GORDON BENNETT: Notes to Basquiat (911)



1 Mar - 30 Mar 2002


"911 (with Apologies to Walter Benjamin)"
Exhibition Text by Ian McLean

Gordon Bennett’s more recent dialogues with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings return to a theme that preoccupied him when a student: the frenetic alienation of inner city life. Except now the city is New York. The imaginative migration to New York via Basquiat might seem an unlikely destination for an artist long concerned with the impact of colonialism in Australia. However New York is a powerful emblem of the colonial era, especially to someone like Bennett who has always been alert to its global reach, its ambiguous transcultural forms, and its continuing hold over our lives. Supposedly bartered in 1626 by Dutch colonists from its Algonquian custodians for a few glassy trinkets, Manhattan Island is now a restless metropolis and gateway to the future. However the ever new of New York is symptomatic of its colonial origins. Not York, but NewYork; its very name bears the insignia of New World colonial cultures and their modernity, and of the New World Order we are now racing towards. Once a colonial outpost, now New York is the financial centre of a global economy. But more than this, it is the centre of a symbolic order that beguiles us all. It is ‘Gotham City’, the ‘Babylon’ of our times.

Bennett pictures New York on September 11, 2001, as if that catastrophic blast was a reverberating echo of a long and explosive history. The fiery tower collapses into the apocalyptic ruins of signs and Gothic apparitions, a new pop-icon in the acid graffiti of Bennett’s staccato designs. Here New York is a symbolic site rather than an actual place, a post-human Babel blindly speeding on from the present to the amnesiac allure of futurity. The past, unrecognised, is forgotten. But Bennett, uneasy citizen of Babylon, cannot forget. Flashbacks and visions of ghostly encounters explode across his canvases.

Basquiat and Bennett share a deeply ironic wit. However, Bennett’s paintings are darker and more Dostoevskian in mood. In Notes to Basquiat (Big Shoes), a young woman in big shoes, an image drawn from Basquiat’s painting Big Shoes (1983), stands bewildered in the mayhem: innocence betrayed. Or is she a native American warrior, perhaps one of those who bartered with the Dutch colonists so long ago, uncannily catapulted into Ground Zero on that dreadful day? Her body, drawn in a hybrid Basquiat-Oenpelli x-ray style, is pinned to a Malevich cross on a grided matrix. Transfixed in the whirlwind of history, New York is her new Golgotha. With eyes and mouth wide open in horror, her face turns inexorably towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, she sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage, and hurling it in front of her feet. She would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm blowing from Paradise irresistibly propels her into the future to which her back is turned, while the pile of rubble before her grows skyward.

Like this Byzantine Christ figure, Bennett’s remembrance is not nostalgic or regretful. Rather it scorches him as if the furnace of an unending terror from which he hopes to forge some fleeting freedom. Even if the past is a paradise, it can not be recovered. Time is irreversible. The past can only be an imaginary site of resistance (or affirmation) to the present. If colonialism is a poison that terrorises all that stand in its way, its effects are the only hope of cure. Both poison and cure are inseparably lodged in the same transcultural chemistry of colonial cultures, especially in its more virulent modernist forms. Like a new second nature, they have erased all memories of the natural world that nurtured Indigenous cultures. Bennett works in the tracks of these erasures. By overlaying modernist styles with images drawn from colonialist discourses, Bennett’s art acknowledges the terrible complicity of modernism and colonialism. However, at the same time he makes good use of this complicity as a partial cure. Constantly working in and between modernist discourses, he re-fashions their signs into a liberating pidgin. Throughout his career Bennett has especially looked to those artists who best witnessed the world in which he lived, and transformed the signifying power of their art into pathways to a new way of being. This is particularly the case in his dialogue with Basquiat. Basquiat’s hybrid aesthetic, like the Afro-American music that Bennett also enjoys, is a street-wise way of living in Babylon. It offers a way out of the colonialist legacy of slavery and racism without forgetting the ways it still poisons US society. Bennett enjoys conversing with Basquiat because, like a shaman, his rap Creole beats out a liberating discourse.

