Charles Griffin - recipient of the 2003 Steve Vizard grant for the marginally talented - has his detractors, but this young Melbourne artist has ignored the nay-sayers and gone straight for the jugular with his new exhibition, White People Are Racist & Other Suburban Truths.
Griffin, who is one-sixteenth talented, states in the programme notes that his intention is to "subvert the mores of white, middle-class Australia, and the racist, masculinist, imperialist ideology at the dark heart of this country." Griffin is well-placed to do so, having completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Applied Retrospective Indignation (Art History). "My goal," he writes, "is to peel away the veneer of suburban respectability to reveal the festering pustules of hatred and hypocrisy at the core of the Great Australian Dream."
Reading these words, this reviewer felt a tingle of joyful anticipation. At last - somebody willing to stand up and expose the nightmare behind the daydream of Australian suburbia! It is not often one comes across a concept so revolutionary as to take one's breath away, like an asthma attack in a wind tunnel. Yet it was in such a state - wheezing and hacking with glee - that I made my way into the exhibition space.
Griffin can be difficult; his conceptual pieces often require seconds of thought to decode. The first piece one encounters in the present exhibition, AmeriKKKa - a United States flag, lightly singed around the edges, and spray-painted with the words "No Wor" (sic) - reflects the deep reading Griffin engages in while formulating his ideas. Nearby, a bust of Prime Minister John Howard sculpted from the artist's own excrement and titled Shithead, with undigested corn kernels, is a beautifully understated piece that would not look out of place in the hallowed galleries of the Louvre.
The icons of traditional Australian art are challenged in the Heidelberg Exhumed series, Griffin exposing the reality behind the romanticised images of the 1890s. The Pioneer of Hate, one of the standout works of the show, savagely mimics McCubbin's famous triptych. Where McCubbin told a sentimental tale of hard work, spousal devotion, and beneficial progress, Griffin offers a more clear-eyed take, with his images of environmental holocaust at the hands of the pioneering axe, the rape of native animals, and the drunken bands of Sydney intelligentsia who once roamed the outback, composing doggerel and beating women with their gold-topped walking sticks. Fucking the Rams is in a similar vein; Roberts' celebrated work is revealed as pastoral propaganda, pushing the agenda of the landed elite to the exclusion of the emotional interests of their ovine slaves.
Yet while Griffin proves an incisive and witty commentator on history and power politics, it is his critique of middle class Australia that truly engages. In Griffin's reading, white, Anglo-Saxon culture is exclusive, inhibitive, and inherently xenophobic and misogynistic. It is also agonisingly philistine, as Griffin opines in the painting They won't understand this, in which a "typical" Australian family sits at the dinner table, eating fast food from paper bags, the television prattling away in front of them, while in a dingy corner resides a broken, cobwebbed pile of art and literature. The same message is implicit in the self-portrait, Artist, Cubed, where Griffin depicts himself squashed into a tiny box, outside of which lie pen and ink, brush and paint, lyre and melody. Griffin finds himself in artistic purgatory - and it's name is suburbia.
Of course, similar ideas have been put forth by other Australian artists, notably John Brack and Jeffrey Smart. Griffin, however, rejects the Eliotesque existentialism of these painters in favour of a blunt, aggressive approach. "A people asleep require a gunshot, not an argument, to wake them," writes the critic Jean-Paul Longueur in a recent essay. "Griffin provides that gunshot. He rejects intellectualism, consistency of thought, logic, decency, tradition, and even half-decent painting in order to guy his countrymen from their slumber. If we are to combat the prevalent right-wing ideology of our times, it is necessary to throw out the books and pull on the jackboots. Griffin's work may well end up on a flag, someday."
Such revolutionary concerns aside, however, Griffin's work has much to offer the average art lover. As a lesson in where one is wrong, and, in Griffin's well-chosen words, how "fucked up" one's "pathetic existence" is, White People Are Racist is hard to beat. One emerges from the exhibition feeling as though one's soul has been scrubbed with a jagged pumice stone, its guilt-ridden innards exposed for all to see. This reviewer never knew just how much of a bigot he was until Griffin showed him the light. The title piece, in particular, with its multi-media imagery of white savagery juxtaposed with black spirituality is particularly affecting. Few previous artists have bothered with such issues; it has taken Griffin to show us where we have gone wrong. That is, Griffin shows us the inherent and hopeless ghastliness of being a white Australian.
He also shows us a way out. Blow Your Brains Out, Australia, a huge piece covering some eight square metres, is a photo-collage of computer manipulated images of suicide victims, arranged so as to make an Australian flag when viewed from afar. Ten minutes spent looking at this powerful work was enough to make this reviewer if not suicidal, then potentially so. It is remarkable that in the present climate of conservative repression, one artist should find it in himself to go against the grain, to challenge the prevailing orthodoxes, to reveal the truth behind the facade of modern life. White People Are Racist & Other Suburban Truths will leave you depressed, anxious, ashamed, deflated, and quite possibly reaching for the sleeping pills and a bottle of bourbon. It is, in short, what good Australian art is all about.