Matthys Gerber, Mata Hari, 1994, oil on canvas, 59 7/8 × 59 7/8".

Matthys Gerber, Mata Hari, 1994, oil on canvas, 59 7/8 × 59 7/8".

Matthys Gerber

Matthys Gerber, Mata Hari, 1994, oil on canvas, 59 7/8 × 59 7/8".

Dutch-born Australian painter Matthys Gerber has been a fixture of the notoriously quarrelsome Sydney contemporary-art scene for roughly three decades. Consistently provocative and protean in terms of style and content, his work has been routinely dismissed by conservative commentators as cynical dilettantism or careerist one-upmanship. For Gerber’s first major survey, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia senior curator Natasha Bullock countered this perception by framing the artist’s output as a meta-critique of painting in the Australian context, claiming that his work “has always carved a singular path through the ‘idea’ of painting.” The thirty-five works presented here as an evenly representative, if not comprehensive, jumble of distinct phases portrayed an artist constantly probing the limits and conditions of his own subjectivity and practice.

Gerber first gained attention in the mid- to late 1980s with large, kitschy figurative genre paintings that in the wake of postmodern revision were broadly construed as ironic affronts to Greenbergian connoisseurship, a charge vehemently, though implausibly, denied by the artist. Hostile pundits had a field day with such works as L’Origine du Monde #1, 1992, a lurid outsize rendering of a restaurant-decor waterfall, whose title summoned Courbet’s supreme icon of artistic eroticism. Yellow Peril, 1990 (not exhibited here), a patently Orientalist depiction of a naked Asian woman, and Black Painting (Evander Holyfield), 1990, a smoldering portrait of the champion boxer with heavyweight belt, likewise courted opprobrium from high cultural (and politically correct) quarters. A period of transition followed, during which Gerber seems to have drifted gradually toward abstraction. His mid-’90s cloud paintings, for instance, signaled an interest in amorphous form and, freed of cultural reference, foregrounded his virtuosic ability.

Yet there were earlier glimmers of the shift to abstraction. A 1993 collaboration with late Australian artist Adam Cullen (1965–2012) produced engaging monstrosities featuring swaths of sloppy smears, glitter-encrusted AbEx drips, and scrawled text that, along with solo experiments in allover biomorphic layering, as exemplified here by Mata Hari, 1994, paved the way for an examination of nonfigurative effects. Although his early abstractions may appear somewhat perverse or wilfully awkward—bearing a passing resemblance to the work of contemporary European painters such as Franz Ackermann and Albert Oehlen—there is a discernible progression around 2000 toward a more sincere embrace of the material and semiotic properties of painting, specifically as they relate to the local context. Included in the show were a sprinkling of works by, or paying tribute to, artists plying regional concerns—most interestingly, Dutch New Zealander Theo Schoon (1915–1985), and Aboriginal painter George Tjungurrayi.

As if to underscore an affinity with Aboriginal art, a Tjungurrayi painting from the MCA’s collection was hung next to Gerber’s 2002 psychedelic, posterized portrait of the indigenous artist. What’s more, of the many abstract works in the show—more than half the exhibition—some sample directly from Aboriginal painting. Following the example of Schoon, who drew, contentiously, upon Maori iconography, here Gerber stepped gently into territory that few white Australians would dare venture into for fear of being accused of symbolically repeating colonialist gestures. Dot Painting, 2014, for example, subjects pumped-up Papunya-style dots from Western Desert Aboriginal art to a hard edge Rorschach-style pictorial mirroring (a favored device of Gerber’s), blending what is generally thought to be divergent traditions and registers, a situation further problematized by the nod to Freudian psychology. Indeed, if there are common traits across the stylistic variance of Gerber’s production, it’s the artist’s tendency to lead with his chin on sensitive cultural issues and the palpable presence of a sexualized subtext.

Despite whatever causal evolution Gerber’s work may have undergone over the years, the show’s eccentric, achronological presentation effectively obscured any narrative of artistic development. Taking a very active hand in the installation, Gerber eschewed wall labels and scrambled his timeline with a dynamic, scattershot hang—a work in itself—that incorporated a freestanding, raw-ply gallery-within-a-gallery; placed many works on an uncommonly low sight line; and vaulted others to the ceiling. This exploded view was intensely contradictory, yet somehow harmonious, sending one’s eye ricocheting around the room and forcing productive comparisons among seemingly irreconcilable genres and techniques. The preponderance of gaudy, even salacious, effects would seem to be the binding medium here, and, as such, Gerber’s oeuvre, justly celebrated in this institutional anointment, comes off as a rapturous indulgence in the love of painting (of the libidinous kind) and a relentless challenge to good taste and representational correctness.

Kit Messham-Muir