 2018, gouache on canvas. Image courtesy of Neon Parc.

Perhaps Meow (2018) was included to advertise Earles' new share house lounge room gallery also titled Meow—the next-gen of Melbourne Offsite Index that picks up where that initiative left off in 2016. Meow springs up for one-day-only events. Like many of its offsite predecessors and peers, it is no doubt a practical and economic solution to exhibiting in the competitive, over-crowded, post-grad emerging artist gallery context. It has an added juvenile delinquent clubhouse ambience that feeds off an undercurrent of ever-present subculture revivalism, amidst its almost instantaneous absorption into plain culture. Of course, this too is an exclusive space, populated not by gallery in-crowds but by another kind of in-crowd: “cool people”. Art students, recent graduates and the graffer and skater hangers-on. The young and the restlessly disaffected. Meow's shows are eagerly documented (like all mainstream galleries), but also captured in high-def(ish) by film-maker Carmen-Sibha Keiso (who debuted her feature-length film Love & Fascism in the 21st Century last year). Keiso's Meow footage has not yet been released, but you can catch filming-in-progress on the live Instagram story coverage of other attendees.

All five of Lai's felt works were also exhibited last year in their solo exhibition hushed pupils (2018) at Fort Delta. Only two felt works from this earlier exhibition were not included: one that sold and another that had been so badly damaged by the gallery that Lai destroyed it. Such mismanagement undoubtedly contributed to Fort Delta's recent abrupt closure and vague, nonchalant website statementthat reads:

I apologise to artists and customers for the issues you have experienced recently, I am now aware of some of these issues but probably not all of them … The plan is to release artwork to the rightful owners for collection in a controlled manner.

I got the sense these works had been stripped of some of their vibrancy. Although not physically apparent, at Neon Parc, they felt a bit tired to my 'knowing eyes', as if they had picked up on some of the exhaustion of the artist in their dealings with their (former) gallery. Or perhaps it was simply that their normally bright colours seemed to pale in comparison to the neon sphincters and comic book brights surrounding them.

If Carny felt somewhat patched together, it also gave the impression that Neon Parc was deliberately developing a commercial strategy that leverages the different audiences and social capital of each of its two spaces. The first opening at Neon Parc City showed artists that clearly ranked for their subcultural influencer status and a highly Instagrammable feature-work, as if the first opening was meant to generate the social-media publicity and social-capital for the main event in Brunswick, which opened a week later. Whether or not this “Fyre Festival” influencer strategy succeeded, the Victorian Police did turn up at the overcrowded Neon Parc City event. By positioning the emerging artists in the city, several suburbs away from their more established counterparts, Neon Parc City was presented as a sellability testing ground, attracting a younger generation (of artists and audiences) to the gallery with the promise of upward mobility to Neon Parc Brunswick—if they sell. The freak-appeal of struggling early career artists (edgelords, queers, sluts etc.) is an ever-present opportunity for art-market arbitrage, the cult-value of the poor artist bought in one social-space and simultaneously sold in another. As they say in the film Carny (1980): “A carnival ain't even a real carnival without a sideshow—everyone knows that!”.

Installation view, Neon Parc City. (LEFT TO RIGHT): Nick Mullaly, Push me, 2018, oil on linen; Nick Mullaly, Lil Boots, 2018, oil on linen; Spencer Lai, burnt sienna (maniac on the subway trolley) (after Klossowski), 2018/1978, Synthetic felt, adhesive; Spencer Lai, mauve (seated figures within institution, sometimes they share meals together), 2018/c1890, synthetic felt, adhesive.

