Originally published: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
by Amanda Rowell (2002)
Liquid surfaces, with their mirror-like qualities, are nature's own reflectors, its first means of artful representation. They have been attributed in art and myth with occult powers as a result of their ability to reveal to the world -- or deceive it as to -- its own appearance. Ovid warned us of their magic in his retelling of the story of the boy Narcissus who drowned himself when, in a moment of languid self-admiration and self-longing, he vainly embraced his own watery image. In art history, mirrors, along with other precious objects made of light-reflecting materials, have referred allegorically to the transience of worldly life and are depicted to caution us to approach life's sensual pleasures chastely. For artist Patricia Piccinini, cars are among the most exemplary objects of desire. Via the seductively shining automotive coatings of the sculptural objects in her exhibition Autoerotic she speaks at once of both a love of self and a love of cars. Their deep pools of multi-layered and baked enamel colour entice us to peer into their depths - and we do -- only to have our own image returned to us as a mere reflection, distortion.
Autoerotic comprises a new selection of Car Nuggets and Panel Works. Their special attractiveness is due to the attention the artist has devoted to the extraordinary paint surfaces of these curious objects. The voluptuous ellipsoid forms of the Nuggets are recognisable as originating in automotive form but with a strangeness that comes from having their non-beautiful, functional aspects discarded. Piccinini arranges her Panel Works, abstracted squares of moulded plastic, into grids made sensuous with shape, colour and special paint effects. She has somehow extracted the seductive 'flesh' of the car and has reconstituted it in an immobile form. Her Car Nuggets and Panel Works are like dreams of cars. All the distracting detail that by necessity we contend with in waking life has been smoothed away and we are left with a generalised and seamless fantasy that is fully offered up to us and onto which, unimpeded by 'function', we may project our desires.
Getting one's first car, like first love, is a heady time of adolescence. A car exaggerates one's sense of mobility, independence and indestructibility. You go where you want when you want. Piccinini immersed herself in the street scenes of suburban car culture to gather material for Autoerotic. On Friday and Saturday nights, the main stretch fills with cars filled with excited youth cruising the strip and the usual thoroughfare of the street is transformed into a social space reminiscent of a noisy piazza. Piccinini has recorded the posing and flirtation of this promenade on wheels by airbrushing portraits of the young people she photographed onto some of her Panels. By doing so, she makes explicit the connection between the young (car) lover and their beloved and seems to be suggesting that the relationship is at some level self-reflexive, that owner and car share an individual identity, that to some extent they are one and the same. A car, in its free-mobility and unity, is like a phantom self or alter-ego, providing the world by proxy with information about our taste, class, wealth and, sometimes, ethnicity. Piccinini's young friends spare little effort or expense on their cars to individualise the mass-produced product and make it stand out from the crowd, turning it into a vehicle for their idiosyncratic and personal expression. Likewise, with her present body of work, Piccinini has gone further in mining the sub-cultural aesthetic of customised vehicles to give her objects a character of their own. She has airbrushed them with murals, tattoo-like images, or has given them luxury, high-tech paint finishes that render them singularly seductive propositions.
The slow blue surface depicted in Piccinini's video piece Lustre from 1999 that accompanies Autoerotic, belongs to her original Car Nugget. In the context of the present exhibition, it is a piece of nostalgia. The endless animation of the enamel paint surface is like an obsessive and personal memory of a first car or love. The camera's movement around its object also re-enacts or guides us in our own experience of viewing the works in the exhibition. For the pleasure of these works is in how they change as we move, in how they manipulate light. Her chameleon-like objects shift from green to purple as you walk around them or they contain discrete galaxies that flash holographically within their frames. Piccinini trained as a painter. With her Car Nuggets and Panel Works, she returns to painting as a medium for her practice. These car-themed works, like their non-art referents, are essentially monochrome paintings on moulded supports. But these are magical fields of colour. Their voodoo lies in the paint layers. The paint colour she uses on certain of her objects no longer necessarily bears actual pigmented material but, rather, reflects light and projects colour through prismatic refraction. The result is dazzling. Her works are like aqueous mirrors that attract our attention. Part of our admiration for them lies in our own vanity. For as we look at Piccinini's works, we also see ourselves.