Review by Eleanor Scicchitano
ADD-ORIGINAL ART, on show at the Hahndorf Academy during SALA Festival, continues Adelaide Hills artist Driller Jet Armstrong’s adventures in Daubism, a movement he helped found in Adelaide in 1989. Daubists cut up, paint over and re-work original paintings, utilising them as ready-mades and found objects, in the tradition of Duchamp. The Daubists state that the techniques they use are deliberately child-like and clumsy, giving rise to the name and setting them apart from the other artists working in this way. Within this movement, Armstrong uses images of the Australian landscape, painted in a European tradition, and modifies them using a range of techniques with the aim of drawing attention to a range of social issues.
The Landscape Time Forgot (2017) is a lush, green landscape with trees on the right of the frame, and snow capped mountains far in the distance. Armstrong has added brightly coloured dinosaur stickers; yellow pterodactyls in the sky, a red t-rex reaching up to pull branches from a tree and an orange diplodocus standing in a pond. The image is humorous, the use of stickers, in bright, bold colours, giving it a child-like quality. The original landscape has been painted in the style of the European painters who colonised the land. Armstrong extends the timeline back further than this 200-year history, reminding his
audience of a time before settlement.
Gilbert and George find a brumby (2014) is one of a series of works featuring the iconic English artistic duo. Again, the base of this work is a rich, green landscape, the clear blue sky framed by two large trees, which appear to be gums. The two men are crudely painted, appearing to be collaged on rather than interacting with the bush around them. Set back, in much smaller scale, is a brumby and across the bottom of the painting, the title is scrawled messily. We are drawn to the incongruity of these men in this landscape. Standing in their tuxedos they clearly do not belong. They cast no shadow and do not interact with the land. They are small when compared to the trees. The painting reminds the audience that the English do not belong, and are dwarfed by the power of the bush around them.
Perhaps the most original works are the painted portraits of gender bending figures. They are abstracted, placed on flat, bright blue backgrounds, drawn with cartoonish simplicity, and thick black outlines. They are fun, slightly disturbing, but refreshingly original in an exhibition of borrowed elements. Armstrong maintains the cheeky vibe of his show by naming the materials list ‘recycled cardboard’. They still remind me of something, but I enjoy that they are wholly from the hand of this artist, rather than including direct ideas or physical elements from another person.
There are other works, which make me uncomfortable. Boom Bitches Spirit (2017) is a dry landscape, burnt yellow and, like all images in this exhibition, painted in a European tradition. A brown and white Wandjina spirit is painted over the top. Its hands are up, and around it are black lines that would traditionally indicate some kind of energy, like an explosion. ‘Boom Bitches’ is scrawled in childlike words around his head. The Wandjina are spirit beings who originate in the north-west and central Kimberly region. The Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal people are the traditional owners of the Wandjina, and use of the figure is their sacred right to decide. Here this spirit smiles, in what I interpret to be giddiness, with its hands in the air. I get the sense it has leapt out from behind a rock, to surprise the settlers who claimed Australia was Terra Nullius, before they arrived.
I am uncomfortable because, from what I have always been taught, these figures are not Armstrong’s to use. They are sacred, and belong to a culture that has suffered at the hands of the settlers, in this instance being used in a way that verges on silly. The use of the term ‘bitches’ irks me. This word has been used to hold women back, to characterise them as hysterical and set their emotional response aside and as lesser to men’s. It has now been reclaimed, re-contextualised by modern women, though it remains problematic, with no firm agreement on the rules of its use. Though still contested, it is the right of women to use this
word, not Armstrong’s.
Appropriation is not something Armstrong shies away from but rather embraces and speaks to occasionally in his labels. He has borrowed Sydney Nolan’s depiction of Ned Kelly, Keith Haring’s dancing figures and cut up of other artist’s work to make masks. Further acknowledging the complexity of daubism, Driller has enlarged newspaper clippings relating to the 1991 controversy that put him and Daubism on a national agenda. Artist Charles Bannon sued Armstrong for his work Crop Circles on a Bannon Landscape (1991) in which the artist inserted crop circle over a landscape painted by Bannon*. He did not acknowledge Bannon as the original author of this work, though he has begun to do this in some of his more recent work. This incident drew attention from around Australia and influenced changes to moral rights legislation. That it was the overwriting of another artist’s landscape painting, and not the use of sacred Aboriginal symbols, that launched this reform is a discussion for another day, but a point that sticks. The debate around copyright for family and language group owned symbols and stories, is ongoing today, where as Bannon was able to settle with Armstrong out of court.
Some of the works presented in ADD-ORIGINAL are interesting, charming and quirky. They draw attention to issues including the marriage equality vote, Aboriginal land rights and climate change which are relevant to contemporary Australian society. But nothing is surprising, or shocking or new in this collection. These are techniques and ideas that Armstrong has been working in and around since he launched his career. Some of the figures he uses, including those appropriated from Keith Haring, have already been used to explore these same issues, with Armstrong simply replicating their message rather than adding to the story. The strength of this work, for me, lies in the questions it raises rather than the works themselves. The use of appropriation, and its place in contemporary art practice, will always be an interesting, meaty discussion for all those involved in the sector. And one that is by no means clear-cut.
On opening night, Njarrindjeri Elder Carroll Karpany reportedly spoke about the importance of what Armstrong addressed in his work, essentially giving his blessing to the appropriation of the Wandjina as a symbol. Which brings me to the curliest of the questions this exhibition has raised for me: who am I to feel uncomfortable, and to question an artist’s actions if the cultural leaders accept and encourage what he does? What does this say about my own views regarding the protection and autonomy of Aboriginal people? And how do the rights of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal people figure in this debate?
I may not have left thinking about the works, but I certainly left thinking. And have continued to do so since. Which makes this exhibition a success in a way, though I wonder if this message could have been delivered in more culturally sensitive way.
* The original published version of this review incorrectly stated that Armstrong was sued for
his work The Crop Circle Conspiracy (1991) in which the artist inserted an inverted crucifix
into a landscape painted by Bannon. This work and Crop Circles on Bannon Landscape were
exhibited in the same exhibition.