Paul Trefry

A diminutive old man stares into the distance, his expression mildly quizzical, feeble and forlorn. His thin arms are folded behind his back. Under his small paunch, his trousers are rolled to under the knee. This is Old Charlie (2010). What is he up to? Standing in the surf staring out to the horizon? He would elicit our sympathy if he wasn’t so lost in his own inner world. He is half-scale, which, once we have overcome our sense of physical superiority, transports him even further into an undisclosed elsewhere. Another work perhaps holds a clue: Gladis always knew Arthur was late (2013). Sitting on a public bench with her hands are folded decorously on her lap, her bespectacled eyes stare vacantly into the void with quiet, stoic acceptance of the here and now. Maybe Charlie is late because he is lost in his own private reverie. The silence of these figures is profound, and they are all the sadder because they do not openly elicit your sympathy. 

In the world of hyperrealist sculpture, the big elephant in the room is always the question of how and to what extent they differ from film effects. With some artists working in this genre, the question comes more to the fore than others; usually when it is ignored. The danger of hyperrealism is that it can quickly lapse into lurid fascination, cheap horror or quasi-pornographic voyeurism. (There should by now be a sort of checklist of dos and don’ts, just as artists should now stay clear of skulls.) Paul Trefry, himself a maker-designer of said effects (known in the trade as ‘fx’), combats this problem by tackling themes and imagery that mainstream media would not, including the indignity and boredom of old age, and the taboo of the exploitable vulnerability of children. An earlier work at ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ consisted of a toddler on a beach in diapers wearing an anxious expression as if he had lost his parents. The outcry was hysterical.

Spurred by the sensitivities that his work has sparked over the years, Trefry embarked on a new set of child works that are in this exhibition. One is of a flayed skin on the floor with the head and arms intact, in the manner of the trophy rugs of bears and lions. Not only is the eccentricity of this work disturbing in itself, but its flagrant violence seems to be a fillip against all those who mindlessly gatekeep the kinds of works of art that are shown.

More disconcerting still is the explicitly titled Innocence Removed (2020): it is a naked child of indiscernible gender with an expression on the verge tears, arms limp by its side, with a grenade covering the genitalia. There are markings over its body that announce ‘violence’, ‘trafficking’,’ ‘punched’, ‘burnt’ and so on. Formally speaking, the cleverness of this work lies in confronting the extreme literalness of hyperrealism not by disavowal but by amplifying it. The net effect, as you might not expect, is still ambiguous, for one is left uncertain whether this figure refers to an actual person or is a cipher for the voiceless multitude of abused and mistreated children. What we cannot stop returning to is the expression to which we can all relate of the pursed lips and tensed muscles as they prepare for an explosion of grief.  Courageously, Trefry is stating that the other side of the betrayal of children lies in the prurient censorship of comment and representation regarding anything but a trite wish-image of what children should be, that we may stare at their nakedness without being called paedophiles.

Trefry sculpts the homeless, the aged, the under-aged and the bewildered. A common thread to his work is fragility: of youth or old age, or of the caprice of fate. Key to his works is frankness without condescension or melodrama. We are faced suddenly and unerringly with something that we instinctually avoid. In so doing, Trefry faces us with our own frailties. His art seeks to widen the ambit of our empathy. It does not preach; rather, it operates on a far simpler, human register. We will all feel approach of time, and there will always be those, even if not seen, who live in unspeakable conditions. Trefry gives the less-than-visible the dignity of an asserted presence.   

Paul Trefry: Flesh for Thought
21 November – 18 December 2020
The Wellington Gallery, Sydney

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