PLAYING WITH FIRE – GUILTY PLEASURES AT THE UNION GALLERY
Tuesday, 6 August 2013
When Kevin Low exhibited at the Union Gallery in April last year, many of his imagined frauds, thespians and freaks seemed on the brink of disaster.
Low celebrated their fragile triumphs, but as often enjoyed the subtle disintegration of their lies, their costumes’ unravelling seams. Most memorably, 'The Incendiary Miss Siddons' was pictured serenely fingering flames with eyes fixed on the viewer. Meanwhile the theatre curtain and even her skirts had begun to catch fire.
‘The Acrobat’, ‘The Aviatrix’ and the more masque-like ‘In the Guise of Autumn’ repeat these performative contexts (in fact the first has been carried forward from and the second reworks an image of last year), as does ‘Annie Copeland as the Ingenue‘ and – more slowly paced – ‘Sad Dancer’. Those eyes!
But with these familiar turns accounted for, there begins to emerge something rather more serious in Low’s recent paintings – a desire to explore beyond the bitter-sweet delights of narrative subversion. What Low uncovers in this new terrain is more serious and less comfortable.
It all starts quite pleasantly. ‘In and Out of the Woods’ shows a bare-chested young man seated in what could be a summerhouse. His expression is unreadable, but one soon suspects that the gauzy red shirt beside him belongs to an unseen lover nearby. In his hand he holds a pot from which a pink flower struggles to the upright. We think we know where all this is going.
Only, almost unnoticed on the young man’s chest, twining towards the tree outside in one direction and his crutch in the other, is a green tendril. Similarly, the sinuous green coils surrounding the female subject of 'In the Balnamoon Woods' hint first at a magical oneness with Creation. Only, the tendrils linking woods to woman combine elements of halo, embrace and garotte. Instinctive urges perhaps come at a price: ‘[Y]ou just have to get on with it,’ says Low in the exhibition catalogue, ‘live and endure all the pleasures of nature’.
Compare next the melting features of the young woman in 'At the Very, Very Top of Finavon Hill' (below). Her strange distortion on the roof of the world suggests strange knowledge, haunting or possession. Or insanity.
She appears again, possibly, in 'Happy Mischief' (below), where the incendiary showbiz carelessness of Low's Miss Siddons seems to have transformed into a paranormal ability to combust at will.
Such fun may be harmless enough now, but youthful, thoughtless self-absorption does not stay innocent for long. Low depicts a birthday boy with a paper bag over his head in 'Making Plans'. The paradox makes one smile. The same child plays destructively with fire in 'Monster'.
And then a young man in 'Happy Days' stands in a field of corn, the colourful 'pleasures of nature' surrounding him, flittering in his hair. Only gradually does one spot the burning torch in his hand, infer the hellish conflagration which will shortly ensue and presumably consume him.
Most of the new digital-pen works here are imbued with such unsettling threads and disturbing beauties. Low occasionally observes these truths as if through the tightly focused lens of a movie camera, and in the catalogue likens the unconventional angels of 'Three Sisters' (below) to bluegrass singers in rural Tennessee. But one can’t help wondering if, beneath the artist's unreliable gloss, they are in fact more like the three weird sisters of Macbeth; all shuffle and swing in one breath, all fog and filthy air in the next. AM
The Pleasures of Nature continues at the Union Gallery (45 Broughton Street) until 2 September.