The film was not well received by critics. One reviewer remarked that “the only surprise that Carny offers the viewer is its relentless ordinariness.” At its core, Carny was a standard homoerotic buddy-film buffered by a heterosexual love triangle veneer. Much like Gregg Araki's 'roadie film', The Doom Generation (1995), Carny comments on the alienation faced by society's non-conforming groups, exploring teen angst and sexual experimentation through a horror aesthetic. This is a typical exploitation film trope/marketing strategy, except Carny (1980) didn't deliver on the sex or violence (despite what the trailers advertised) nor did it have the storyline to atone for the absence of those selling points. What unites these films most strongly is best described by Chris Chang writing on Araki's films:

Poinless(ness), boredom, futility, nothingness, hamster wheel, no fucking idea where I'm going, emptiness, no meaning, no future, no past, just a present that's really fucked up, what difference does it make, alienation, stagnation, detached, betrayed, nothing matters, everyone was bored, I was bored, teenage angst, the young and the hopeless.

Rather than invoking a goth-punk apocalyptic hamster wheel or no future mentality, as an exhibition Carny (Neon Parc City) picked up on the boredom and disaffectedness of its reference point. Tired, struggling, semi-emerging artists re-exhibiting old work in a thrown-together sideshow.

The much larger Neon Parc Brunswick was more expertly curated. The wall-to-floor work ratio managed to fill the well-lit but cavernous space—primarily with sculptural works by Greatest Hits (Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer and Simon McGlinn). In fact, 13 of the 31 works included belonged to Greatest Hits, presenting the exact suite of floor works the group had shown at West Space last year in their exhibition Open Window curated by Patrice Sharkey.

Installation view, Neon Parc Brunswick.

The title for each work in this series begins with 'Bird feeder', followed by unique descriptive word in brackets to distinguish them: 'safe', 'trough', 'Ritalin'. Initially, they were shown alongside nine UV degradation/fade works on archival blue-board, cut into box designs, in the transformed West Space interior. In her review of Open Window for The Saturday Paper, Lisa Radford remarked on the effect produced by the exhibition as one that gave the impression of being in a 3D-modelled game— “ghosts in the shell of a larger-than-life Monopoly game” that, like the iconic ornamental player-pieces of Monopoly, left the object referents emptied of their content. The collective's unconventional use of the space was integral to this reading—one that exposed frames and facades by building and removing gallery walls, intricately structuring a viewer experience as if traversing a board game on foot or navigating a deconstructed PG13 version of The Cube (1997). Without these structural elements in Carny, Greatest Hits' work seemed further emptied of its content. This time, however, the content evacuation was the artists' original intent. That is not to say these works had now become devoid of meaning, but rather they took on new meaning in the context of a two-gallery carnival. Instead, their Bird feeder series took on the hauntology of an abandoned theme park—particularly when placed next to Dale Frank's Panadeine Forte Demons (2018), which was comprised of painted monster masks on reflective Perspex.

There were only two further non-wall works in the space: one of Paul Yore's characteristically busy multimedia assemblages, propelled by a rotating turntable and tinkling like a chime in the wind, and one of Rose Nolan's circle works. Titled Big Words - UP DATE/DOWN LOAD (Circle work), Nolan's work sees the artist construct her own pixels in humble hessian circles that form words that only become properly apparent when photographed. Interestingly, there was a more apparent interest in post-internet mediascapes and fake news amongst this crowd than with the younger artists exhibiting at Neon Parc City. Also, curiously, Yore's WHEN WILL IT END (2014) was not included in his expansive solo exhibition at Neon Parc Brunswick held immediately prior to Carny, which was surprising given the curatorial tendency here to re-exhibit recently exhibited works.

This two-part exhibition was certainly an oddity that gathered the best and most garish of 2018 but stripped many of the works of their original je ne sais quoi. A genuinely interesting aspect of Carny was the tangible connection to its namesake film: a borderline exploitation genre, centring on the emptiness and alienation of a teen angst subgenre and an annoyingly unresolved storyline. Perhaps, as freakshow ringleader, the real achievement of Carny curator Geoff Newton was the recreation of a carnivalesque atmosphere—channelling all the trickery and showmanship that we come to associate with the term 'carny'. It was just missing a little carnivalistic mésalliance.