VISUAL ART: The West revised and revisited

History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
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The Independent Culture
Strewth. Or rather, Gordon Bennett. This is the Australian artist Gordon Bennett on his own work: "By recontextualising images subtracted from the grid of Euro-Australian 'self' representation I attempt to show the constructed nature of history and identification as arbitrary. Within the modernist grid of spiritualist universality and stylistic utilitarianism, I hope to further explore a history of ideas."

Which just goes to prove that artists should not be allowed to talk about their art in public. Read Bennett and you might reasonably conclude that his work is just the kind of thing you do not want to see: pretentious and over-conceptualised. Which would be a shame, because this show of Bennett's paintings from the 1990s is one of the best exhibitions of the year.

A rough translation of what the artist is talking about is as follows. Bennett, a 44-year-old Queenslander who discovered late in life that he was part Aboriginal, has invented an iconography which mixes European art forms with native Australian ones. The point of this is political. Bennett sees in his own history the cultural history of Australia: of the burial of native values beneath those of invading Europeans. Bennett's mother, like most mixed-race children of her time, was sent to a compulsory "training school": a reformatory aimed at whitening out Australia's population by turning part-Aboriginal children into domestic servants. When he went to art school, Bennett felt subjected to the same process. Land painting was definitely not on the menu; instead, students were fed a conventional diet of Euro-American Modernism.

Thus a picture like Possession Island (1991), a history painting a la Benjamin West, of Captain Cook claiming Australia for the Crown while a Europeanised Aboriginal passes around drinks. This narrative is partly obscured by a coating of Jackson Pollocky drips. As a result, Possession Island becomes both the story of a continuum in Western art from history painting to Pollock and a comment of the imperialist nature of that continuum.

Bennett's pictures aren't just about juxtaposing two unlikely genres to score political points. Works like The Aboriginalist (1994) have a beauty of their own. Meret Oppenheim took socially comfortable mink and tea-cups and turned them into the most socially uncomfortable artworks ever made. Bennett paints pictures that are about the politics of art but are also about being art. They hate what they do, but they can't help doing it well.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about his work is that it instills the same reaction in us. We see the horror behind Bennett's painting and yet we cannot fail to be seduced by its beauty. Like the subject of Home Decor (Algebra) Daddy's Little Girl (1998), who uses ABC building-blocks to spell out Abbo, Boong and Coon, our tastes are inherently those of the cultural colonist. More tragically, so are Bennett's. In Home Decor (Algebra) Ocean (1998), the imperialist icons which Bennett was force- fed at art school - a bit of the Renaissance, a touch of de Stijl - are joined by another work. It is the artist's Possession Island, hung like the rest on a grid that is both gallery wall and prison. Bennett would no doubt hold that Home Decor is all about constructing transgressive paradigms, or some such thing. I'd merely say it is one of the most confessional paintings of our time, and one of the most moving.

'History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett': Ikon, Birmingham (0121 248 0708) to 23 Jan

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