For an artist to produce a bad painting is inevitable, it happens all the time. There is even a Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Massachusetts. The curator of the Museum of Bad Art, Michael Frank says that bad art “must have been created by someone who was seriously attempting to make an artistic statement – on that has gone horribly awry in either its concept or execution.” And a good artist can still create a bad painting – creating bad art is a risk that every artist must accept.
Gordon Hookey’s oil painting “Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” 2009 has gone horribly awry in both its concept and its execution. It is possibly the worst painting created in Australia in 2009 and yet it is in GoMA’s collection. I have, unfortunately, seen a couple of uglier paintings last year, exhibited in artist run spaces but none of these had the size, the lofty ambitions nor the important subject of Hookey’s painting.
“Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” is a terrible painting because it should have been Australia’s Geurnica. At approximately 3m x 5m, it almost has the size of Guernica. It is intended to be a great history painting to mark the homicidal, racist and unjust behaviour of the Queensland Police Force on Palm Island in 2004.
In 2005 and Robert Nelson (in a review of Gordon Hookey’s exhibition at Nellie Castan Gallery) wrote: “Gordon Hookey has fun with his medium, his ideas and his background.” ‘Fun’ is one of my favorite words for art and I have no doubt that in the paintings that Nelson was reviewing Hookey was having fun for Hookey is capable of having fun with images, as I’ve seen it in his other paintings. Perhaps the horror and injustice of the events on Palm Island are too awful a situation for fun images.
The painting itself has problems from its design of a V shape dividing the mob of kangaroos from the Tazer wielding force arrayed against them. The mix of literal and metaphorical images has been poorly thought out. There is blood dripping from a palm tree but where it has come from is not clear. The mob of kangaroos is well armed with gun/spears and appears a formidable force in tightly packed wedge. These mutant aggressive kangaroos appear to be something out of the comic book Tank Girl. In the foreground there are few menacing figures with their large sparking tasers; why these figures are not shown in police uniforms is a mystery when they are meant to represent the Queensland Police Force. It appears that the painting avoids representing any of the people or any of the events.
Hookey’s painting crudely illustrative style of painting with its dark outlines and bright colours has its inherent risks – it can easily become ugly. The colour in the painting have been chosen for their illustrative quality, the kangaroos are in a variety of different colours of brown to help define one from another. I presume that the kangaroo’s eyes have been painted blue to make them a different colour from the brown.
The didactic panel at GoMA did much more to explain the horror and injustice on Palm Island than the painting. It did not explain why the artist had chosen to represent the events in this peculiar way. I don’t want to blame Gordon Hookey entirely for this very ugly painting; it is not entirely his responsibility that I was exposed to such an ugly painting, it might be decaying in storage. It is the curators and acquisition committee of GoMA that are responsible for its exhibition. I presume that GoMA purchased it for historic references rather than artistic merit.
It is a shame that the events on Palm Island, yet another death of an Aboriginal man in custody, part of the continuing genocide in Australia, is trivialized with a bad painting. If only Hookey had seen Juan Davila’s scathing versions of Australian history paintings. But the first solo public gallery exhibition of Juan Davila in Brisbane only took place at Griffith University in 2009. Davila’s history paintings are full of transgressive references to art history and Australian history. They are full of details that build a complex of ideas about the historic event and relate it to the contemporary world. Hookey has simplified the history into a ‘them and us’ position; the painting becomes a simple partisan illustration. The title “Blood on the wattle” is a Henry Lawson reference that falls as flat irony in the face of the current Queensland Labor Party government. This is not a rally to insurrection that the line in Lawson’s poem proposes but a way to support the state’s image of being a liberal democracy by having critical art in GOMA.
“Like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Wm. Burroughs commenting on John Hartsfield’s photomontages.