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Ruin Value, by Nicolas Hausdorf

Rick Amor painting silence in Australia Felix

Published: 20 May 2018

Rick Amor’s Waiting (2016) presents us with an odd contradiction. While two men are clearly placed at the centre of the painting, as in other works by the artist, they seem at best marginally or incidentally its sujet: not only do the figures wear the the deindividualising business uniform of finance’s faceless soldiers but also we cannot identify their features. Meanwhile, their passivity is highlighted by the solid opulence of the neoclassical pillars that frame the window, through which we can observe the men from afar—firmitas in the Vitruvian triad. We suspect this architecture to be the true subject of the painting—a postanthropocentric move. It appears unshakeable, sturdy and eternal, stoically suffering both the wear of old age and the ridicule of the contemporary: in the corner right we see a sun-bleached and banal graffito paling away. Waiting for what, then?—we ask. Although the structures are themselves human-made, they ultimately swallow and outlast their inhabitants.

Hamilton, Victoria, located in Australia Felix—a name given by a Scottish explorer for the location’s seemingly infinite and opulent grasslands—provides the visitor with the spectacle of a town that, despite its charms, appears to have seen better days. The observer remarks a fragmented infrastructure of Victorian-era beauty complemented by more modern and practical constructions. There is a prominent and slowly rotating contemporary public-art sculpture resembling a fractured and moving pair of lips that may be of a perhaps (certainly) less timeless aesthetic. At some point, we learn, the settlement—as a result of its importance for the wool industry—had been on a path to compete with the more monumental coastal cities. In Hamilton, the past thus strangely towers over the present.

In Empty Shop in Arcade (1994) an art deco structure encases an empty, jaded shop window. Here, then, is another painting with a murky and obscure square at its centre. Behind it awaits a pale and blurry figure with a high forehead. A secretive intrusion of the artist himself? The observer cannot help the sentiment that this is a dire and baleful figure, a Grim Reaper patiently facing the observer while reading. Colours alternate between shades of red, green and grey, but all are infused by an equalising warm light, some gold lining features prominently on a column. The art deco setting evokes Melbourne but at the same time seems like an inverted, distorted and much more baroque and European version of it, as if some continental heaviness had infused it. Again, the painter presents us with a firm structure in which all signs of vitality have been liquidated.

As you walk the red-brick sidewalks of Hamilton’s Central Business District, the signs of advanced globalisation impose themselves. While a number of small businesses seem to have successfully managed to transition against overpowering national and international brands and suppliers by finding their niche, the outdated feel of other stores indicates that they may be struggling to do so. Most have abandoned the uphill battle to keep up with branding’s latest fonts and volatile rules. Decades of signage conventions and outdated lettering compete for attention. There are ill-boding abandoned shop windows covered in dust, one-dollar stores with low-quality Asian produce and aisles emitting the toxic smell of cheap plastic. As attentive flâneurs we remark an overabundance of retail space. Stores originally designed to hold vast amounts of supplies are struggling to evoke the lively buzz of customer traffic.

Afternoon in the City (2003) is dominated by the elegant crosslike arch of an art deco building. Although it looks like a car park, there is no vehicle in sight. Instead, the sand-coloured structure looks abandoned, sun-struck, telluric, necropolitan. A small, fading, fleeting figure with his back turned towards us walks past on the street carrying a package—perhaps he is a logistics agent. Again, structure surpasses individual. His task appears petty against the size of the building and difficult against the bleached sepia of the paralysing and overpowering Australian sun dominating the canvas. With his soft, waning contours, a mere darker shade of grey barely distinguishable from its surroundings, the man already resembles dust blown into the wind.

