Jon Cattapan


In Jon Cattapan’s paintings, nocturnal suburban landscapes bathed in an aqueous greenish light provide a dreamlike setting for various sexual transactions and crimes. J.G. Ballard sketched an entropic greenhouse world in his early short stories peopled by isolated neurotics charting courses across environmentally ruined landscapes. Like Ballard’s four-dimensional nightmare,Cattapan’s paintings are only apparently ruled by narrative; though observed from a bird’s-eye perspective, they avoid grandiose overviews.

The fragmentation of action in these paintings blocks epic interpretation. There is no clear hierarchy among characters, and since the disconnected melodrama of film noir is a constant thread, outcomes don’t seem to add up. Though half-erased figures and swathes of opaque paint suggest a process that involves considerable struggle, Cattapan’s paintings are not particularly gloomy or agonized. The qualities his figures epitomize serve as notations of personal experiences that are coherent but unavailable. As an illustrator of stories, Cattapan longs for something beyond the grasp of paint, and as a result he has, like the Surrealists, elevated and romanticized the indeterminacy experienced in dreams. At the same time, paint precedes everything—it is the sticky, aquatic glue that binds the small figures in Name and Address (all works 1989–90) together. This is urban story telling without a sense or center, though the roles are identifiable—the voyeur with camera, the girl in high-heels, by-standers and police—strangely enough, the artist imposes only a minimal sense of order.

Though Cattapan has frequently been viewed as an ironist and caricaturist, he avoids trickery, play, or the revelation of personality behind appearances. Intimate chronicles, the paintings recall the vistas and processions of a latter-day Carpaccio. Titles like Footscray and Chemical refer to industrial accidents and environmental damage, and here, these catastrophic events are the occasion for ritual—crowds, sideshows, and action. Roles are preordained, witnesses stand in for us at the paintings’ edge, and figures float like swimmers in a Venetian canal.

Cattapan’s relationship to his imagery is surprisingly uncomplicated; the works’ glamour is that of the fetishes he admires, which he mimics rather than critiques. In previous outsized drawings of grotesque animals, the artist avoided reflection on the conditions within which contemporary art is produced, by retreating to a belief in preconditioned expression. These paintings are more considered. Though he continues to insist on his position as a scopophilic voyeur, the fragmentation of action defeats that intention, and the chronicler’s stage-managing hand flattens allegory. The urban apocalypse depicted in Name and Address features a stage, chorus, and witness, but meaning is so clearly reserved by the artist that prophecy is ultimately elided. Domination of the subject is avoided in the strangest way—by subverting significance in the name of esthetics.

Charles Green