If Bennett has, in the Notes to Basquiatseries, shown a greater interest in the therapeutic potential of transcultural texts, he never lets us forget their poisonous origins. His paintings are not utopian pictures. Yet their beguiling melancholic mix of memory and pain promises a knowing freedom that might just count as redemption. In this respect his paintings recall the presence and power of so much art that has come out of New York, from jazz and rap to Pollock and graffiti – all of which resonate in Basquiat’s paintings.

If, for many, a taboo was transgressed and a dream shattered on September 11, for Bennett the past again brightly flashed by. His pictures are not wise reassuring messages from some reflective sage contemplating the sins of the world. Like a graffiti artist hurrying at night, Bennett has to get it down. But also like a graffiti artist, he ‘writes’[1]in a deliberate assured way that, no matter how esoteric, can be read. However his hermeneutics is never closed; it is a matrix of signs on which we must write our own interpretations. Who is Big Shoes and what does she see? Which dead are stirring? Who is the large pink ghoulish face speaking with forked tongue? Can we trust its written signs - one of the ninety-nine names of Allah, al-Muzellu (the humiliator), and the background Shamsa pattern that often adorns the inside cover of the Koran? Is this another deceit of the great colonial city that, this time, blasphemes the Last Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)? Or is it the angel of history; or the artist himself speaking with forked tongue? Even the dead, the demonic face seems to warn, will not be safe from the enemy.

Ian McLean, School of Architecture and Fine Art, University of Western Australia, 2002

[1]          As New York graffiti artists of the 1980s referred to themselves.

By Greg Dimitriadis, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York and Cameron McCarthy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The scale of the attack was mind boggling—cinematic references most often come to mind.  The initial reports of those dead and missing were beyond imagination.  Lower Manhattan became—within 20 minutes—a virtual war zone. Some believed, at least initially, that only a nuclear bomb could have caused such devastation.  Soon, we learned, the weapons had been culled largely from the everyday—a handful of box cutters, a few commercial flights, men transforming their bodies into the faggots and purified fuel igniting the purgatorial flames.  Soon, the mail, crop dusters, tap water, were all pregnant with devastating possibility. The world, or at least our corner of it, would never be the same again.  The “there” had finally come “here” for Americans everywhere—the postcolonial condition tout court

Indeed, to live in the postcolonial moment, the postcolonial condition, is to encounter a world constantly emerging, a world that demands we engage with difference in all its complexity always.  It is a world, to echo Stuart Hall, with no guarantees of any sort.  The line between oppressors and oppressed—between colonizers and colonized—between the “here” and “there”—is always open to negotiation and re-negotiation. It is a world that often exceeds our ability to contain it through language and discourse.  It is a world, we have argued, best anticipated through the work of postcolonial artists—work replete with ambiguity, indeterminacy, contingency, possibility, warning. 

Gordon Bennett’s new series Notes to Basquiat: 911 emerges as a vital and timely intervention here.  Just three months after the attack, Bennett has offered up a fully elaborated visual terrain for thinking through a trauma that still seems largely beyond narrative closure.  In this stunning series of paintings, Bennett wrestles once again with the work of the late New York City artist, Jean Michel Basquiat.  Basquiat, of course, prosecuted a vision of the urban that was hybrid and poly-vocal, that cut across high and low culture as well as imagined and interrogated ethnic and racial boundaries of all sorts.  It is a vision that Bennett has struggled with over the last several years as he has struggled with his own multiple cultural inheritances in contemporary Australia.  The project, however, has taken on renewed urgency today, as the lived and imaginary space of New York City has been dealt such an unimaginable blow. Bravely taking on the task of “urban renewal”, Bennett offers up a space of thoughtful deliberation in the series Notes to Basquiat: 911—a new angle of vision on Ground Zero—a deceptively slight shift in perspective that makes all the difference in the world.

