Infamy: art in five parts.

Number One: Ronnie Biggs

This work began with Ronnie Biggs. Strange perhaps but between Ben and Oscar (and myself) Biggs came to symbolise a connection that begins between Adelaide and Melbourne but takes on convoluted proportions. After Biggs escaped from gaol for his small part in the Great Train Robbery (insert rope ladder, a stint in Paris for face-changing plastic surgery, and expensive false passports), he and his first family absconded to Adelaide then Melbourne. Here in 1960s Australia Biggs built fictional settings for short-term identities (quite literally when building sets for Channel 9 in Melbourne); a smokescreen of beige suburbia. It worked for a while. He then escaped knapping in Rio, and halted his extradition through conception, followed up by lengthy cell time. With bravado and guile, Biggs used his life of criminal adventures as story- fodder for income, complete with a merchandising range, a brief music career, and meet and greet events; as a criminal celebrity he had infamy. And though in the middle of our emails, the news announced Ronnie Biggs had died, connections to him kept mushrooming. The idea of Biggs, as well as his family legacy, proliferated beyond Adelaide and Melbourne, across the globe and into fictional worlds (such as Skippy and The Sopranos) tinging our views with a little shady Biggs-ness.

Number Two: Bad motel charm

A printed and painted portrait of Biggs, made by Oscar’s mum, had prime place in the workshop/studio stages of this exhibition. He looked over the work, wryly to the side, avoiding anyone’s eye but retaining some kind of second-grade smarmy criminal celebrity charm; the wrong kind of appeal but wrongness which is more appealing than the right type. A good part of this appeal arose from the palette which was reminiscent of a faded suburban 1960s motel which had been decorated in the 1940s. I could imagine this portrait hung in a room above a single bed. It’s tones would merge with the stained motel mattresses, terrazzo bathroom walls, threadbare linen and curly prickly carpet, colours which have crept into Oscar’s paintings of beiges, browns (of every description), flesh and pale green. A bad motel that’s good also has a certain type of furniture; chipped laminated chipboard desks, bedside tables with ill-fitting drawers and fake-woodgrain headboards; enter Ben’s sculptures, each struggling with gravity, slightly uncomfortable and with bits chipped away at to reveal their insides. Both Ben and Oscar’s work, together, recalls the charm of a good bad motel room where it is likely every mark, stain, dent, chip and questionable artwork is linked to an infamous story.

Number Three: RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died recently one strain of lament was around the loss of his uneasy and uncomfortable film presence. He was grit; grit in the form of an often bloated sweaty man that undercut the slick pristineness of a polished industry that regularly choose to picture life as smooth and clean. I think the words ‘American dream’ were uttered. In his films Seymour Hoffman could be awkward, creepy, strange, and difficult to empathise with but in viewing terms he offered a crag on an otherwise slippery surface into nothingness, or into forgetting, a sure form of nothingness. His type of infamy (the good bad type again) is a talking point and fits when talking about art, and especially for the work of Ben and Oscar. The discomfiting outfitting of their motel/show/fair/Eastern European/mid-twentieth century/suburban room crowded with largish paintings, toppling sculptural monuments, or chip-wood masquerading as cowhide, is a provocative alternative to the usual experience of these places, or any place for that matter. There are so many crags here you can’t help but get stuck, and while hanging there take time to notice that the deliberate failure to mimic life unfailingly as a poke, a stick to those structures which take themselves too seriously.

Number Four: Failings

I mentioned that Biggs had bravado, perhaps I meant audacity, either way, one thing he did have was time in gaol to reflect about his decisions and his failings. In all good stories there is failure, failure comes from risks, and failure, like the successful failure of Seymour Hoffman can be a portal through which alternatives can be seen. In art terms, successful failure is tricky to conjure; it’s not just quick brushstrokes, daggy materials, and clunkiness. Failure that operates as grit or a crag happens through the ambitious and time-laden process of taking risks and that takes audacity. It takes dedication and guile to outwit your own desire to stick-to-the-plan, play-it-safe, or meet expectations. It takes having a structure upon which you build a whole exhibition and then the nerve to construct away from it. Mostly it is being comfortable with being uncomfortable; a mastered art of letting it happen.

Number Five: Unstructured

The prefix ‘un’, as in unAustralian, unmade, undead, unstructured or Ben’s ‘unmonument’, performs similarly to failure. It presents a portal back into the past; an opportunity reconsider something which had big claims, which majestically (often blindingly) stood for its cause, that has come undone. Perhaps the work of Ben and Oscar is most connected through their unhistoric vision. Both, greatly informed by art’s history share the want, the urge, to unmake it in the present. They borrow from the once-celebrated structure of art’s graveyard of failings, ‘dead frameworks’ as Ben calls them, insert their audacity and humour, and release undead, unstructured, unfettered unmonuments to art, from which new infamous legacies can fester.

-Sera Waters, 2014