For a certain faction of the British art world in the early 1990’s (from the Chapman brothers to Bank), the lo-fi slacker aesthetic of West coast American’s such as Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw presented an influential alternative to the ‘professional’, politicised and rigorously theoretical work of many New York artists.
The slacker aesthetic McCarthy and co (first documented in 1992s Helter Skelter exhibition) reveled in, signposted a route away from the conceptual propriety and hermetic critiques of critical postmodernism. This was a generation of artists who shared the sentiments of Dieter Roth’s remark, ‘it’s important to exhibit your mistakes. Man is not perfect. Neither are his creations’. Strategic incompetence, buffoonery, savage parody, pointed doltishness were the watchwords for these artists, described through clenched teeth by Hal Foster as the propagators of ‘shit art’.
Emerging in the early 1990s, Australian artist Guy Benfield’s frequently scatological (go on say it) body of work, which has been primarily performance, installation and video-based, has shared this messy, absurdist aesthetic and conceptual sensibility, albeit filtered through a peculiarly Australian one, set in place by the blancmange mould of 1970s Australian suburban life.
Benfield’s mapping of his and our follies and pathologies has generated a certain mythology and notoriety in the Australian art scene. His smorgasbord performances part Dada provocation, part carnivalesque spectacles, part pantomime carry on, have been known to reference everything from Yves Klein to Logan’s Run, from New Age hippies to fluxus. In these theatres of absurdism Benfield has monkeyed about, donning Afro wigs and masks, all in the hope of stirring into life those living ghosts inhabiting our lukewarm society. Meanwhile his more ‘conventional’ botched gallery objects are deliberately reminiscent of Martin Kippenberger, an artist whose parodic, ‘German beer hall proletariat’ aesthetic, Benfield obviously feels a deep affinity for. Like Kippenberger it’s difficult not to feel Benfield might regard his artworks as errant children set loose upon and in the world.
For his latest show, Club Nepenthe Maximum Vibrations at Melbourne’s Uplands Gallery, home to many of the city’s most significant artists (Tony Garifalakis, Matthew Griffin, Jon Campbell) Benfield’s errant children superficially appear more Victorian in their decorum. These are objects to be seen, not performances to be splattered by. Hung at equal distance and heights around the galley are brightly coloured key chains conceived as dedications to the nightclubs of Miami (Benfield relocated to America recently).
Hovering at the opening it was enjoyable to watch aesthetes and magpies pulled into the orbit of these esoteric assemblages by their glittering surfaces. Closer inspection reveals them to be made of a cornucopia of eclectic global cultural paraphernalia. ‘Banana Boat of Kendall (El Bote!)’ is for instance, comprised of ‘Keychain, Avy Gonzalez keys to APT B4 107th and Sunset F.L.’, 2009, pink sunglasses, Obama button, limo business card, chain, belts, incense, keys, costume jewellery and carabiner. These objects may lack the drama of Benfield’s more typical brand of excessiveness, but they are no less effective in charting the psychology of our culture.
John Beagles is an artist and lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art