Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spiritual works that don't flinch from taboo themes

Spiritual works that don't flinch from taboo themes
Steve Meacham Sydney Morning Herald
August 28, 2010

"It is not politically correct art, but thank God for that" ... Rodney Pople in his Marrickville studio with his Cardinal with Altar Boy. Photo: Tamara Dean

RODNEY POPLE'S painting is meant to be provocative. A headless Roman Catholic cardinal towers over the interior of one of Venice's baroque churches, surrounded by images of the Virgin Mary's innocence.

But in the cardinal's lap - echoing the classic pieta pose of the crucified Messiah - is an altar boy, his genitals partly exposed as he offers his own innocence to the figure of religious authority.

Yes, it's Blake prize time again. Australia's foremost award ''for contemporary religious and spiritual art'' is in its 59th year and worth $20,000 to the 2010 winner. And Pople, a veteran painter, sculptor and photographer, is this year's main talking point.

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Rew Hanks's examination of Australian attitudes to women.
His mixed media work - part photomontage, part painting - is based on photographs Pople took of the interiors of San Zaccaria Church in Venice. But the completed work is prompted by the controversy about paedophilia within the Catholic Church.

''Yes, of course it is,'' Pople said. ''But I'd like to think my painting cuts through to deeper stuff. What the Catholic Church is going through now is unprecedented. But in a sense it has just been discovered.

''In reality, [sexual abuse] has been going on for centuries. My painting is saying, 'They think they can get away with it, that they are above the civil law.' I found that intriguing.

''It is not politically correct art, but thank God for that. Artists have a right, a duty, to be doing a bit of leading, because our politicians never will.''

Pople's painting is not only a finalist in this year's Blake exhibition, which opens on Friday at the National Art School in Darlinghurst, but one of the favourites for the main prize.

Sasha Grishin, the Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, was one of three judges. The others are Father Andrew Bullen, the rector of St Ignatius College, Riverview, and the artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso.

''Pople's work is a striking work,'' Professor Grishin said. ''Yes, it has a strong political message. Molestation of altar boys and other people within the church is very strong.

''But the way [Pople] has resolved the image, by showing the headless cardinal and the boy splayed out, surrounded by Venetian baroque images of innocence … sends a very shocking message.''

Grishin said the work addressed ''a very important theme in current religious discourse. Let's face it, [paedophilia in the Catholic Church] is the elephant in the room.

''Controversy is good. Bill Henson's imagery is in defence of innocence, in defence of childhood. In the same way, Rodney Pople, by shining a mirror at child abuse, tries to nullify it.

''It is confronting, but only because he is saying, 'Yes, child abuse is happening, and it has been happening for a very long time.''

Pople's painting is hardly alone in dealing with difficult subjects. Fiona White's graphic work on the use of tasers is based on what she describes as a ''horrific case from a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia''. The Canberra artist Martin Paull reimagines the 14 Stations of the Cross as a pilgrimage through the Victorian bushfires.

Rew Hanks uses a particularly grumpy image of Germaine Greer to examine changing attitudes to women since European settlement of Australia.

However the most poignant work - given the catastrophe in Pakistan - is a collaborative work called My Prayer Is, which depicts 100 prayers from Pakistani women in the form of hand-embroidered buttons.

''There are a number of works which deal with controversial subject matter,'' said Rod Pattenden, the Blake Society chairman.

''It is part of the Blake's genius that it draws out works which address our culture. They are alluring and seductive, reinforcing our key values but also addressing things that are out on the edge.

''And that is what makes the Blake Prize so interesting. It is not about people's faces or gum trees. It is about issues which promote a passionate response.''

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