James Powditch
A world in flux

John McDonald
Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald September 7-9, 2007


Powditch's eco-message Enjoy Soylent Green.

Opening a new gallery is always a gamble but it enables more of us to share the vision splendid.

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine): New works by James Powditch  Flinders Street Gallery, until September 16

Marion Borgelt: Flux & Permanence  Sherman Galleries, closes today

WE LIVE IN a time of oversupply of artists and an undersupply of galleries. The economy goes boom and a few more venues are added to the Art Almanac. When the economy dips, there is a rapid thinning of the ranks.

There is no rule that says the number of commercial galleries will rise to meet the numbers of artists emerging from art schools, because the market for art does not grow at a commensurate rate.

There are a lot of people who buy the occasional work of art and many that stop buying once they have filled the gaps on their walls.

The true collectors are few and far between but they are the mainstays of any viable gallery. They are also creatures of habit who do most of their business in a few favourite galleries and keep buying works by the same artists. This means that every new venture has elements of bravery and foolhardiness, and only time will tell whether it was all worthwhile.

If goodwill provides any form of security, Jason Martin should be delighted with the early days of the Flinders Street Gallery, which was launched last week. Martin will be known to many as Ray Hughes's loyal, unflappable lieutenant of the past eight years. By choosing to go out on his own, he follows in the footsteps of Darren Knight and Damien Minton, two successful local gallery operators who also worked for Hughes. The difference is that Knight and Minton started their businesses in Melbourne and Newcastle, respectively, before moving back to Sydney.

Martin is not fazed by the close proximity to his former boss, whom he sees as his greatest source of inspiration.

Love him or loathe him, Hughes is one of the best examples of a self-made man among Australian art dealers. Despite his propensity to occasionally undo all his good work, he is a risk-taker and a visionary of sorts. As a role model for younger dealers, he is a living textbook of what to do and what not to do.

Flinders Street has opened with an exhibition by James Powditch, It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), which is also the title of a frenetic late-1980s song by the rock band R.E.M. "That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane ..."

Powditch the younger is another sometime refugee from the Ray Hughes Gallery, although his father, Peter Powditch, is keeping up the relationship. At the age of 42, James Powditch has reached a turning point in his career where his work is starting to attract serious attention from private collectors. He won the Mosman Art Prize this year and was co-winner of the Blake Prize in 2005. He was a standout contributor in the 2007 Sulman Prize with the work, The Emerald Forest, which is also in this exhibition. He has even had a work proposed and knocked back for acquisition at the Art Gallery of NSW - which is laughable considering the quantity of junk that slips into the collection via the contemporary acquisition fund.

Powditch is a maker of assemblages and draws most of his titles from old movies. The works relate to the films in a range of ways, sometimes quite literally but often in an oblique, thematic sense. The Emerald Forest, for instance, refers to the John Boorman film of 1985, which is often seen as one of the earliest "eco-message dramas", or in Powditch's terms, "an environmental thriller".

The background of the work is made up of panels covered with hessian bags that once contained coffee from Brazil. A large image of a butterfly is a reference to the so-called Butterfly Effect, one of the most discussed conundrums of chaos theory. Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? was the title of a famous paper of 1972 by the scientist, Edward Lorenz.

Powditch is saying that even our smallest actions can contribute to the degradation or salvation of the planet. This kind of message occurs throughout the exhibition, giving the work a strong political dimension. On the Beach II is taken from the 1959 Stanley Kramer film about the end of the world which, according to Ava Gardner, was appropriately set in Melbourne. Powditch suggests that the impending catastrophe will be caused by global warming, not nuclear war.

Enjoy Soylent Green picks up on Richard Fleischer's cult science fiction film of 1973 which warned of the dangers of American consumer society. Powditch adds the trademark wave motif of Coca-Cola and other environmental references.

When one becomes accustomed to reading the works in this way, the show becomes almost too obvious. One need not doubt that Powditch has a sincere and conscientious concern for the environment but his assemblages have some of the exaggerated earnestness of a high school project. To his credit, however, he seems aware of this tendency to mount the soapbox and includes a lot of kitsch images and gags which make his views seem less dogmatic.

The very nature of Powditch's work underlines his credentials as an environmentalist as he recycles all kinds of refuse into his art.

One recurrent technique is to appropriate the covers of old Penguin paperbacks, complete with the stains and foxing that disfigures these volumes.

The old Penguins were simultaneously repositories of all human wisdom and symbols of consumer society's acceptance of built-in obsolescence. No matter how profound or timeless the contents of such a book, within a decade or so the paper had turned brown and the pages were falling out. The only solution - to the chi-ching of cash-registers - was to go and buy a new copy.

It's a strange coincidence that Powditch's show follows hard on the heels of Katherine Hattam's recent exhibition at Australian Galleries that also used the pages and covers of old paperbacks as a form of impromptu mosaic. Could this foreshadow the fate of the book in the electronic age? The futuristic references are no less marked in Marion Borgelt's Flux Permanence exhibition at the Sherman Galleries but they come from a very different direction.

Where Powditch conjures art from refuse, Borgelt creates precise and luxurious objects that look like they have been made to complement great designer furniture.

If Powditch warns of a world on the brink of ecological disaster, Borgelt's work echoes the forms and functions of nature but in a way that seems to smooth off all the rough edges. Her two- and three-dimensional pieces are like solid distillations of light and energy. She says she is after "a view of the cosmos", but it is a view where the dangerous and destructive aspects have given way to a seductive set of essentials.

In Venetian Tsukimi No.1, Borgelt has worked with glass-blowers on the island of Murano to create a series of frosted spheres that rest on polished blocks of Victorian ash. Tsukimi means "moon viewing" and relates to an autumnal Japanese festival. Those who take part are invited to contemplate the full moon and Borgelt would hold similarly meditative ambitions for viewers of her work. However, one of the distinctive features of traditional Japanese aesthetics is that sense of spoiled beauty, the flaw or stain that mars the too-obvious perfection of a bowl. With Borgelt's work, there is almost nothing that detracts from the perfection of a surface or an arrangement of forms, which leaves little for the viewer to do.

This quest for formal perfection has become an increasing compulsion for Borgelt over the past decade. In earlier days she painted ragged, gestural abstractions where each stroke was visible and colours were mixed to the point of murkiness. Nowadays, everything is pure and serene.

Her paintings are like the patterns of radio waves captured on a screen. Her objects could be made by machine rather than the artist's hand and, in many cases, she outsources work. She has left behind the grot and grunge that appeals to James Powditch and migrated to a world of Platonic forms. If it can't be characterised as conceptual art it is because Borgelt is still concerned with the particular qualities of materials. Yet she treats those materials not as the stuff from which paintings and sculptures are made but as the scaffolding for a dream.

 

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