'Love Andrew Nicholls' catalogue essay / by Travis Kelleher

White Australians, ink pen on watercolour paper, 84 x 58 cm, 2004

 

Fashion, Feeling, by Dr. Robert Cook, 2008 

Fashion, feeling: I saw a young man across the room. The room was a foyer, a concourse, a setting for an opening. It was a celebration, a wake of sorts too. Between the young man and I: waiters, tall people in black, skinny ladies in pink, a bar, networking. He stood out because he looked like the guy from Pulp mixed with the guy from Suede. 50/50. Nice and even. I had a drink in my hand. I turned, spoke with a famous photographer and quickly ran out of things to say to the girl he was with. A few similarly stilted conversations later and I had drifted to the other side of the room. He was still there. I maybe glanced, and went to keep walking when he grabbed my arm, or perhaps he only said my name. I stopped. I knew the young man. It was a slow motion shock as his face filled itself in and I realised that I didn’t twig before because ‘the look’ was so in place. I saw him and instead of seeing an individual I saw where he had located himself within popular culture. I took some time to look him over. I made a comment about how thin he was and how he had the tight pants to prove it, to make it count. He said something or other about yeah but he was kinda old in gay years. I said I was however many years old in straight years. That’s irrelevant. What’s not is that his control over his style displayed something I have always admired but only barely understood. I was a little confused, (associatively) star-struck. A few months later, though, a dapper young work colleague (in the street mode – G-Star, Asics, etc) with Thatcherite politics summed it up for me when we were debriefing about the early rounds of Australian Idol. He said that this girl – whose name I forget but she was from Melbourne and had slicey blonde hair – expressed the fact that she absolutely and clearly knew who she was through her specific and rigorously stylised clothes and that people – the fans and the judges – found that a trifle confronting. The dapper Thatcherite hit the nail on the head: fashion is not play, it is decisiveness. Even when it changes, as it must, it is decisive. It is about putting oneself ‘out there’, owning a stance, and, therefore, being confident enough to have that stance questioned (and is also, therefore, about being confident enough to submit to a mode of erasure, to the procedure of absenting the self ‘as nature’). That is why, obviously, fashion is political in a very deep moral and ethical sense and why we should not treat its exuberance and occasion lightly. It is naturally not something I can separate from my feelings and thoughts about the young man’s art work either. To try would be repressive, boring, and it would be to erect a false border between where the work begins and where the work ends (and, in fact, would be a facile protraction of what ‘the work’ is per se). So, it is best to think about it as a package (in the romantic manner perhaps), as a semantic grouping of body and clothes and eyeballs and objects and lines and titles and backgrounds. And the thing is, what the young man’s body (as work) expresses is yearning. The cultural icons he references suggest this in a trim way. Suede guy is – or was, his style has shifted, relaxed, matured – a famously androgynous singer, skinny but not sinewy, whose limber contortions pushed toward a tragic/romantic vision that was bigger than what housing-estate reality could hold. Pulp guy is different, cool and sardonic in the Wildean mode, removed and considered, dandyesque but no-nonsense at the same time, committed to the pragmatic understanding of failure in love and life. And these are the poles between which the young man’s work sits. There’s intense yearning and the capping of it, the arch, wryly knowing limitation of it, that actually feeds it (the yearning) more and more. In a perfect world, this would be enough, to put it just so, have done, walk away. However, for the record and for the sake of explication (though hopefully not explanation) the young man’s work comes into being through these modalities in the way he tragicolovingly renders his own young dudes and the way he tragicolovingly renders his plant and animal life. Let’s start with the dudes. They’re seen with an intense, a longing eye. Importantly, they’re pitched out of his imaginative league, constructed as idols, distant figures whose very role is to be worshipped, to be the cause and site of moistly festering longings. They are Gods. So when he draws a swimmer (for example) it is the swimmer and everything the swimmer has already become in the fan’s mind that we see; it is the swimmer as beyond the admirer, as constitutive of the admirer. (the question being – who begat who?) And at the same time, the God is contorted, brought low, shaped and pulled about, made supple, bent; the body that can never be penetrated is already open and penetrated by longing. Of course, the embarrassment of this