I must confess to feeling a tad strung out by art steeped in its own scatology or soaked in urological semantics. And my aversion does not stem from a blushing discomfort with that “final taboo”, what Victor Hugo evocatively called the ‘last veil’ clouding our vision of the truth..
Nor is it because I believe pooh and piss belong more in the realms of anthropology, politics and cosmology than visual culture. It’s just that the use of both in contemporary art has become so smugly referential, so self-consciously ironic and utterly derivative – whether of Duchamp, Serrano, Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin or Margaret Morgan – that if I have to contemplate yet another visual treatise on toilethood I’m liable to resort to an unavoidably projectile response.
So, it was with some relief that I contemplated Carol-anne Gainer’s most recent exhibition Drawn, given the fact that her previous solo show at the Bell-Roberts had consisted, largely, of urine-drawings. Visually they were quite alluring in an abstract-expressionist sort of way. Conceptually they alluded to marking territory which, contrary to popular misconception, is not an exclusively male ritual, as well as the body politic and issues around neo-colonialism. But while the show seemed to spread itself over pertinent terrain what it achieved in breadth it lacked in depth.As the title suggests Drawn is far more introspective. It includes a series of digital prints, nickel-plated childhood mementos, as well as drawings and video installations. It also develops some of the more enduring motifs of her “piss” show, such as scans of fragmented pottery, decoraived air vents, as well as ribbons and domestic bric-a-brac, which are imbued with implicit violence and angst. The binaries of vulnerability and threat are perhaps most overtly conveyed in the prints of ceramic animal figurines that are reminiscent of the beatific porcelain puppies produced by Jeff Koons. On the one hand they epitomize the saccharine sweetness of kitsch; on the other, their associations with lowbrow sentiment are interrupted by a sense of imminent violation.Gainer’s nickel- and bronze-plated toys and decorations straddle the dichotomy between the desire to preserve and the inevitability of decay. These pieces have been oxidized to resemble memento mori. Like the babies’ booties and first-day-at-school shoes that are dipped in bronze and accorded pride of place on the family mantelpiece, Gainer’s memorabilia have become fetishized, and charged almost with a talismanic power. But they suggest not innocence immortalised, but rather objects in varying stages of atrophy. Through the installation of grid-like interior vents Gainer also evokes a sense of claustrophobia and incarceration. And despite its inchoate title the video installation Blue Elly suggests that innocence is an overpraised season – a mythical construct, born of nostalgia, sublimated fear or both.. Blue Elly documents a child, presumably, throwing his/her toys (a toy elephant) literally out of the cot, and against a wall with a venom and implicit violence that belies the presumed innocence of the perpetrator. But elephants never forget and in this work one sense the eruption of repressed rage. There’s an almost Blakean poignancy in works like this. They suggest a confluence of innocence and experience, of “purity” and “danger” which, while not exactly original, are themes that have not lost their resonance, particularly for a society in which violence perpetrated against and by children has become horrifyingly commonplace.Gainer might have made more of a splash with her exhibition of piss drawings. But it is the works in Drawn that suggest that she is onto something far more profound than merely trendy derivatives.