Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours), MADA
By Karl Sagrabb
Identity is artifice. It is constructed and identified by the frame that we apply, a bit like the way in which miscellany placed in a “white-cube” art gallery is “art”. Identity is artifice: what a galling and perverse thing for a privileged white man to write.
The way in which our identity is framed and constructed by the multiplicity of contexts in which we exist is a recurrent theme in the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) graduate exhibition at Monash, MADA Now 2021. In this exhibition, artists wrestle with notions of identity in the face of impending social and ecological catastrophes, and in face of context collapse. In particular, these themes are expressed strongly in the work of Douglas Maxted, Sentimental Education ’29 (2021).
Maxted’s work is a series of ten acrylic paint transfer prints on canvas and an installation, sub-titled Study Materials, comprised of a bookshelf, newspapers, photographs, degree certificates, books, a banker’s lamp, a skull and old photographs. In Sentimental Education ’29, Maxted has staged models emulating life and scenes at elite academic institutions, creating an evocative atmosphere of aesthetic academic nostalgia. The works are tense, yet playful—brimming with homoerotic energy and melancholia. The models are staged in early twentieth-century dress, and the colour transfer technique employed by Maxted gives the paintings the effect of photographic images of the early twentieth century: the images are in black and white, grainy and textural. The figures are ghostly and could be sprites haunting the hallowed halls of these institutions.
The works are squares, framed like old slides, the former tools of art history education. They are also like pictures on Instagram, and through this association one can’t help but think of the internet subculture of Dark Academia and the “source” text for this subculture, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This is a subculture that romanticises academic and intellectual pursuit, death and the aesthetic of the early-twentieth century: tweed blazers, woollen jumpers and leather brogues; old books and fountain pens. In the depiction of elite academic life, the transfers portray a homoerotically charged vision of a masculine ideal, indeed challenging the stereotypical vision of masculine bodily identity through depictions of slender, elegant men, fey and elfin. They are louche and languid, playing into the imagery of the anaemic youth of the English upper classes in the early twentieth century. The particularly sharp and heightened physical personas emphasise an undercurrent of anxiety that runs through these images as a function of the social dynamic they depict. Inherent to this bodily anxiety is an anxiety of belonging: can one belong to this class and community if one does not look or act appropriately?
The transfer pictures depict a theatrical performance of the lives of and relationship between Julian Bell and Anthony Blunt at Cambridge University in 1929. These transfers frame the installation Study Materials, which physically stages this relationship. Blunt was a noted British art historian, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and Soviet spy. He was ousted to the public in 1979 and there followed widespread hysteria over his betrayal, and this intrigue in the context of a typically elite and anodyne discipline has led to several depictions of Blunt in popular culture, most recently in The Crown (2019). This combination of drama and tragedy (in Bell’s untimely death in the Spanish Civil War) creates a story that resonates perfectly with the themes of Dark Academia: solitary scholarly pursuit, death and tragedy. By staging the life and relationship of Bell and Blunt theatrically, in a story that Donna Tartt could have written, Maxted explores the way in which we may construct identities within a frame.
Karl Sagrabb is a writer and bookseller based in Naarm/Melbourne. He has a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne and has worked as Academic Editor for Antithesis Journal. He has completed a dissertation on Caspar David Friedrich, and his interests include romanticism, modernism, critical theory, and all things tweed.