longing is also, somehow, caught in these works too, as the figure is expressive of the folded supplication of fan into hero, hero into fan. And so, the male figure is stroked into being and a mirroring selfhood through the gestures of the hand and the elbow, line by line, as if the point is to make this narcissistic act of creation take as long as possible in order to replicate this complex body through the pleasure and shame and impossibility of satisfaction’s deferral. Now, remember, the deferral at play here is also what Suede guy and Pulp guy signify: Suede guy is always pushing toward some unattainable thing; Pulp guy is always out of reach because of the cool loose-elbowed not-trying. We all know – it being the only thing we know – that this is how desire is kept in action and in this we see the young man’s work unfolding now within the grand tradition of Australian icon making. And so his play with desire queers and claims ownership of popular figures in such a way as to make us aware that the longing we have for heroes, to build people up, is not to have people to look up to as such, but to construct people to possess and to extend our desire through them so that their very beings become stand-ins and carriers of our longings in the public realm. (So if these fictional beings are Tall Poppies our ‘cutting them down’ is a form of symbolic castration that we revel in, that we gleefully replay as a strategy that allows us to move away from power itself, and is possibly, in this, a renunciation of colonial/nationalistic power that is otherwise wielded quite proudly.) In every way, therefore, these folk are prosthetics, hinting at/embodying the lack around which desire moves as their contours function as ambivalent placeholders. (This is – again? – also why his figures are often dismembered or being eaten or in the process of decay.) To emphasise and re-emphasise this in the young man’s work is to endeavour to make the public sphere a different place than the policed and official discourse it is always threatening to grotesquely become. Of course, what is also interesting here is that this work, this Australian adaptation of British icons, turns similarly on the functioning and impositions of classificatory schema. While his material functions as a critique of this, it equally carves out a gut-wrenching spatiality, evoking the sublimity of distance expressed as absence, the heartache of travel by sea, the dangerous melancholy of it all, of the setting forth, of the callous lostness. The drawings use the white backgrounds (walls and plates) to express this, as much as the very same vocabulary of lines and whorls that capture the very same longing as the dude images. What is of note is the way these two strands are brought together: the longing of the nationalised body is drawn back to the longing of the colonising body; and the deferral of desire in both makes desire implicit in exploration and exploration implicit in desire. This double move gives the past and present a complication and a nuance and a real embodiment of meaning that chaffs against our tendency to be happy with the fact that we are conscious of every damned thing these days, that we feel such a strong and easy (and callow and inept and showy and banal and theatrical) mastery of the business of ‘critique’. The young man’s work moves beyond this dead-end as he makes a new thing that implicates the body and the mind in the political, that implicates the high-stakes of the precise and very now-now-nowness of lived fashion within a long and longingly difficult history; it’s work that opens up a supple dialogue between the wish to belong within the orbit of identification and colonial conquest whereby desire is the key to both and where the push is not toward satisfaction but where desire, in the  sense of it pitching at the big O, is key inasmuch as in both instances (that of fan and colonist, that of God and human) we simultaneously construct the expectation not that my desire is the desire of/for the Other, but that WE(!) are the Other and our desire is the Other’s desire and so, in swirling this way, we understand, partially, temporarily, drunkenly, that’s where the violence comes from, and that’s where the longing comes from, and that’s where the impulse to push out of oneself and be another/an-o/Other comes from, and that’s where the landing on the bay comes from and the drawing on the wall, and the jeans and the clothes shop off King Street and the decay and the fungus and the eyebrows and all else comes from, except this cannot happen because that would be the end of desire and of the landing itself and the work is about its continuation so this is wrong at the same time it is exactly what is at play even though I don’t understand it and because it is violent and inchoate and lost now I’d really like to think that’s what I was also seeing when I looked across the room and there were people in black and drinking and networking and speeches between us and I thought he was two other people and not the young man in question.