Perhaps expectedly, planes and buildings are ever-present in these paintings.  Throughout the collection, Bennett reworks an untitled 1982 painting by Basquiat which features a small plane hung mid-flight between two city buildings.  Bennett takes these sparse images and multiplies, crowds, and intensifies them.  Planes move in several different directions at once.  City buildings of different shapes and sizes proliferate.  Post 9-11, the effect is disquieting.  The constant motion of contemporary urban centers, the social transactions which mark our postcolonial moment, now evoke terrifying vulnerability as much as possibility.  This seems a permanent tension of our moment, this “age of globalization.” 

Other familiar images pepper these new paintings. We are struck, for example, by the extensive use of Basquiat’s crown icon in these new works.  In addition to its playful, self-referential dimension, the icon was often used by Basquiat to crown his personal heroes as in Jack Johnson (1982),Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982),and CPRKP(1982) (i.e., Charlie Parker). Bennett uses the icon freely throughout these new paintings, though it now has far more haunting resonance as in Notes to Basquiat (City) (2001)and Notes to Basquiat (Jackson Pollockand his Other) (2001).We call particular attention to the painting Notes to Basquiat (911),which features both a crowned plane and a crowned Statue of Liberty. Does the crown symbolize Western imperialism?  Or despotic theocrats, intent on spreading their own brand of religious intolerance?  Where are our heroes now?  It is a time, it seems, when all such claims are called into question.

Islamic text marks all these paintings.  The process of rewriting and redirecting orientalism also puts the West on trial in its most global of cities—New York.  Perhaps most notably, in Notes to Basquiat (TV News Presenter) (2001) and Notes to Basquiat (City)(2001), distinctive Arabic text appears to swirl across the skyline like fire.   Baroque and evocative, this text translates as “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.”  It is said, we are told, by Muslims before any good deed.  We are reminded here of the ideological disconnects which seem so much a part of our contemporary moment.  The underside of a dynamically interdependent world is our profound sense of loss of control over ancestral markers of place and origins and a contingent struggle for meaning, identity, and affiliation.  Indeed, while global flows of people, images, and technologies have drawn together heretofore far flung parts of the globe, difference has multiplied and intensified in stark and unforgiving ways.  One person’s good deed is also the next person’s atrocity today.  These differences are scripted across these paintings, as they are now scripted across the landscape of lower Manhattan.

We note, finally, the skeletal and anatomical images that so mark the work of Basquiat, in paintings such as Carbon Dating Systems Verses Scratchproof Tape (1982), Hand Anatomy(1982),  and The Dutch Settlers(1982).  While Bennett reworked these images into powerful commentaries on identity in earlier paintings such as Notes to Basquiat (Family)(1999) and Notes to Basquiat (Culture Bag)(1999), body parts now crowd the streets of lower New York in far more literal ways.  In new paintings such as Notes to Basquiat (TV  News Presenter)(2001) and Notes to Basquiat (Mirror) (2001), Bennett re-engages with this material, taking us beyond narrative verisimilitude to new, uncharted spaces.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the painting Notes to Basquiat (911),from which this exhibit takes its title.   Here, Bennett takes Basquiat’s clinical, disembodied hand from HandAnatomy(1982)—an image he used earlier in Notes to Basquiat: Hand of God (1999)—and places it in the middle of the World Trade Center wreckage. The image evokes both death and life—devastation and creation—ends and beginnings.  We recall a similar image from Basquiat’s triptych Charles the First (1982)—the left hand of bebop giant Charlie Parker.  Indeed, like Parker and Basquiat before him, Bennett has taken familiar material and improvised off it, stubbornly re-imagining and re-visioning the world around him in particular, thoughtful, and complex ways.

This is a desperately needed ethic today, as we face a world marked by cultural encounters, replete with both danger and possibility.  Bennett offers us a model for productive dialogue here, one that speaks to the best impulses of contemporary cultural transactions, and foregrounds the critical interpretive role of aesthetics in understanding modern life.   Bennett, an Australian artist with a complex European and Indigenous Australian cultural inheritance, has given us—American citizens, one of whom grew up in Barbados, one of whom grew up in New York City—a way to think through this moment in ways more powerful than we had heretofore encountered.  Bennett, for us, has risen to the complex challenges of our moment, re-imagining the role of the artist—also now pedagogue, also now reporter, also now witness—in vitally important and necessary ways.