The first time I see images of Vivian’s ‘An afternoon, rain, open door’ (2013) a vaseline-smeared highchair. My synapses go berserk making new connections, or running lengths over those connections that I wasn’t presently aware of. The effect is immediate and there is something simple about it, yet I don’t quite know how to articulate just how true this feels or why. It just is, it feels real, the proximity is spot on.
Scenes is the first European solo exhibition for Melbourne-based artist Alex Vivian. Opening on April 29, at Sandy Brown (and running to May 23) it joined the likes of Windowlicker at Center and Drawings and Windows at Spike Art Quarterly as a favoured harbinger to Gallery weekend Berlin.
Working across sculpture, installation and text, Vivian demonstrates a certain mastery when it comes to turning suburban filth and shredded remnants of cheap household discards into immaculate art objects. Typically featuring clean lines and smooth forms with impeccable tidiness, each work’s title and its often long list of materials – which Vivian threads into each piece with a raw and gentle, tactile poetry – forms a kind of aura, imbuing it with the sticky truth of its humble origins. In an opposite and gibbous transformation, Vivian is just as likely to adorn a mass-produced commodity with something uncanny, rendering it unique. Maintaining always a tension between the object’s content and its form, he pokes at the flimsiness of learned or conditioned associations and very quickly urges the viewer towards an alternative understanding, one that is wavering and obvious, yet deep.
At Berlin’s Sandy Brown, a small white-cube set flush with the sidewalk of one the city’s more hectic roads, Vivian’s show comprises four wall-mounted sculptural-objects and an amorphous-seeming floor installation. Typical of his work, the materials are as important as the objects, as important as the names Vivian has given the objects, as important as the verbs and adjectives that form the prose on the exhibition hand-out. ‘Newspaper headline (Men, Boys, teenagers, etc come across as mere fodder in comparison to Tom of Finland)’ (2015) adorns one wall like a museum parchment. On the same stretch of white hangs ‘Wall from a men’s club… familiar anyone????’ (2014-15). The two pieces spread out like a stain of gammy yellows, as if they were chapters in the same lively work. Considering the materials lists —“filthy pillowcases, thread, vaseline, butter, saliva, acrylic paint, safety pin, filthy bed sheets, hair, towel” —the wall starts to crawl. Though in their current context the illustrative works look clean and slick, each is a bedroom/sex club palimpsest, born of layers of sweat and scalp grease, intimacy and estrangement. Yet their resonance is subtle.
— Sandy Brown (@SandyBrownGal) May 23, 2015
On the opposite wall hangs ‘Noxious Chaps’ (2015), a flat 3D sculpture. The title cuts into a meaty construction of “men’s flannelette shirt, PVA glue, cardboard”. Across the room on the same wall is ‘Nursery wall hanging (well on its way to becoming something else entirely.)’ (2015). The materials sounds like the ingredients of normativity: “Men’s polar fleece, polyester fibres, spray adhesive, infants clothing, towel, woolen scarf, stretched canvas, styrofoam, hair, dirt, women’s clothing.” A spongy-looking square of patchworked felts billows prudishly over two perfect spheres, protruding pneumatically, like two lopsided and disaffected, nippleless tits. The piece is both neat and manky, sprayed with the tacky-ness of adhesive foam, I’m reminded of the clumpiness of the rotting insides of my childhood toys, filled with yellow foam. On the floor, over-powering everything, is Vivian’s installation ‘Something, happening… happened?’ (2015). “Toy baby, toaster, towel, safety pins, flannelette, wooden box, polar fleece, magazine pages, permanent marker, stuffing, comic clipping, plastic packaging, toy ballerina show, toy fluff, hand-held juicer, hair, cutlery tray, stuffed toys, plastic bag, dirt.” It looks like suburban glut, a whitebread evisceration, a kind of bland crime scene. The title seems ironic, for the primary violence of suburbia, is that nothing ever happens.
Out on the pavement in front of the gallery I overhear a man speaking about a reality cooking show. He mimics the master-chef screeching, “don’t put things you can’t eat on the plate.” Quite unintentionally, I eavesdrop one possible reading of Vivian’s show. Amongst all these beautiful, perfect, saleable objects, the artist’s installation, ‘Something, happening… happened?’, could be a kindred of that sad sprig of plastic parsley skulking uselessly on a plate. Another possibility presents itself, as I am reminded of an anecdote told to me by artist/writer Holly Childs about her older sister, who, dressing in front of her said, “you always have to add something totally fucked”, before tying a denim shirt around her waist, completing her outfit.
The strength of this show isn’t it’s concept, nor its meta narrative, it is the beautiful objects on the walls through which Vivian tells stories like sullied poetry. **