27 Oct - 19 Nov 2004
"Portals of Complexity"
Exhibition Text by Stephanie Britton
The ‘Arab World’ is a phrase that we hear often these days as well as ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’. Most of us have a superficial understanding of Arab cultures, where they came from, how they developed and their many variations. In the current climate of the Clash of Civilisations – Islam vs the West - the role of the Muslim faith in the cultures of the Middle East is constantly invoked by media commentators and politicians. The elements which our inherited Western civilisation shares with the Arab world are not often alluded to – the history of the Greek and Roman diasporas and occupations of the Eastern Mediterranean, the birth of Christianity, the science, architecture, design and poetry we inherited from the East. Then there is more recent history, European wars fought on Arab land, destabilisation of sovereignty by great powers, exploitation of resources, as well as the personal stories of those who shared lives in the process and Australia’s moment at Gallipoli, part of the jigsaw of tragedy and heroism.
Looking at these new paintings by Ian Chandler is like reading an account of the intersections of these spheres. It is a complex story of the layering of consciousness echoed by the layering of histories and cultures. The artist takes us through a door in the wall into another reality that is as far from CNN as it is possible to be, posing some challenging questions for Australians.
The first clues are in the extravagant swirls of the Arabic calligraphy that appear on top of the many layers of elements, as if sealing in the meaning. These are the tughraor monograms used by the sultans and created by calligraphers whose job was to glorify the reputation of their employer by embellishing the characters of his name, resulting in a genre which is celebrated as one of the great decorative art traditions of the world. In Sultan Space, the most abstracted of these paintings, Chandler has pushed the graphic structure of an actual tughrafurther in the direction of the grevilleaplant which it suggested to him. So what is the artist saying about Australia and Islam? Why is one of the works called Beyond Gallipoli?
Before even starting to unpick the passion that is evident in these powerful works, there is asubtle pleasure in which the literalness of the iconography is constantly refuted by the skill and mastery of the painting medium, skills which these days are becoming rare trades. Chandler paints in thin layers of colour building up a series of images, one on top of the other. He knows what he wants to do with each layer and how each set of images is to intersect with the others. The transparency of the paint means there is nowhere to hide in this method. Like archaeologists with X-ray vision we can uncover the layers while magically we can make them out as one grand vista. The brush moves unerringly at each level, finishing with the great red monikers of the tughra.
With these subtle delights to entice the viewer Chandler offers a series of observations about our complex relationship with that part of the world known today as Turkey. If we feel frustrated and confused by the turn of recent events in the Middle East we are not alone. There are others who have been there and they appear in the paintings in poses of thought and concentration like so many Rodin thinkers made by a Congolese carver and finished by Picasso. They sit around a prayer rug in silent struggle, faced by the radiant beauty of this peerless artform, conscious that it exists both in the museums of the world, on the floor of a nomad’s tent and in suburban Adelaide, carried there by thousands of years of refinement in design and the skill of the makers, yet what do they know of its meanings? On a pilgrimage to Gallipoli they brood over a Turkish miniature whose innocent colours glow out of the soft greys of Greek ruins. Arriving at Miletos they are struck by the similarity of the rising up of an ancient Greek theatre from the flat into a formation reminiscent of Wilpena Pound. Ghostly mimi figures fly over surfaces covered with inscriptions and pictographs from three cultures, Greek, Arabic, Aboriginal. Finally they plunge into that far-off sea, charged as it is with symbolic meanings for them, and this time theybecome the miniature, but the radiance and the innocence is missing.
Stephanie Britton, Sep 2004