Wild boysby William McAloon
No small admirer of Allen Maddox's paintings, Tony Green wrote in 1979 that "there is something about his work that brings people out in rashes. They talk about aggression, violence, adolescent attitudes. And Allen helps them along by adroitly acting the wildman, knocking doors down after midnight, punching jaws, talking loony in thick Liverpool." The problem with this, Green noted, was that it prevented people looking at the work in all but the most superficial manner. And Maddox, wrote Green, "for all the role-playing, is as smart a painter as any we've got".
No less than Maddox, Philip Clairmont and Tony Fomison have been subjected to a fair share of myth-making, much of it of their own devising. The issue that Green identified 25 years ago - how do we look past the persona of the artist and see their work? - remains evident in
Militant Artists Reunion, currently on show at the Sarjeant Gallery.
Apparently the first time works by Maddox, Clairmont and Fomison have been exhibited together, the exhibition proceeds from their shared history and sense of identity as romantic artist-outsiders as much as from their paintings. Organised by the Hawke's Bay Cultural Trust, the show was curated by writer Martin Edmond and art historian Michael Dunn.
The Militant Artists Union was a loose, hell-raising collective formed by the three in the mid-1970s, a combination of support group, mutual admiration society and drinking club (with other stimulants seemingly thrown in by the handful). Indeed, as Edmond argues in the catalogue and in his writings elsewhere, perception-altering substances were instrumental in "offering clues to possible reinterpretations of reality". Underpinning this, he suggests, was near religious commitment: "Who else was as dedicated to the processes of psychic voyaging? Who else felt as strongly as they did about the ethic of purely visual communication?"
Well, plenty of artists did and do, clean, sober or otherwise. It's this kind of rhetoric - of the artist as visionary outsider, singular and possessed individual whose excesses are an existential necessity - that frames the exhibition, precluding any other kind of engagement with the works. The paintings - and what is on show is essentially three mini-retrospectives - become symptoms of the personalities, the personas. There's little room for wider context (how, for instance, did their anti-commodity ethos mesh with the conceptual, post-object work that inhabited the same moment?) or for art historical revisionism (say, in a reassessment of the boundlessness of Maddox's work in terms of recent thinking about modernist abstraction). Instead, you either buy into the whole artist-as-
psychic-voyager thing or you don't.
Whether you do or not, there's still plenty to see. Indeed, in the crammed installation at the Sarjeant, there's too much to see, adding to a niggling feeling that the show was assembled more than selected. That said, there are paintings that work in concert. The bond the three shared is drawn out through tributes and eulogies: Maddox's "Saying Goodbye to Tony", and "A Letter to Phil about Dolphins", Clairmont's "AM's chair" - a repainting of Rudolf Gopas's repainting of Van Gogh's painting "Chair" - and Fomison's "Don Quixote, finished off with Phil Clairmont in mind".
Inevitably, other comparisons emerge. Fomison's paintings remain the most complex, Maddox's require more - and different - attention than they have received, while Clairmont's are still the most problematic. If one of the purposes of Militant Artists Reunion is to "allow a fresh evaluation of their contribution" it succeeds. Certainly the opportunity to see bodies of work by the three painters is welcome, but what the exhibition seems to point up is the need for a different approach to Clairmont, Fomison and Maddox, one that focuses less on the myths and more on the works. As Fomison is said to have remarked after Clairmont's death, "You can't be a painting, you can only do it."
MILITANT ARTISTS REUNION, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui (until February 20).
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