The signage of the Best Western Motel, Hamilton, promises the visitor a shielding fraction of the empire’s cool anonymity and sober transactional procedure against the inquisitiveness and social oppressiveness of small communities. Clean white linen, instant-coffee sticks and a flat-screen television reassure the visitor of familiarity amid the unknown and a continuity of reality. One cannot understand the success of large global brands if not for the meanness and finiteness complementing the sense of community and security in the small town. They provide windows to desire beyond, the possibility of exotic opportunity and the world at large. Despite its seeming geographical remoteness, Hamilton, Victoria, meanwhile appears perfectly integrated into global logistics circuits. Globalisation tends to fracture its supply chains widely, quasi-oblivious to large spatial distances as it is sustained by cheap oil and gas to cover impossibly long intervals between ultra-productive manufacturing sites. The great part of smaller towns at best become sub-suppliers to mega-industries. Few remain the masters of entire production processes, while most become relegated to consumer status. In the process, individuals lose formerly vital rituals and connections. They buy their finished produce at the local supermarket/outpost of the empire, with few being willing to conceive or capable of conceiving the elaborate structure of production, logistics and finance they are integrated within. The latter remain ever elusive. Towards dusk a strange silence descends on the small town. Nothing is really produced here. Nobody is truly the master of his own destiny. Lured by the promises of global brands, many start leaving for the bigger cities to become experts, professionals, ambassadors and intermediaries of the great unfathomable machine.

Roman Life (2001) takes the viewer into a museum dominated by high ceilings and sober modernist geometry. In contrast, the exhibition objects are of a more classical kind. An antique statue is carrying a banner in a victorious gesture, but its glory seems fractured by time—it is missing its head. The background features the silhouette of a visitor with her back turned, a dark patch in an almost monochrome sandstone warmth. She looks out of place, almost plump in comparison to the defined features of the sculptures. Again there is an obscure rectangular darkness on the right-hand side of the painting: the abyss of another room. Present and past seem irrevocably separated—physically, aesthetically. The theme is repeated in The Halls (2001), once more featuring an empty museum-like space and an observer looking in from the outside. He cannot see the angelic but fractured image of motherly love carved into a solid structure that is revealed to the observer. In Amor’s paintings humans are the alienated and unconscious administrators of a past they seem to have lost every connection with. It outlasts and determines them, yet they struggle to understand it, or live up to its demanding epic.

Opposite the Hamilton History Centre, a sturdy, solid, yet delicious tiny palais with Romanesque arcades, tympana and balustrade, we identify a modernist blocklike building in grey with a porch in bilious green. It features dark tinted windows and houses the nemesis of the ornamental: an accountant’s office and a bank. When taking another look at the architecture of Hamilton, in particular buildings succeeding the town’s economic golden age connected to the production of wool, one finds a development that has in analogous fashion arisen throughout the Western world. Modernism, following the inspiration of movements like Bauhaus and the dictum of form follows function radically stripped buildings of most of their ornamental character. Today, with the high period of modernism far enough in the past to have attained a historical character, we perceive that nothing that has been built before has aged similarly quickly and seems as disconnected as modernism’s structures. Even buildings erected a mere twenty years ago look horridly outdated and old. Bland and functional in appearance, they seem like immature and violated versions of their ornamental neighbours and ancestors from a different time—old infants. Today, with the project of modernism slowly but definitely coming to an end and momentum building against its aesthetic, we are waking up to cities across the world that seem to have been sterilised and strangely normalised against the richness of their local and historical characters. Beholding these structures today, one cannot help thinking that modernism’s radical project of a rejection of aesthetic traditions implies that the previous heritage is somehow retrograde and false. Modernist style then becomes a project to denounce, deny and reject the past, making it universally suspicious. However, the disrespect of one’s own past fragilises. While it is unhealthy to remain obsessed with it, its careless denial, demonisation and rejection similarly obstruct any process of mature identity formation intimately tied to becoming whole.

