Monica, no. 5, 1997. Review of Richard Killeen, Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, 1996.
INSTITUTION: a group of people organised for some purpose, following rules of procedure, with a structure designed to be complex and make things difficult for the people who belong.
—Glossary entry, C.M. Beadnell, Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook
In the late 1970s, Richard Killeen developed an innovative approach to painting. He painted appropriated image fragments on shapes cut from sheet aluminium, and nailed them to the wall in clusters, like butterflies pinned in a case. Called ‘cutouts’, they were collections of decontextualised images, divorced from any obvious, overarching logic or sense of purpose. The images were offered to the viewer for the pleasures of free association. Killeen said the cutouts were ‘democratic’, implying two things: firstly, that their compositions were non-hierarchical: the images they contained were created equal; secondly, that the format empowered viewers to make their own readings, denying any authoritative meaning emanating from the artist. The cutouts were quickly championed as an escape route from the tyranny of ‘the frame’, but they were never disruptively democratic, politically or compositionally. With each work, the democracy always functioned within a limited stylistic range: a style-consensus. Further, the cutouts’ pleasant shapes, harmonious colour schemes, curious images and non-threatening format offered a balanced, almost New Age, world view. Killeen promoted a utopia in which all things might be experienced as discrete, inviolable, autonomous—a world without hierarchy in which all particles would be granted their own personal space.
In the mid-198os, Killeen was influenced by feminism. In works like Social Document (1984), he was no longer happy with viewers simply free-associating, he wanted to address the politics of the image. Now the cutout format proved recalcitrant; it left images so open to interpretation that it became hard to make a point. Occasionally, Killeen gave his works instructive titles and inscriptions, such as Language Is not Neutral and Time to Change the Greek Hero, prompting the viewer to read the images in a particular way, underlining the conclusions to draw. Ever since then, Killeen has been caught between two conflicting ethics, one to do with opening up freedoms for the reader, the other with addressing issues, speaking his mind.
Throughout the late 1980s and into the present, Killeen stayed with the cutout format despite its inherent ‘democracy’, trying to use it to make statements on sexual politics, on ecological issues, on his concerns with paternal authority (his father’s and McCahon’s), and, recently, his thoughts at the death of his mentor, the painter Gordon Walters. Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook, Killeen’s latest show at Peter McLeavey Gallery, addresses the difficulty of making authoritative statements with cutouts.
Book of the Hook, a huge cutout painting, completely fills one of the end walls, side to side, top to bottom; the pieces crammed in, overlapping. The images recall archaeological catalogue illustrations. Each image involves some kind of hook form or motif, some blatantly hookish, others obscurely so. There are images of little hooks, big hooks, tattooed hooks, ceramic hooks, hook boats, hook forks, hook people, hooks from antiquity, modern hooks.
The work needs to be read in tandem with the hoax catalogue offered as its guide: Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook (Papers of the Hook Museum 38, no. 2). This tome catalogues objects which crop up in the big work. We are asked to believe that these images collectively represent some cult linking images from diverse times, locales, and cultures. Maps argue the way the cult developed and spread, or maybe how it was unearthed—it’s not dear. The maps have helpful captions, such as ‘As far North as it got’ and ‘Showing the concentration around Desdes’.
The authorship of the catalogue is attributed to a C.M. Beadnell, much lauded in Killeen’s foreword—an erudite gentleman scholar, no doubt. And yet his essay is minimal, shorter in fact than Killeen’s own foreword, and goes no way in explaining the cult. It simply defers to Manetho, an authority with ‘good sources’. So in the catalogue, ‘the essay’, the authority, is missing, in the same way that the authoritative explanation is perennially and conspicuously deferred with the cutouts; Killeen scrupulously sidesteps the big picture.
With this show, Killeen participates in a current preference for conspiracy theories, invented news, and hoax museums. The book is arcane. The tree-hut mentality of the hook cult is at once linked with the tree-hut mentality of the scholar-curator: all secret handshakes and nods to authority. It’s an elaborate play on phallic imagery (hooks); on meaningful signs and the authority that supposedly guarantees them. What for instance are we to make of the catalogue entry ‘HM. No. 1666a. Nude hook dancing, two men dancing, with a hook. There is some form of hand signaling taking place.’?
Killeen’s Hook Museum recalls the unconvincing museum assembled by Flaubert’s anti-heroes in his novel Bouvard and Pecuchet: ‘In former times towers, pyramids, candles, milestones and even trees had a phallic significance, and for Bouvard and Pecuchet everything became phallic. They collected swing-poles of carriages, chair-legs, cellar bolts, pharmacists’ pestles. When people come to see them they would ask: what do you think that looks like? then confided the mystery, and if there were objections, they shrugged their shoulders pityingly.’
Interestingly, Killeen is known to be a critic of ‘seagull shows’, those tragic curatorially-driven efforts in which artists’ works are gathered because they each have, say, a seagull in them, regardless of what they might really be about; shows that hang a lot on a little. This practice is satirised and perfected in Killeen’s Hook Museum—it’s an artist’s hook show. Suspecting that there may be some clear point behind the collection, the viewer gets lost trying to find it. These images have been mustered for their visual resemblance rather than because of some deeper practical, philosophical, or historical affinity. In fact, the show points to the cutout format’s fundamental inability to illuminate such deeper principles. But then this is the very pleasure of Hook museology: the love of details.
This show is Killeen at his funniest. He offers us a museum of phallic authority which deliberately fails to convince. But while he might seem to be critiquing the authoritarianism of the museum, Killeen is really reveling in the quirkiness, the quaintness, of authority—it’s strangely nostalgic. Killeen sure has a love/hate relationship with ‘the institution’.
[IMAGE: Richard Killeen Book of the Hook 1996]