By Ashley Crawford
Visual Tension was intended to be provocative. For better or worse, it was.
It was 1985 and it was the height of the tsunami of interest in all things theoretical, especially all things French theoretical. The magazines, most especially Art & Text, On The Beach, Frogger and Local Consumption were awash with references to Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari and Baudrillard. Especially Baudrillard. Even the more journalistic and ‘popular’ culture mag Tension fell under the sway of the French revolution.
In the midst of this, apart from editing Tension, I was making ends meet by working at ACCA. One of the first projects I was involved with was the Three Room project by Howard Arkley, David Larwill and Juan Davila. It was, presumably, a deliberately provocative act by John Buckley. Larwill was staunchly anti-theoretical, Davila the extreme opposite, Arkley fell somewhere in between. This intimate frisson one experienced witnessing the artists working ‘together’ inspired an idea, a magazine of artists-only imagery eschewing the theoretical discourse, clearly a deliberately confrontational act. For better or worse, the provocation worked all too well.
I discussed this notion with Buckley who inspired with typical enthusiasm. Not only would we do the magazine, but we would exhibit the works at ACCA to launch it. My own art-world experience was limited to the Art Projects network (Nixon, Watson, Tyndall, Tillers, John Mathews et al), Clifton Hill Music Centre (Maria Kozic), and mutual friends of Paul Taylor’s (Art & Text) such as Vivienne Shark LeWitt. Tension had also covered artists from City Gallery in St. Kilda such as Stieg Persson, from Tolarno Galleries in South Yarra such as Howard Arkley and Linda Marrinon, and from Reconnaissance Galleries in Fitzroy such as Marianne Baillieu and Paul Boston. There were also folk I had met in Sydney such as John Lethbridge, John Young and Richard Dunn. Chaos is a polite term for this exercise, my first in curating and dealt with, from memory, on a ridiculously short deadline and utterly no budget.
To this already disparate mix John Buckley immediately added folk I had yet to meet such as Peter Booth and Gareth Sansom. To say the selection was unruly would be an understatement, and yet all of the artists responded with enthusiasm (or almost all – from memory Juan Davila was invited and dismissed the notion, politely, immediately, but would respond to the project savagely shortly thereafter). And that was before an enthusiastic Peter Cripps, already included in the initial lineup and then the director of the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, suggested an immediate follow up – the same show but with the inclusion of Queensland artists at the IMA such artists as Robert MacPherson and Scott Redford.
Beyond the selection and exhibition mayhem much of the pressure fell to Tension’s designer, Terence Hogan. Amongst other things these were the days of crude scanning and reproduction techniques. We asked the artists to supply page-ready works, original works if possible. Some came through, some did not, leading to chaos as attempts were made to photograph irregular sizes (causing a terrible argument with Art Projects’ artist Greg Ades who delivered large canvases which remained beneath our home’s staircase for months and were never utilised, sadly). The other issue remained as to who should feature on the issue’s cover. The elder statesman Booth or the young turks Persson or Marrinon? After much travail Hogan came up with his own design and image, an ‘appropriated’ medical image of a man bandaged, blinded in one eye. It summed up the argument the edition was intended to address; was it about the visual and/or was it about the theoretical. Hogan also opted to utilize a die-cut on the cover, a ‘hole’ through which to view the image, which looked simply amazing and but destined to tear on every other issue.
Visual Tension turned out to be a galvanizing moment, albeit short-lived with nothing like the impact and significance of Paul Taylor’s POPISM at the NGV – more a brick launched into that gallery’s moat. Over that period, while many of the artists had embraced a theoretical standpoint, many others were indifferent or even antagonistic to the preponderance of the ‘word.’ This was our curious curatorial stance.
