REVIEW: Two shows about the rise of pop art culture

At Lake Macquarie: Joan Ross, Colonial Grab (still), 2014, digital animation, 7:38 mins. Courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Gallery.

At Lake Macquarie: Joan Ross, Colonial Grab (still), 2014, digital animation, 7:38 mins. Courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Gallery.

The pair of exhibitions at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery involve popular media and the move from the 1950s onwards to blunt the distinction between high and popular art.

The 1950s and ’60s seem remote. While abstraction was the prevailing language of many artists, there were others actively concerned with ephemeral images of the increasingly prominent mass media of the time, the Pop Art movement. This was both a reaction against abstraction and a democratic means of ready-made communication with the newly minted culture of youth.

From the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW comes a series of collage-based graphics compiled by Britons Eduardo Paolozzi, better known as a junk sculptor, and Joe Tilson, the avid theorist of Pop. The show is called Yes Yes Yes Yes: Graphics From The 1960s and 1970s. Both find attractive raw material in comics, science fiction, newspapers and magazines, choosing images nostalgically American, ready-made metaphor both playful and energetic.

Paolozzi brings us snub-nosed aeroplanes, ideal kitchens and sweater girls. Tilson’s collage alphabet is an elaborate project, with much ingeniously surreal juxtaposition. Both artists explore the possibilities of screen-printing. Technological advances, particularly in photographic material, had made it possible to create cheap multiple print editions, increasingly used for political protest.

A wall of similar screen prints from Germany by such prominent artists as Sigma Polke and Gerhard Richter show the international spread of this trend to create democratically inexpensive art from mass media. How small these prints now seem.

The second exhibition, Moving Histories // Future Projections, also explores popular culture, using the moving image. It requires an investment in viewing time and consists of short films made by Australian women artists, many of them making reference to pre-loved historical images, appropriating the old masters or the crazy films from the 1940s and ’50s to make ironic comment on gender or racial issues. The filmmaking techniques include borrowing existing footage, stop-motion animation and direct narrative.

Kate Blackmore and Jacinta Tobin literally whitewash the Aboriginal presence. Caroline Gracia replays the quaint dance routines from old movies, with frenetic temple dancers or dusky maidens pandering to the male gaze. Joan Ross, in another collaged tour de force, reworks the colonial paintings of John Glover, with a bored 18th century lady arranging bouquets of his signature gumtrees in absurdly ornate vases, only to see them collapse to reveal an Aboriginal arcadia. 

Other highlights include Angela Mesiti’s abstract composition that reveals itself as a soccer field and the wearying dramatics of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The most surreal work, by Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams, has two women, swathed in stripes and masked in cylinders, clambering among scaffolding in high heels, fatuously wielding tiny hammers.

Lots of fun and a strongly feminine irony.