Submitted Review

Brendan Huntley ‘Without Within’

  • Tolarno Galleries • Melbourne

  • 16 April—14 May 2021

  • Anna Zagala • Published 08 May 2021

It’s only now with artists beginning to display work made during 2020 that we are beginning to gain an insight into the impact of the pandemic and the accompanying economic uncertainty, threat to personal safety, and restriction of movement has wrought on individuals.

For Brendan Huntley, a mid-career artist and musician of renown, it meant changing gears. In a practical sense, it affected the way that he worked; lockdowns necessitated consolidating two studio spaces – one for painting, the other for ceramics some distance away – to home base, an adjustment that has brought two parallel practices into closer proximity.

‘I was jazzed by the sight of the oil pastels…They are cheery, smeary, and energetic ‘portraits’…’

Huntley’s work has always drawn in found materials from his domestic and immediate environment and folded disparate influences into his work in a tactile and casual way. The ceramic sculptural objects that he’s made in the past from heads, to large vessel-like forms, possess an appealing talismanic charm and animistic vitality, summoning through their sheer object-ness the elemental forces of the cosmos and the spectre of ritual without being either pious or freakishly intense.

Huntley continues this approach in his current exhibition, Without Within. It presents thirty-six works on paper and accompanying ceramic sculptures, this time of moths. The insect is not only a symbol of transformation but a creature that undertakes its metamorphoses reconstituting itself inside a cocoon. This makes it a primo metaphor for 2020.

I was jazzed by the sight of the oil pastels, mounted in a 12 x 3 grid extending along the gallery wall. They are cheery, smeary, and energetic ‘portraits’ combining across the series both the repetition of the symmetry of the moth’s form: wings, abdomen, and antennae, while allowing for variation in expression that incorporates male and female biological markers, fannies and ripped six-packs, along with some funny little faces. Each one reiterates the face with the feature of an eye on each wing and a simple line for a smile. Messing up the plain and unapologetic directness is some complex and colourful patterning.

Between the works covering the walls and ceramic moths dotted on an arc of plinths, the gallery pulsates with waves, zig-zags, polka dots, straight lines, diamonds, and squares. While the patterning style recalls the textile loom construction, Huntley’s hand is loose injecting a sure, notational style. In the works on paper, he achieves sketchy, frenetic blocking of colour. The ceramic moths’ layer glaze patterning with the surface printing and the application of shapes and rolled clay.

Artists speak of influences, but viewers register associations. Freewheeling, wide-ranging my mind flitted between modernism’s fascination with Oceanic art (and particularly Picasso and Brancusi), and the disarming naivete of Mirka Mora’s paintings, to the mania of Mike Brown’s collages. Writers have noted the unstable relationship with the concept of the future in the work of contemporary artists. Faced with an uncertain present moment Huntley has fashioned a collection of works that assert themselves with an emphatic, positive conviction like a mantra, or refrain. If there is any ‘tell’ of the wigginess of 2020, it seems to me to reside in this closed feedback loop.

Each sculpture bears the artist’s initials prominently, some incorporate an imprint of Huntley’s name, along with the month and year of creation. Sitting between record-keeping and swagger this detail makes a bold claim much like the tags of graffiti artists in civic spaces. It says I’m here. Pay attention. I’m in the process of transforming.