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Bronia Iwanczak, Defence Rhythm, 1997 Bronia Iwanczak, Defence Rhythm, 1997
courtesy the artist
PLAIN SPEAKING RENEGADE ART CRITIC DAVE HICKEY TAGS IT “THE INVISIBLE DRAGON.” IT’S BEEN DEEMED “UNCONTROLLABLE” WHILE OTHERS HAVE WRITTEN OF ITS “MISADVENTURES.” PICK PHILOSOPHER ARTHUR C. DANTO’S BRAIN AND HE WILL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT ITS “ABUSE.” BEAUTY, AS MUCH AS IT PURPORTEDLY REMAINS A TABOO IN TODAY’S ART WORLD, HAS CERTAINLY HAD SOME IMPASSIONED WORDS PENNED IN ITS DEFENCE IN THE PAST TWO DECADES.

Conceptual Beauty: Perspectives on Australian Contemporary Art, a new book by Sydney visual arts scholar and writer Jacqueline Millner, doesn’t take to this debate with guns blazing. Rather, from the perspective of an attentive, perceptive and thoughtful critic who has observed the breadth of Australian art practice on the ground for the past decade and a half, there emerge some telling observations on the state of beauty in Australian art. Firstly, Millner identifies a substantial body of Australian artists making visually compelling artworks that challenge audiences to consider complex ideas, often of a political or socially engaged nature. Unlike their anti-aesthetic contemporaries, these artists care deeply about materials, craft and formal qualities. And, as it happens, many of them are women, some relegated to the margins of the local canon.

For these findings alone, Conceptual Beauty is a worthy addition to the critical landscape. Yet the book serves another function, too. A collection of previously published essays and articles (some from RealTime) spanning the mid-90s to the near present, the book offers insight into many of the driving concerns of recent contemporary art as well as a window into Jacqueline Millner’s development as an arts writer. As such, the author has not confined herself to the subject of beauty and, reflecting her diverse interests, the book is organised around the broad themes of nature, space(s), body relations, politics, history and, lastly, beauty. Yet even when the author is not directly dealing with this subject, much of her writing embodies a revisionist impulse that acknowledges the critical power of aesthetics.

Take her choice of cover image which offers a good clue to the type of beauty to which Millner is drawn. An installation detail from Bronia Iwanczak’s Defence Rhythm (1997), it shows two embryonic slug-like forms fashioned from fractured eggshells packed ever so delicately and self-entwining, giving rise to a tension between strength and frailty. There is charm and visual allure to be found in the artist’s resourcefulness, in her artisan-like attention to her materials and in her meticulous arrangement of these brittle cast-offs into patterns of soft tonal gradation from dark to light. They are indeed beautiful, in an unconventional way. Yet, Millner suggests, they speak also of the larger cultural climate of late modernity where “life continues, albeit in corrupted, hybrid forms, forged out of expediency from whatever is at hand.”

While Defence Rhythm is placed in the chapter on history, Iwanczak’s creations would also be at home in the primary essay in which Millner contextualises her main argument; “Conceptual Beauty: Aesthetics and recent Australian contemporary art.” Focusing on the practices of Fiona Hall, Tracey Moffatt and Rosemary Laing, Millner formulates “conceptual beauty” as describing “an artwork’s integration of intense attention, pleasure, and communication in a way that can bring about a momentary decentring of self in the viewer and evoke a ‘wealth of thought-emotion’ capable of creating the materials with which to construct new concepts and the socio-political arrangements that would correspond to them.”

The types of “thought-emotion” that artworks exhibiting conceptual beauty can give way to appear vary in Millner’s inventory. Robyn Stacey’s wondrous large-scale photographs of moth, insect and animal specimens normally hidden away in natural history collections, for example, provoke consideration of the interdependence between science and the visual in systems of taxonomy. Equally seductive are the super slick techno-human sculptural hybrids of Patricia Piccinini, underscored by ethical concerns over the manipulation of nature in the digital age. While the visceral delight to be enjoyed in the sensual and gloriously thick lashings of paint on Ben Quilty’s canvases form the material of a playful yet multi-faceted enquiry into the negotiation of masculine identity in Australian culture.

As noted, there is undoubtedly an emphasis on the practice of female artists at play here, and while male artists such as Mike Parr, Adam Geczy, David Noonan, Christopher Dean, Jonathan Jones and William Seeto are included, Millner is unapologetic about the gender imbalance. This stems partially from the author’s long running interest in feminist theory and art practice, as well as a natural attraction to the “strength of ideas” she finds in the work of Australian female artists. It would be unnecessarily heavy-handed to insist on equal representation of male and female artists, but given the long entrenched association of women with such areas as beauty, nature and the body, it is possible the inclusion of just a few more male artists who consciously employ the trope of beauty would have been effective in further challenging stereotypes.

The two-fold aim of the book to offer a snapshot of Australian practice from the mid-90s to now, whilst also putting forward an argument for the term “conceptual beauty” does pose structural challenges, too. For the most part these are skillfully handled but for one perplexing choice, the placement of the extended essay on Conceptual Beauty, the raison d’être for the book’s title, toward the end of the book. Perhaps this represents a gesture of humility on the author’s part, not wanting to impose an umbrella type theory over the entire volume especially when it doesn’t apply to every essay, leaving readings more open. Yet having skipped forward to this section, craving a deeper explication of Millner’s term, subsequent readings of preceding chapters did seem enriched.

Such phrases as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ tend to become clichés because they contain a distillation of truth. The strength of Millner’s contribution lies in her capacity to enact a journey into the mind of the ‘beholder’ with her thorough, and frequently elegant, assessments of the psychological processes that cleverly crafted objects can engender. Writing from a position of empathy, rather than provocation, Millner practices what she preaches by handling artists’ work with care. In this way, Conceptual Beauty speaks of a fairer critical benchmark where ideas and aesthetics may, at last, be equally weighted.


Conceptual Beauty: Perspectives on Australian Contemporary Art by Jacqueline Millner is published by Artspace, Sydney, 2010. ISBN 978 1 920781 41 5

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 50

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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