HERE IN THE UNDERGROWTH
A LOCAL SHOWCASE FOR SYNTHETICA | WANGARATTA ART GALLERY
8 February to 15 March 2015
A BLINDSIDE / NETS Victoria Exhibition
Curated by CLAIRE ANNA WATSON
During its regional tour Synthetica is supported by a local exhibition series—Here in the Undergrowth—a showcase of new work by artists with a strong relationship to the venue’s surrounding area. Here in the Undergrowth is a means of creating a conversation—a knowledge exchange, an initiative intended to promote regional artists as well as to link Synthetica to each location in a new and unique way. In 2016, at the conclusion of the Synthetica tour, a curated selection of works by artists from Here in the Undergrowth will be presented at BLINDSIDE.
ON CULTURAL DOPE AND OTHER THINGS
‘Unruly’ was the first word that came to mind when I met the artist Matthew Harris. This became clear as I pondered over his comment that, unlike his art, he is not ‘over the top’.
Matthew Harris belongs to a category of artists whose work is governed by their experience of everyday life and its material culture, enabling these key elements to determine the work and its processes. Early in our conversation Harris commented on how he would not be one to visit Paris to see Mona Lisa, as he has already seen it too many times, here as a fake reproduction, over there on a mug. This trivial fact, as inconsequential as it seems, is key in understanding Harris’ practice where repetition and popular culture references are central. As an example, pink flamingos are a recurring reference in the artist’s work, a symbol of an aesthetic of kitsch. It’s also the title of the John Waters’ film Pink Flamingos – An Exercise of Bad Taste (1972), mischievously controversial for its closing scene where the main character, a large drag queen named Divine, eats dog faeces; it’s mentioned here in direct connection with Harris’ reconstruction of a human stool, euphemistically titled Turd (Portrait of anArtist), (plasticine, 2013). Additionally the film Pink Flamingos is central to the Camp movement often associated with kitsch – camp existing as a way of being and seeing, defined as a unique sensibility for its ‘failed seriousness, theatricality, naivety’, in fact with ‘no attempt in seriousness’.
With his affiliation to Generation Y, Matthew Harris claims to have ‘an accidental relationship to film’. Nonetheless, another work featured in this solo exhibition Here in the Undergrowth demonstrates the artist’s interest: Lassie (video, 2013), a remake of the 1943 movie Lassie Come Home (directed by Fred Wilcox) readapted many times over the years was released in 1995 in Australia and made into a TV series in the USA . Its loyal super hero dog remains a cult icon for children. This work was an impulsive one, as the artist found the figurine by accident on the way back from work. The artist’s position towards popular culture seems to be double sided, both referencing its elements, and using its strategies. For Harris ‘there is no high and low art, it all depends on how people think about it’. The artist follows cultural theorists in thinking that the distinction between low and high art is now dismantled, as social and financial power no longer equals taste.
Perhaps a little worn, Aldi supermarkets’ advertising adopts a ‘what you see is what you get’ look and attitude. Matthew Harris’ Things (digital print on nylon lycra, 2014) reminded me of an Aldi advertisement for that reason, with an additional comment by the artist on the practice of ‘value adding’ in marketing, art and commerce in general. This print may also strike a feeling of kitsch and with good reasons. With its origins as cheap reproductions of artworks being obviously fake, kitsch ‘employs the thematic of repetition, imitation and emulation as a distinct aesthetic style.’ Interestingly, a question of meaning and responsiveness to contemporary culture are, for social theorist Sam Binkley, central to the notion of kitsch for its ‘sensibility that employs the thematics of repetition over innovation, a preference for formulae and conventions over originality and experiment, an appeal to sentimental affirmation over existential probing’; kitsch in art is a critical response to the ‘disembeddedness’ of modern societies.Society is ‘disembedded’ in its ways of providing endless choices, personal freedom within consumerism, and discontinuity in always searching for the new and the best. Kitsch performs the opposite; it’s a celebration of the mundane, the repetitive and the fake, providing reassurance in a continuity of style, void of immediate answers.
This exhibition provides the viewer a sample of works, but one has to keep in mind the artist’s large production in only a few years, produced as a necessary act, as a kind of ‘cultural dope’. During the 1980s and 90s, kitsch objects were also seen as a kind of dope, partly as stimulant, partly low quality, but as slow, and dormant addiction of society. Harris’ addiction of producing art is very beneficial, his approach to contemporary life reveals its cracks and highlights ‘undergrowth’ as a product of consumerism itself rather than a phenomenon at the margins of a society historically perceived as ‘higher’.
Matthew Harris’ practice encompass published zines, Got more time for misbehavin since I started microwavin (Risograph zine, 2012), video clips such as Armageddon Outta Here, a collage of films’ end cards collected with an iPhone camera, several photographic series focusing on particular motifs such as garden art, inflammable things or store displays amongst others to sculptural objects such as accumulations and various handicrafts. Matthew Harris is a self-taught artist with no intentions of attending art school. With a refined sensitivity of his cultural context and a pertinent art practice, Harris invites us to loosen the frames of reference in our reflections on contemporary art and in doing so, to be critical in our unthinking of the art institution.
 Interview with the artist on 03/12/14.
 Susan Sontag, Notes on “camp”, 1964, first published in The Partisan; retrieved on 02/12/14 on http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html
 Interview with the artist on 03/12/14.
 Herbert J. Gans, Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, Basic Books, 1974.
 Sam Binkley, ‘Kitsch as a Repetitive System: A Problem for the Theory of Taste Hierarchy’ in Journal of Material Culture, SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi), Vol. 5(2), p.131.
 Idem, pp.133-135.
 Idem, p.136.
This exhibition has received development assistance from NETS Victoria’s Exhibition Development Fund Grant, supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, a division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.