Australian artist Rodney Pople is an immensely talented artist who has exhibited internationally and has trained at the New York Studio School as well as the prestigious Slade School of Art in London. Controversy is somewhat of an occupational hazard for Pople who chooses to explore some of the most controversial and challenging issues facing contemporary society including sexual abuse within religious institutions and the treatment of Indigenous Australians. He made headlines in 2012 with his controversial Glover Prize-winning painting of Port Arthur, the painting that included a tiny yet unavoidable depiction of Port Arthur killer Martin Bryant.
Currently on show at Sydney’s Australian Galleries, Pople’s latest body of work is a continuation of his controversial exploration of the darker side of religion and politics. The title of the exhibition, “Paint it Black,” references the dark subject matter as well as the murky atmosphere of the paintings themselves. A majority of the works in the show inhabit an uneasy transitional space, both physically and conceptually – physically through his technique of painting over photographic images, conceptually through his strong yet restrained imagery that is at once poetically beautiful while at the same time morally challenging.
Although his paintings explore morally and ethically charged subjects, it is important to understand that Pople is not some sort of fanatical activist or crazed anarchist; his paintings are as much about producing beautiful works of art as they are about the subject matter. In many ways Pople’s paintings embody his own character and personality: his reserved yet engaging personality and honest yet mysterious presence mirror his restrained yet powerful visual language and the controversial yet empowering portrayal of the issues he explores.
What Pople expresses in his work comes from within – a partial product of his own colourful history – yet inherits a sense of independence and liberty, a distinct presence separate from that of the artist. The subjects of his paintings are also disconnected from a distinct or definable identity which endows the confronting sexual acts they are engaged in with a more clinical and corporeal presence. This strange phenomenon is perhaps best equated with the experience of reading a generic description of a sexual act, devoid of character or personality.
By omitting character, personality, and identity, Pople reveals the very essence of the acts he depicts and pays homage to the victims of the abuse he portrays. The removal of elements likely to evoke sympathy or pity acts to empower and dignify those who have suffered as a result of institutional corruption. Through the absence of the corrupting and obstructing influence of emotional connection, Pople encourages a more pure and uninhibited exploration of the subject matter that has the potential to render the confronting activities of the figures in his paintings as unobjectionable and inoffensive.
One of the feature images of the exhibition is an epic painting of a wailing papal figure around which dance a group of children, hand in hand, ring-around-the-rosie style. Reminiscent of Velázquez's “Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” the clerical figure in “night dance” sits upon his ecclesiastical throne; but unlike the Velázquez painting Pople’s papal figure is far from innocent. Occupying an uncomfortable transitional space, the pope appears to be the subject of a process of judgement and accusation for which his punishment has yet to be decided. The imposing presence of the painting competes with the beauty of its execution in the same way that good and evil compete for the soul of the “holy” one.
In another major work, “private view,” Pople uses a photograph of a church interior as the background for a painted scene depicting a person standing on a plinth, back to the viewer, wearing only a pair of underwear. A group of ghostly, gasping figures look on in horror at the exposed figure whose head is shrouded from view. The strongly lit figure is presented as a sort of monument, a symbol of strength and resilience, but also an acknowledgement of the potential frailty of the human condition. Key to the understanding of this painting are the implicated yet passive onlookers who are the more vulnerable and fragile entities in this scene. With “private view” Pople challenges the traditions of painting while at the same time encourages the viewer to contemplate the effects of the traditions of religious institutions. It is a hauntingly poetic painting that is a fine example of the restraint that is a key feature of Pople's work.
If the Port Arthur painting is all you know of Pople’s work then I urge you to get down to Australian Galleries in Sydney and check out his latest series of paintings. To fully understand Rodney Pople and his dialogue with the often controversial subject matter requires each work to be experienced as a broader survey of his artistic practice – something made possible by the Australian Galleries exhibition.
“Paint it Black” is at Australian Galleries in Sydney until 14 April 2013. For more information visit the Gallery website here