Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tenements of Wonder: Andrew Atchison and Stephen Benwell

With its striking Aubrey Beardsley cover, the first volume of The Yellow Book (1894) presented a cross-section of recent English literary and artistic activity. It also hammered a stake through the heart of the heteronormative world due to the appearance within its pages of an article by the previously unpublished 22-years old Max Beerbohm. With “A Defence of Cosmetics” (later republished as “The Pervasion of Rouge”), Beerbohm precociously combined a mocking pastiche of his mentor, Oscar Wilde, with a deadly serious manifesto of the aesthetics of artifice derived directly from Wilde himself. The opening paragraph begins, “Nay, but it is powerless to protest. Artifice must queen it once more in the town…”. Not surprisingly, the windows of The Yellow Book ‘s publisher were stoned by a mob shortly after it was reported (erroneously) that Wilde was seen carrying a copy of it at his arrest (1895). In a sense, yellow was just one of the many colours of this rainbow-hued publication, so redolent was it of a contemporary queer subculture. The Yellow Book didn’t long survive Wilde’s trials and imprisonment, ceasing publication in 1897.

In his own manifesto, How to be Gay (2012), David M Halperin claims artifice as a key element in gay subjectivity, in what it feels like to be homosexual. Halperin locates the emergence of this quality in early childhood, a consequence of innocent queers being thrust into a world not made for them. This gay “sixth sense” allows for a prescient understanding of gender performativity and consequentially of all forms of social role-playing, regardless of how natural they seem in a heteronormative world. Halperin argues that aesthetics, the codifying of artifice, is a special (and stereotypical) preserve of gay men, providing a protective buffer to the compulsory straightness that surrounds and sometimes threatens. It constitutes a key characteristic of gay culture (along with camp), but not one that necessarily defines all gay men, or that all gay men take pride in. 

Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Some we see no more, Tenements of Wonder” (1871), treats the image of a dazzling storeyed building metaphorically as a casement for minds and personalities of enduring significance, some now lost to the poet in death. I’ve borrowed this image as shorthand for gay subjectivity, especially its aesthetic tendency, shining forth in blinding colours and striking architectural details. In presenting the very different work of two gay artists, Stephen Benwell and Andrew Atchison, I’ve suggested what some of these qualities might be and what they might look like.

The six-coloured rainbow flag (originally eight-coloured) designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 is used universally as a symbol of GLBT pride. In much of his recent work, Andrew Atchison appropriates its colours to tease out other resonances: scientific, Biblical, cinematic, and art historical. Building on his sculptural practice, Atchison has sought ways to animate the rainbow colours in spatial settings. His temporary public art project Commune (2012) was initially designed as a hanging circle of multi-coloured ropes to be installed in a busy causeway at Southern Cross Station. When this site became unsuitable for various reasons, the project was shifted to a public park in Docklands where the original format proved less practical technically and aesthetically. Atchison re-thought the work as a monumental portal decorated with coloured ropes, a queer triumphal arch in the midst of the dullness of that blighted development. Before “Docklands”, the docks themselves had been the site of the massive ALSO Foundation warehouse parties of the 1980s and 90s, the acme of gay culture in those years. For me, Commune memorialised those fabulous, ephemeral events, and also evoked the values of the once coherent gay community that had participated in them. Lost to illness and ageing and the dynamics of social change, that community has since made way for a multitude of subcultures. Although Atchison’s work is also now dismantled, Commune survives in the memories of those who experienced it, and in shards of documentation. Wondrousness moves on…

Halperin signals a further attribute of gay subjectivity that is closely allied to the aesthetic: the obsessive collector. The rigorous attempt to master categories of taste by either acquisition of things or encyclopaedic knowledge about them is a defining characteristic of many gay men. Again, it signals a protest against the normal world, a solitary act of world-making by homos in response to their experience of wrong fit. Stephen Benwell is well versed in the world of the collector, not only by making work that is collectable and collected, but by making works conceived as collections. The twelve sets of Collections (2009), originally shown at Shepparton Art Gallery, mimic museum displays of ancient objects with their tight organisation of heterogeneous pieces -- a fragment of a supposed masterpiece sitting next to an egg cup. Benwell plays with scales of time and context. His classical heads and torsos sprout hair and have rosy lips, their proportions more akin to contemporary gym culture than Athenian gymnasia. The particular set of Collections selected for Greenwood Street Project consists of a multitude of diminutive vessels that resemble the cosmetic and ointment jars seen in many study collections of ancient cultures. Brightly coloured, they appear still to be in use, perhaps as vessels to mix the opaque pigments seen in Benwell’s recent paintings. With their rich chalky colours resembling make-up, the series of painted portraits entitled Women of Troy make this connection almost literal. But like the Collections with their pop sensibilities, these portraits (derived from a Piranesi engraving of a classical sculpture) are no mere copies. With his gentle cubist facture, Benwell lends them an updated fragmentation different to that posed by the ravages of time.

A famous dandy along classic Wildean lines, Max Beerbohm maintained rigorous aesthetic standards throughout his long life. Although tending towards asexuality and eventually marrying, he was not gay. He can, nonetheless, be coded as queer. Certainly his writings from the 1890s, the so-called Naughty Nineties, speak loudly of this. In a further Wildean spoof, A Peep into the Past (1894), Beerbohm knowingly noted the presence at Wilde’s Tite Street address of “the constant stream of page-boys, which so startles the neighbourhood”. His essay on the history of cosmetics, with its championing of artifice over nature, places him squarely beneath the rainbow arch spanning the gay pantheon, which also now includes the work of Andrew Atchison and Stephen Benwell.

Michael Graf
Melbourne May 2013