Next to Heath Franco’s wall-mounted video DREAM HOME Rainbow (2012) at Galerie pompom, a set of headphones pinned to the wall sits idly unplugged, while the work’s trippy drone soundtrack fills this newly opened, hole-in-the-wall space. Even without sound, it would be hard not to be drawn to Franco’s hellish send-up of the contemporary fallacy of home as a stable psychic anchor. Inhabiting an uncanny, emptied-out shell of a suburban house, a cast of costumed characters or alter-egos of the artist perform bizarre repetitive actions. From a fluoro clothing clad raver aggressively punching a stuffed toy, to a pant-less man camply swinging an inflatable hammer, in typical Franco fashion the digital space is hijacked to create a carnivalesque counter-reality where latent desires and energies are released into a realm of virtual psychedelic havoc. 

It’s fitting that my first introduction to Franco’s work was in this same room when it belonged to the artist-run-initiative MOP (which remains next door, minus one gallery) as it’s a similar story for many of the artists represented here. Galerie pompom is a new initiative from the founders of MOP, who have adopted a stable of early career Sydney artists to nurture and develop in what aims to be a more commercial venture. As a ‘taster’ show representing a sample of work from each of the gallery’s 14 artists, there is no specific theme for this group show. There are discernible threads among the works though, and a sense of adventure, conceptual engagement, self-reflexivity and irreverence appear as some of the shared attributes among the eclectic array of works comprising the space’s inaugural exhibition. 

A less cynical take on modes of living emerges in Kylie Banyard’s modest oil painting Village Entrance (2011), a retro-futuristic landscape painted in a muted ’70s aesthetic depicting a gateway or portal into an alternate future. Banyard takes inspiration from alternative architectures, such as the recycled housing of the Earthship movement, and her accompanying miniature low-fi sculptural model, which replicates the painted gateway and embellishes it with crystals, appears to intimate a longing to transition into the next dimension by building. Yet this gesture is underscored by a subtle irony and ambivalence, as it’s unclear whether the artist endorses such utopic movements or gently mocks them. 

The quest continues in Vicky Browne’s pair of small-scale found material installations, Finding Yoko Ono (2012) and Searching for Sigourney Weaver (2012). With the latter placed on the ground, the viewer was invited to squat and peer down into this miniature cluster of tipi-like structures obsessively crafted from tightly glued together sticks and embalmed in spider web veins of threads of glue – the title alluding perhaps to the extent to which contemporary notions of the talismanic and mystical are mediated by popular culture. By contrast, Emma Thomson’s photographic portrait Adele (2011) operates in the domestic space. Here, the performative posing of a young woman in her living room, clutching a cat to her chest and standing side-on to reveal white furry wings strapped to her back, likewise suggests a desire to transform the mundane into something more heroic. 

In a world increasingly saturated with visual imagery, what is consistently striking as a mark of differentiation between images made by artists, as opposed to those created within the realms of advertising, fashion, graphic design and the like, is the degree to which artistic images engage knowingly with the complexities of seeing and the politics of the gaze and visual representation. This arguably lends contemporary art much of its vitality, but can also result in work that is more clever than it is compelling. It is refreshing to discover this common pitfall largely avoided here. If somewhat light on arresting imagery, any shortfall in this respect is compensated for by the subtle nuances and quiet sophistication exuded by much of the work. 

A highlight in this respect is Sarah Mosca’s intriguing Double Vision (2012), a photograph of a rocky mountain landscape that at first glance appears naturalistic until closer inspection reveals perfect symmetry, a mirror image whose bifurcation is emphasised by the overlay of a pair of round eye holes which suggest a binocular view. The light-reflecting surface properties of the diamond proves a choice vehicle for exploring a translucent, fragmentary and soft-edged style of geometric painting in Rochelle Haley’s intricate suite of watercolours on paper. Nicola Smith’s quasi-historical painting of the famous French actor and mime Jean-Louis Barrault surrounded by a cast of onlookers, all watching a rehearsal not visible to the viewer, presents a de-centred pictorial space in which the focus of the action lies outside the frame. 

In his provocative 1953 Situationist essay, Formulary for a New Urbanism, Ivan Chtcheglov proclaims that ‘all cities are geological,’* a statement that comes to mind while considering the photomedia contributions of Izabela Pluta and Jamie North. Pluta’s application of pale and ethereal shades of acrylic paint to photographic prints of rural and urban environments in her sham ruin series has a voiding effect which heightens the palimpsest quality of these landscapes – portals of absence clear a space where what has been previously erased over time might hauntingly return. North’s Strata (Illawarra plum) (2011), meanwhile, is more literally geological – his photograph captures the delicate beauty of this native plant from the tiny droplets of dew clinging to its purple-blue fruit to its sprawling underground root network. The detail is so extraordinarily fine as to appear almost hyper-real, drawing attention to the complex biological systems at work around us which we fail to comprehend or appreciate via ordinary perception. 

The sample of works also reveal a surprisingly strong presence of the artists’ hand as well as the growing predilection artists exhibit for freely traversing mediums and historical trajectories. Leo Coyte gets his hands dirty making the surreal, tragi-comic and anthropomorphic figurines of his Welcome Party series in 3D which he then paints in a suite of acrylic portraits suggestive of an act of commemoration. Suspended in an in-between space, the figurines are at once animated by the uninhibited, imaginative possibilities of childhood yet, with their startled expressions, also convey an unsettling sense of psychological discomfort. In Nana Ohnesorge’s Blinkers (2011), the iconic figure of Australian childhood, Blinky Bill, is hybridised with the bearded face of Ned Kelly, morphing into a witness of disturbing scenes of colonial violence that, rendered in a lurid neon orange, appear so aestheticised as to desensitise the viewer to their impact. 

Other works riff off a sense of surprise, dissonance and playful contradictions in materials and perception. A close inspection of Charles Dennington’s polymer clay model of a severed and impaled red thumb brings a shock of recognition in the stunning lifelike detail of the thumbnail, an unexpected assertion of the real amidst the apparently grotesque and fantastic. Todd Robinson’s dynamic Peripeteia (2012) is a gravity-defying assemblage of cylindrical blocks with a clean, minimalistic machine-like aesthetic that is offset by its construction from radiata pine. For sculptural works that deploy the space around the work the tight confines of the space appear more constraining – Michael Moran’s Giacometti inspired BUST (upright, nose and mouth) (2011) proves difficult to appreciate on the floor and might have benefited from some elevation.

Galerie pompom’s inaugural exhibition opts out of curatorial texts or artist statements, but what continues to resonate in my mind is the gallery’s own statement of its raison d’être: ‘to nurture [artists in] their creative enterprise in a dedicated commercial venture.’ This really does represent a bold gesture to break down the dichotomy between not-for-profit and commercial spaces and to reposition the business side of art as another area in which artists can exercise their creativity. The biggest test for a commercial gallery, though, is whether they can support artists not only in making sales, but also in taking risks and sometimes even failing. Straddling both worlds is difficult indeed, but Galerie pompom with its ARI roots and keen eye for talent appears well-poised to make that leap. 

Ella Mudie

Runway Issue 21 Ripe

* Chtcheglov, Ivan (Gilles Ivain), “Formulary for a new urbanism,” Theory of the Derive and other situationist writings on the city. edited by Libero Andreotti and Xavier Costa. Barcelona, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1996, 14.