John McDonald The Virtuoso of Failure, 2001
The Virtuoso of Failure
From the moment he burst onto the Melbourne art scene with his Technical Manifesto of Town Planning (1982), Tony Clark has been a virtuoso of failure. He has failed and failed again, failed and failed better, and has orchestrated his efforts with consummate professionalism. The paradox of Tony Clark is that he has harnessed an obvious lack of artistic talent to a ‘couldn’t-care-less’ attitude towards technique and finish, and placed the results within a frame garnished with the intellectual equivalent of costume jewellery — to capture the hearts of artists, critics, dealers and curators.
This is a very late–20th century phenomenon, and, it is tempting to say — a very Melbourne phenomenon. Although Clark has made his mark in other Australian cities, and gained a toehold in Germany after being included in Documenta IX in 1993, he owes his rapid rise to a special set of circumstances. In the early 1980s, Australian art was emerging from a long, boring winter of conceptualism, minimalism, earth works, feminist polemics, trade union banners, and embarrassing performance pieces. Sensing that it was time for a change, the young critic and social climber, Paul Taylor, had launched the magazine Art & Text, with the aim of promoting a new wave of emerging Australian artists. The new work was an unlikely alliance of ‘TransAvantGarde’-style paintings, and late-blooming Pop art. The intellectual pedigree came largely from Roland Barthes, and from Dick Hebdidge’s book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style.
Within a few years, the Art & Text putsch had conquered the citadels of contemporary Australian art. The artists who had been promoted by the magazine — including Jenny Watson, Mike Parr, Imants Tillers, Dale Frank, Peter Tyndall, Maria Kozic, John Nixon, Howard Arkley and a host of others — had become obligatory acquisitions for public art museums, and were first choice for overseas travelling exhibitions. The Marxist professors who had championed trade union banners and feminist art, were seduced by the conspicuous coolness of the new art, and jumped aboard the bandwagon.
In retrospect, the whole episode seems like a triumph of hype over substance, just as the financial boom of the 1980s was characterized by spectacular displays of wealth bouyed up by imaginary money. The best of the ‘new wave’ artists have maintained a presence in the Australian art scene, but there is no longer any suggestion of a small, closely-knit vanguard dominating every public exhibition.
In 1982, when Tony Clark made his artistic debut, Paul Taylor had put together an exhibition called Popism for the National Gallery of Victoria, as a showcase for his favourite artists. Iconoclasm was the order of the day, and Clark’s Technical Manifesto of Town Planning was a breath-taking new addition to the field. The work consisted of thirteen small canvas boards and one photograph arranged on a shelf. Each canvas board featured a piece of classically-inspired architecture, painted in the roughest, most awkward fashion. Clark’s method has been described as “Expressionist”, although it could just as easily have been called ‘inept’. Moreover, it was self-consciously and comfortably inept, as though it would have been beneath the artist’s dignity to expend any greater effort.
By this stage, Clark had already collaborated with the artist, John Nixon, on a series of equally raw musical pieces that appeared in 1981, and have recently been resuscitated by SLAVE PIANOS. His next venture was a set of Sacro-Idyllic landscapes of 1982–84, which led quickly to Clark’s Myriorama, a seemingly endless series of small temples painted on canvas boards, according to a formula devised by Englishman, John Clark, in 1824. Tony Clark started on this project in 1985, and by 1997 it was still crawling along. Quite possibly it remains a work in progress. Other projects have included the Chinoiserie landscapes of 1985–89, which began with a plasticene model of a Chinese temple, depicted on a series of small canvas boards against a decorative background. The Kufic landscapes of 1991 introduced Islamic characters into the mix, while the Jasperware paintings of 1993 borrowed from Josiah Wedgwood’s decorative schema of a white emblem, in bas-relief, against a flat, monochrome background. Another, much-touted work of 1994, called Important Contemporary Sculpture, translated a ‘formless’ rope sculpture by Eva Hesse into a silhouette wall piece, painted in gold.
Common to these diverse projects was the capacity to activate a series of art historical paradigms to produce a vertiginous impression of erudition and profundity. To the uninitiated viewer the works may appear amateurish, incompetent and repetitive, but to those alert to the play of references, Clark’s work took on the status of a philosophical investigation. It held a special appeal to those artists, writers and curators who felt able to decode the work’s iconographical associations, and explain how Clark ‘subverted’ various canons of taste and style. In brief, Clark allowed his admirers to enjoy the satisfying feeling of being ‘insiders’, while the rest of the world may have remained blind and deaf to his wisdom.
This process is documented in the catalogue of a survey exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, Heide Park, Melbourne, in May 1998. In his preface to Tony Clark: Public and Private Paintings 1982–98, the museum director, Warwick Reeder, discerns both “technical virtuosity” and an “anti-painting posture” in Clark’s work. This sort of paradox is repeated on almost every page of the catalogue. His painting is described as “punk classicism”; it inspires both “desire and revulsion”; it is positioned somewhere between “homage and satire” or “belief and disbelief”. In a “colloquium” a group of Clark’s artist friends discuss his work, admiring the way Tony “gets it wrong without even trying.” They compare him to Vermeer, “without the fourteen children”. They find certain pictures to be simultaneously “lumpy and horrible” and “beautiful”. They note that a mural Clark painted for St.Kilda public library in Melbourne is “really hated” by staff — which leads to the thought that “if it is disliked then maybe that’s the sign that you’re onto something.”
So too with a 1997 show of paintings on single stretcher bars, to which “people responded really badly”. One participant confesses his fear that “there is some quality like he hasn’t done any work, that he doesn’t give a shit about you, that he is trying to send you up…” Another speaker decides this is “really good,” since it provides “a tension”. For the next speaker this means Clark is to be praised because “he doesn’t give you any easy solutions.”
This extraordinary exchange of opinions, which is without parallel in Australian art publishing, has provided Slave Pianos with much of their libretto for The Broccoli Maestro. Further contributions are drawn from Clark’s own writings, and those of his female alter-ego, Judith Pascal.
By now it should be clear that Tony Clark’s reputation has soared on the wings of paradox and contradiction. He is not being praised for his skill and hard work, but for his “slapstick” and careless approach, which denotes a dandy’s contempt for the conventional social and artistic values. The fact that he has painted with a stick of broccoli, or allowed a picture to be covered with stray hairs from his lounge room carpet, is a sign that he is working on a higher plane from those artists who strive to achieve a pristine and unified surface. His most persistent preoccupation is Classicism or Neo-Classicism, which he debunks by painting classically perfect forms in the most incompetent manner. The references that he drops — to Mantegna, Wedgwood, Aldo Rossi, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux or St.Thomas Aquinas — to name only a few — are bewildering to most of his audience, but serve as shared badges of belonging for those included in the loop. In the world of Tony Clark, failure is success, trivialization is homage, incompetence is the highest form of skill, and mere names are passports to the realms of philosophy. Even pretentiousness is ruled out, because to be deliberately pretentious is to take shelter under the mantle of irony.
One realizes the mystical power of this position when reading one of the essayists in the Heide Park catalogue, who tells us that Clark’s work is “a depiction of the (almost) literal disintegration of western culture itself… a declaration of the impossibility of any such markers of cultural centrality or originality.”
To a mutually-supportive avant-garde sheltered at the ends of the earth, it must be comforting to think that cultural centrality and originality are all washed up. Neither is it a small matter that one artist from St.Kilda has single-handedly debunked the entire Classical tradition, using a piece of broccoli as a brush and his lounge room floor as an easel. Truly, this is the stuff from which grand opera is made.
Canberra, October 2001