‘Mainstream’ media coverage was positive; ‘Centre aims for wider audience,’ proclaimed The Age on February 28, 1985, quoting myself stating that the “aim was to give the space back to the artists,” (and also noting that the magazine received no funding). Critical response was lukewarm to downright murderous. Robert Rooney, who was also included in the show, reviewed it for The Age and allowed a balanced discussion, accurately pointing out the mixed results of the printed version. He particularly noted the disappointing Peter Booth work, which as he pointed out, ended up a muddy mélange. The more archly conservative Rod Carmichael slammed the show in The Sun, dismissing Jenny Watson’s work as ‘scribble’ and incorrectly identifying the magazine as subsidised.
But it was in the pages of On The Beach  that the knives were drawn. Denise Robinson, Paul Foss and Juan Davila decimated both the show and the concept. This was, perhaps, of little surprise. The trio were amongst those actively promoting French theoretical works – the thought of art without words was, for them, anathema. Clearly the notion of provoking debate had worked, for better or worse. However while Foss and Robinson at least saw some merit in the concept, Davila went apoplectic.
Admittedly a hunk of the problem was the decidedly naive text that accompanied the publication, a rather embarrassing moment for which I shall share the blame with John Buckley.
Robinson: “Access is a proposition which is also offered to the artists: ‘Give the word a rest’ and ‘give the space back to the artists’. The critical space referred to is not defined, the offer ignores the fact that several artists within the exhibition have maintained theoretical methodology as integral to their work… as a strategy to assert its mobility and a determination to prevent being isolated from the power relations which affect its production. It is all the more surprising that artists such as Richard Dunn and Peter Tyndall have acquiesced here. The promotion of the word-object dichotomy suggests a limitation of the possibilities of questioning what language is and how it is generated/produced….”
But it was Davila who wielded the sharpest machete, blasting not only the concept, but the artists involved. He described the short text as “evidence of an early wearing in nerves and brain, an appeal to intellectual feebleness matched by the passivity of the artists. They share an editorial policy and an exhibition space that they do not control or want to discuss.” Davila’s bitterness here was uncalled for – the curators, Buckley and myself, proposed the context of the show/magazine in simple terms to the artists. The concept was discussed, in studios, in the gallery, in bars, but not in the high end discourse Davila craved (admittedly some artists cringed at the result.)
“Most of the works in Visual Tension do not refer to other works, or a context of cultural operation or a dialogue with other discourses,” Davila wrote. “They are blind, as the icon chosen for the cover illustrates. They are dumbstruck, renouncing any analytical stand; as the publication says, ‘give the word a rest’. Will they be also deaf to what is written?” In his own way Davila gave credibility to the project. His complaining was the perfect argument to our own. It was not so much that these artists were unaware, as Davila contended, but that they agreed to an alternative approach for a split second.
But Davila was determined to throw the baby out with the bath water: “Some of the artists – Stieg Persson, John Matthews, Gareth Sansom, Peter Cripps, Linda Marrinon, Peter Booth, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, John Young, Geoff Lowe, Howard Arkley, John Lethbridge, Marianne Baillieau and Paul Boston – all seem to have painted the same picture for this exhibition, one that is assimilable and indistinguishable from the commonplace of the worldwide kitsch picture consecrated by the international magazines. They share the notion of an imaginary that is private, beyond the problem of production of signs and social representation. In this instance, they appear to be denying themselves any critical value and reducing their own practice to an ornamental one.”
One had to question Davila’s eyesight here. Suggesting that every artists’ image came down to having “painted the same picture” when one had the stringent graphics of Arkley cheek-by-jowl with the gestural approach of Booth, or the poetical graphics of LeWitt next to the expressionistic essence of Baillieau, suggests a degree of critical blindness. To be sure, I got his point; art had to be about discourse. But that was our point: It didn’t always have to be about social representation or language.
It will annoy Juan to know that I was delighted by his review. He had taken the bait whole-heartedly and drawn the line in a far more articulate way than I could ever have hoped. But also in fairness to our critics, Visual Tension was a deeply flawed project, naïve in the extreme and clumsy in both its stated approach and its overall execution. A number of the artists were unhappy about the result for various reasons. But it certainly inspired conversation and debate. What more could one ask?