Scott Redford: Blood Disco (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007).
Our goal must be nothing less than the establishment of Surfers Paradise on Earth.
In the beginning, pop art and abstract expressionism were polar opposites. Pop art was seen as subversively shallow and secular, a response to the heroism, existentialist gravity, metaphysical pomp, and spiritual aspirations of abstract expressionism. Where abstract expressionists had courted the ‘beyond’, pop artists immersed themselves in the immediate and trivial, the ‘right here, right now’. Abstract expressionism was high art, pop art low. However, as we increasingly engage with pop art independently of its formative issues with abstract expressionism, this oppositional characterisation loses relevance. From a high-art perspective, popular culture may seem base and secular, but, from within its own frameworks, it clearly makes space for a huge range of engagements, from the lowly to the lofty, the mundane to the mystic.
Today, we increasingly enjoy pop art’s quasi-religious edge, as artists conjure with the auratic power of mass-media images and revel in the product-animism of ‘commodity fetishism’. Consider Andreas Gursky’s sublime views of supermarket abundance, Sigmar Polke’s occult-pop, John McCracken’s extraterrestrial pop-minimalism, and Jeff Koons claiming his Puppy is ‘a contemporary Sacred Heart of Jesus’. As pop art blurs into magic realism, curator Natasha Conland was inspired to coin the term ‘transcendental pop’. This notion provides a useful framework for thinking about Scott Redford’s recent work.
For some time Redford has been fascinated by his hometown, the Gold Coast. It’s been his muse. Australia’s sixth largest city boasts a bizarre demographic of wealthy retirees, surfers and tourists and an extreme aesthetic of beachfront high-rises, ‘googie’ motel signage, and cheesy theme parks. As the rest of Australia looks down its nose at the Coast, it prides itself on its crass commercialism, its rampant property development, its mall culture, its bling, and its reputation as a cultural desert. The Coast is at once secondhand—a provincial mash of quotations from Hollywood, Vegas, Miami, Hawaii—and unique. As a young man, Redford rejected its charms as vulgar, but he converted. Now he sees it—and represents it—as a parallel world, a real utopia that is the perverse fulfillment and inversion of our notions of modernity and post-modernity. Redford has explored the Coast in many ways, but the largest part of his inquiry is his Surf Paintings.
In these works, Redford adopts the materials, techniques, and aesthetics used to manufacture surfboards. They are custom-painted on lightweight fibreglass panels and sealed in resin. He has them commercially fabricated in surfboard factories, seeking the ultimate commercial sheen. As they typically feature a single dominant colour—often a fluoro or metallic—Redford says they are ‘monochromes basically’. But these ‘monochromes’ are infected with various forms of imagery and references. Some have classic surfboard graphic-design features like ‘fades’; one has hot-rod racing stripes. Some feature words, which could be mastheads, brand names, or commands: ‘Kurt.’, ‘Surf.’, ‘Love.’. Others feature touristic images of Surfers Paradise high-rises and palms, either brushed on deftly, as if by a zen calligrapher seeking satori, or stencilled graffiti-style. (Redford says his fusion of the monochrome and the scenic recall ‘provincial’ Australian painters, like Fred Williams, applying the lessons of modernism to local landscape painting.)
The Surf Paintings also include trademark decals. Found trademarks for surf brands such as ‘Stranger’ and ‘Phantom’ suggest a latent ‘cultish’ symbolism only revealed by their inclusion in his work. They resonate with Redford’s own trademarks, such as ‘Ghost Nation’. Sometimes, the decals sit elegantly under the resin, as if they were always part of the product, conflating the conventions for the placement of the artist’s signature on a painting and the logo on an ad. Other times, they are stuck clumsily on top, as if applied later, as if by a skater boy to his board. Sometimes trademarks are mustered, recalling Ashley Bickerton’s Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles) (1987—8), with its archive of preferred brands.
The Surf Paintings are simple in form but complex in association. Each places elements in counterpoint, collapsing—or emphasising—the perceived space between them. These high-concept haikus aspire to the dreamy concision and coherence of successful advertising images. Redford’s ingredients come from a diverse range of sources. Take his recent Surf Painting/Forever (2007). With flora stencilled onto gold panels, it was inspired by traditional Japanese screens—Redford pursuing some kind of Gold Coast japonisme. However, the work also recalls Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings (painted with piss on gold) and Yves Klein’s Anthropometries (where female bodies were used as stamps and stencils), golden monochromes and charred Fire Paintings.
Redford hints at affinities and secret correspondences between things normally corralled into separate chapters in the history books or different domains of life. Redford’s references pull in different directions, so the viewer doesn’t know which way to lean. Some of the works Redford quotes already promote this kind of interpretive dilemma. Redford’s Surf Painting/The Higher Beings Command Paint Palm Trees Instead (2007), for instance, offers a Gold Coast spin on Polke’s 1969 classic imperative, Higher Beings Command: Paint the Top Right Corner Black!, a painting which could exemplify mystic channeling or be a joke at its expense. Redford’s persistent referencing of the monochrome tradition is linked to this undecidability. Monochromes have long been a source of diametrically opposed readings: are they empty or replete, material or metaphysical, the end of painting or its new beginning? On the one hand, the monochrome seems to promote a formal demystification of art; on the other, it is quasi-religious. Frequently, its advocates want it both ways.
In his Gold Coast work, Redford constantly teases us, hinting at some redemptive religious subtext. He takes photos of a surfer carrying a cross of yellow surfboards, creates monuments out of unimaginably futuristic dates laden with eschatological implications, and quotes scripture on a model motel sign. The catalogue cover for his 2005 show Scott Redford and the Gold Coast reproduces his photograph of a young girl bearing a surfboard, finger pointing skywards, her pose an obvious nod to Leonardo Da Vinci’s John the Baptist. It also features the legend: ‘The content of these paintings is secret, known only to the people of Surfers Paradise’. This reference to Mel Ramsden /Art and Language’s 1967–8 Secret Painting—itself a parody of the monochrome-presumed-meaningful—hints at ‘secret surfers’ business’, tying back to the prevailing idea of surfing as a kind of religion, a grail quest for the perfect ride.
Ultimately Redford seems less concerned with elaborating a particular religious paradigm than with simply leaving a general sense of religious possibility hanging in the air. I see a connection between Redford and the later Colin McCahon, another mystic beach-artist. One of my favourite Redfords, Surf Painting/Jet Out (2000), riffs on McCahon’s 1973 Jet Out drawings (which conflate birds, airplanes taking off, crosses, and the flight of the soul after death) and McCahon’s early 1970s Necessary Protection works (which refer to Kasmir Malevich while making an imaginative link between the gannet colony at Muriwai and Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘leap to faith’). McCahon found religious epiphanies in everyday experiences and vernacular expressions. He saw his country as portentous, awaiting only a change of attitude on the part of his viewer, the New Zealander, to realise they were always already in the promised land. Redford sometimes seems to have a similarly prophetic view of the Gold Coast, as if its people were already living in paradise but oblivious to the fact and only needed a small shift in perspective to transcend the limitations of their vision, grasp their position as The Chosen, and establish ‘Surfers Paradise on Earth’. Is Redford transcendental pop’s heir to McCahon?
Or, is this all just a monstrous conceit? Your call.