Bullshit free art: Raftopoulous and “Beaux Monde”
By John Burns
Contemporary art is clever. Very clever. Too clever. All art seems to do these days is walk around like a child with daddy issues and say “look at how clever I am”. It screams wit, drama and poignant notions as though these skills are set to become extinct. I think they already have. Meanwhile the heads of the black beret wearing, champagne toting critics and laptop grabbing, iPad snapping dealers nod. They sway on in unison at modernity and its greatness. We seem to be okay with this form of art. We have to be otherwise nobody makes a brass razoo. The world seems to have had an increase in people who actually enjoy the smell of their own farts. No one is brave enough to say anything is actually better than Warhol, Picasso or Cezanne. But the impression we are meant to receive is that it could quite possibly well be. So best to buy up or buy in now.
George Raftopoulous’s new collection Beaux Monde is the perfect balm for anyone who has given up on contemporary art. I can’t say if it is self-deprecating or self-appreciating, but George’s “Art over art” approach restores the lost process of engagement between audience and artist. Whether he graffiti’s an old master or has a primeval figure pronounce “majesty”, George isn’t about being cool and detached from the world. He wants you to share the absurdity of life with him. These are the mirrors for your naked emperor to reflect upon, and we are all nude here. For me it’s a reminder of my first school trip to the AGNSW. I am seeing art again for the first time, no preconceptions. Art before lecturers and the art market got in the way. George carefully balances self-revelation with the expression of his ideas. The result is more akin to a lively discussion at the pub with a friend, not a pronouncement on high by a teenager who has just discovered Proust. There is a refreshing determination by George to let technique service the story he tells. 21st century art is often like the giddy ride of the carousel at a fun fair. It is full of light and movement but once the power is turned off you are left alone in the dark. Paint, collage and digital imagery are all present here, but the works are engineered via content. It is the personal nature of these pieces, a risky/risqué reconstruction of aspects of George’s life that allows them to transcend from being a diary. Instead they unblock the audience’s own synapses. Not everything may be to your taste, but you are not put in the naughty corner if you disagree. Beaux Monde is a celebration of the difference of opinion. In doing so, you ironically end up relating to most things you see. A stark contrast to the bandwagon, “we are all in this together” force feed I get when I try to go to an art gallery. Without looking too hard there will be something in Beaux Monde that will relate to you. If you are human.
Art should make you react from the heart. If it requires you upon first meeting to pull out a slide rule, art historian, or an internet service provider then perhaps you and the artist are in the wrong place. Browsing through this assemblage of art is a journey through quirky, angry and wistful reflections. The Painter and his wife is one of my favourite pieces, Beaux Monde in miniature. The notion of “Art upon art” is exemplified here as George reconfigures a postcard from an old school art gallery. Whilst much of Beaux Monde moves from tongue in cheek to angry mystery, there is tenderness to this work. A preservation of the past via a hand re inked and reincorporated onto the post card’s reverse side. It is a reminder that the physical act of communication in itself is gradually becoming a lost art. It works against modern day remote control; instead it is sincere and personal. This is a special glimpse into an artist’s world beyond art. No cocaine filled parties or sleeping under a railway bridge here, this guy has a real life. There is a back story to the man who makes the art. We don’t need to know the details, instead the work opens itself to being incorporated into the viewer’s own world. It is something tangible, not some kind of mumbo jumbo dreamscape. It’s the private ground that resonates within the best marble and canvas of my favourite artists of the past.
Art is at its best when it speaks with, not at, the human condition. Message on a bottle and Raftopoulous-in-a-can use traditional tropes of the artist, the bottle and the paint tin. The stereotype of a life in art equalling a life immersed in paint or liquor. But once again there is the universal theme of life’s journey being a little bit more important than appeasing the expectations of the status quo. This is as easily read as being a commentary on the stultifying work of the art market or the boss up on level five. These works are about being who you can be. However, the journey of liberation is not presented as a mantra of blind naivety but rather from the experience of a journeyman. I Could’ve Been a Jockey finds an appropriated face amongst a Trojan sized horse. Strong bush strokes the measure of both exhilaration and frustration. I like this because I am old. Well getting older. George is too. It’s something about knowing the world you love. Not being world weary but knowing its beauty and pitfalls. Few young artists have a sense of this, they want to live fast and die young, imitating the movies, making their grand beautiful statements. But what happens when you don’t die at twenty two, the revolution doesn’t come, and grand statements don’t pay the rent. This is the world George is talking about. It’s when following your heart and passion doesn’t lead you to a Nobel Prize. It’s the moment in your thirties or forties when you consider if your father was right for suggesting you take up a career in plumbing or accounting rather than dreaming and creating.
You don’t need to be an artist to appreciate these themes; you just have to have lived a little bit. I Could’ve Been a Jockey is one of many “core” pieces in Beaux Monde. For me it’s as big a statement as any those curatorial glory holes of contemporary art present. Art is today so consumed with being relevant and sellable that it has become irrelevant and worthless. The art we see is too often the by-product of attention seeking wannabes who have just discovered a paint brush or Photoshop. They revel in their discovery of an outside world, a feat most people with a soul achieve at age five. George gives the audience credit where credit is due. We are not idiots without hearts. Instead we are people who live our lives, have our battles, and believe our private dreams. It’s what good art has always been about.