Melbourne

Patricia Piccinini, Teenage Metamorphosis, 2016, silicone,
fiberglass, human hair, found objects, 9 7/8 × 53 7/8 × 29 1/2".

Patricia Piccinini, Teenage Metamorphosis, 2016, silicone,
fiberglass, human hair, found objects, 9 7/8 × 53 7/8 × 29 1/2".

Patricia Piccinini

TOLARNO GALLERIES

Patricia Piccinini, Teenage Metamorphosis, 2016, silicone,
fiberglass, human hair, found objects, 9 7/8 × 53 7/8 × 29 1/2".

Two decades ago, model making commanded considerable attention in the art world. Patricia Piccinini, along with Ron Mueck, Ricky Swallow, Sam Durant, and many others, went further than just making to-scale, postmodern simulacra of consumer objects and cardboard boxes. Each of them constructed labor-intensive, trompe l’oeil models of scenes or characters from imaginary worlds in place of the archiving and documenting that in other artists’ hands became the more familiar hallmark of contemporary art. Their painfully perfect works, marked by a spectacular degree of skill and effort, teetered on the edge of uncanny sentimentality.

Still today, Piccinini’s art is distinguished by her production of monstrous folds of alien flesh and soft carapaces, embodying imaginary evolutionary leaps and bizarre mutations in fiberglass and silicone. Her recent exhibition “No fear unmingled with hope” featured hyperreal, perfect renditions of not-so-slightly altered young women (or, less frequently, boys) set loose in the gallery like awkwardly vulnerable doppelgängers. Her grotesque creatures also fairly matter-of-factly inhabit a child’s or adolescent’s dreamworld. In Teenage Metamorphosis, 2016, the fleshy object lounging uncomfortably on a beach towel, Kafka paperback moved just out of reach, is male, at least according to the pronouns in the artist’s statement that accompanied this exhibition. But the young, not at all sleepy, androgynous mutant is also anxiously positioned for a gendered gaze, recapitulating the pose and mise-en-scène of a Cindy Sherman centerfold.

Not all of Piccinini’s works replay the kinds of cinematic psychological tropes that Sherman famously invoked, although almost all feature figures who attend to the viewer’s gaze. In Unfurled, 2016, a young girl in a simple blue dress perches on a bright-yellow chair, keeping an alert but unruffled eye on the viewer. She has a companion, an equally vigilant and quite marvelous owl balanced on her shoulder. By contrast, The Naturalist, 2017, is a nude of indeterminate species and age staring warily sideways. All of these works employ the highly contrived vocabulary of fashion and product photography, brightly lit and seamless, to depict animal-humans that even when free of troubling mutations or furry pelts—the young woman of Unfurled looks almost normal—appear to have emerged from a laboratory. Both glossy-haired girl and owl look equally artificial and equally indebted to technology.

Looking at these works, it was often far from clear, even after inspecting the gallery checklist, what had been sculpted and what were found objects grafted into place. Piccinini seemed to be reworking an uncomfortable but carefully calibrated technique of hyperrealism, that still slightly unfashionable late-1960s movement in painting and sculpture that reached an unexpected critical apotheosis alongside now-canonical Conceptualism at Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in 1972. But just what is it that makes today’s hyperrealism so different, so appealing? The answer may be an almost scandalous ingenuousness that would have been unthinkable back in 1972. In her artist’s statement, Piccinini explains that Unfurled is “a work that attempts to imagine a different sort of relationship between people and nature; one that is more equitable and with a more shared outlook. It is a work that refuses to acknowledge the impossible naïveté of such optimism.” The artist brings her apparent invocation of creepy narratives from science fiction into coincidence with a genuinely felt, premodern anthropomorphism. She puts all of these elements together to reconcile the realms of future and past with utter—and utterly surprising—sincerity.

Charles Green