Arlo Mountford

The Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) hosts a mid-career survey of the work of Arlo Mountford, by turns playful, critical, disillusioned and optimistic. Supported by Museums and Galleries New South Wales, it’s appropriate, thematically, that the show itself is itinerant, travelling from the Goulburn Regional Art Gallery across a number of regional art spaces over the coming year. Indeed, Mountford’s practice wanders – tonally, in medium, and in historical setting – just as the exhibition does.

The Shepparton iteration of ‘Deep Revolt’ benefits from the adjunctive presence of two works that are absent from other renditions of the show. Clock (2016) – a kinetic sculptural work involving gears, a wooden shelf, an Arduino controller, and a gourd – condenses the tonal and theoretical ambiguities, or even conflicts, that provide the show its ironic secure grounding. As the painted gourd, a symbol in Hebrew and other modes of thought through history of fertility, new life, and the rising of a new sun in the East, revolves around on the gears that perch conspicuously upon the shelf, we might well wonder what it is we’re being directed to feel or to think. A most rewarding reading of the work, though, might simply embrace this question of intent, rather than try to answer it. Are we supposed to be amused by this rich art-historical synecdoche reduced to a bright, spinning, dysfunctional instrument? Does it matter that we can’t use this historical motif to tell any sort of time, as the title of the work suggests we should be able to? Is the absurdity fearful or joyful? Surely these problems are much of the point.

The Folly (2007-09), a work of three projected video animations, is also on display at SAM. Here, the art historical reference is more specific – which is not, necessarily, to say more stable. Mountford re-animates and re-contextualises several of Peter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings: The Harvesters, The Hunters in the Snow, and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Using the recognisable at-home aesthetic of the program Flash, and incorporating a soundtrack designed by Robert Stewart, the artist evokes the tender pastoral idyll of (canonical) Europe’s art-historical past. A contemporary update, however, emerges in the overlaying of a reading from Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza. Here, a tonal tension is important: the halcyon days of history are interrupted by the mood of the contemporary moment, in all its disillusionment, disenchantment, and disengagement. Which part of this, though – the contemporary cynicism, or the rose-tinted gaze to the past – is the folly?

Mountford’s practice, as shown here, also incorporates still digital image-making. Glowing examples of this include the Unboxing drawing series (2017-ongoing), in which items representative of contemporary popular culture are rendered in the naïve vernacular of what looks like MS Paint. Burlesquing the imagery of pop culture (Star Wars, iPhone, Cars 2), making a carnival of our already-grotesque practices of conspicuous consumption, and injecting joy all the while through a vibrant palette and playful tone, Mountford dissolves the binary of high and low culture. Just as we are asked to think here about Youtubers, the culture of commodification, and the commodification of culture, we’re also asked some specifically art historical questions: is there a useful break to be made between high and popular culture? If there is, what do we call these works?

Engaging our collective political and social memory, as well as our imagination, ‘Deep Revolt’ is explicitly grounded in art history, but gestures beyond the walls of the gallery.

Arlo Mountford: Deep Revolt
18 April – 10 June 2019
Shepparton Art Museum, Vic

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