Excavation (2013) depicts an inner-city construction site. The Amorian pillars again, this time fused with a steel girder prominently cutting through the canvas. We are reminded of Melbourne with its art deco high-rises that combine modern construction technology with retroconservative facades—another strange medley of the antique and the contemporary. A single bent worker wearing large protective headgear can be observed at the base of one of the pillars. Shades of grey and black, staining the walls and corroding the glowing red of the steel, plunge the canvas into a darker mood. Shadows are swallowing the scene. The underground unconscious of the city has already been built. Like an estranged archeologist of another civilisation, the excavator is left to reprocess, admire and wonder about its intricacy.

The lush, green, sweet-smelling and seemingly infinite pastures of Australia Felix surrounding Hamilton will seem absurd to a great part of the world’s inhabitants. This part of Western Victoria in many parts looks as it has always looked. The occasional fence, electricity line or house does not displease our eye and cannot distract us from the wide horizons and the imposing impression of vastness and fertility. Perhaps it is one of the few places where we can pretend that modernity has not fully hit us yet. Only slowly, like a daemon, it trickles into nature and urban settlement to irreversibly modify them.

In Morning in the Outlying Districts (2003) an excessive and surreal disproportion is particulary prominent. We see a city with contemporary elements—fire exits and modern steel features—as well as neoclassical ones. On the right, we remark a gigantic horse sculpture encased behind a vast glass facade: a looming myth of war and infiltration. The ground seems unfinished, obliterated by piles of rubble, and ruinous, as if swept by war. Again, anonymous lonely, fleeting figures traverse the streets beneath a gigantic arch into the sunlit courtyard framed by brutal apartment blocks. Humans are separated by distance and direction, eliminated by architecture. While the style reminds us of Melbourne, there is a proportional disparity quite unlike the city: due to its walkability and cosy laneways, it has a much more humane feel, despite its monumental skyscrapers. Amor’s city is a Melbourne amalgamated with a nightmare of power and alienation—the proportions, harshness and overpowering grandeur seen in Eastern European capitals.

The infinity beyond the centre. Despite its small population, Hamilton, Victoria—unlike European cities of similar size—remains relatively unwalkable for pedestrians. For the flâneur, who is a non-motorised, overintellectualising and decadent remnant of a long-lost bourgeois culture, even smaller Australian cities extend into infinite suburban sprawl, frequently without adequate sidewalks, unpleasant to walk and uninteresting to look at. Australia is a culture of grand spaces dominated by an imaginary of horizontal private property. Along the coastlines and outside the cities thus extends a flavourless horizontal ghetto enabled by the car where houses may make sense as isolated objects but not in their composition. Basic principles of urbanism such as non-gridlike and organic forms or public spaces and walkability are not taken into consideration. Traversing the streets of Australia’s suburban towns reinforces a sentiment of aimless and impotent desperation. Western society’s nuclear-family splitting becomes intensified through compartmentalisation in suburban dream housing. Weakened by unexpected atomisation as a side effect of material abundance, they frequently become victims of the fiercest of modern viruses: obesity, alcoholism, depression, addiction to chrystal methamphetamine. A large state-sponsored billboard on the side of the main highway leading out of Hamilton, reminds passers-by that drugged drivers will be caught by the police.

In The Waiter (1996) a brash red monumental pillar accompanies a vanishing point framed by opulent symmetric lines. A structure of luscious marble delights the eye, yet it is infected by an aposematic shade of green reminiscent of the dead light emanated by low-energy bulbs. Another dark square lurks at the centre. This time the man is visible: sickly pale, yet upright, directly and calmly facing you, inevitable and waiting. Always at your service.

The small town as the end point of the global logistics grid might solely serve as an illustration. It remains the least infected locus of a global technopolitical arms race that has long escaped our control and has become solidified as malign structure. In our role as vanishing excavators of the present and the past, its fading beauty recalls the ominous giants on whose shoulders we’re standing yet whom we fail to fully grasp. Chronos resides over truth, so we remain doomed to approximate. We trust death as our ruthless adviser, beauty as our guiding ally.

 

Rick Amor: Painting Silence was at Hamilton Gallery in Victoria from November 2017 until March 2018.