View of “Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley,” 2019.

View of “Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley,” 2019.

Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley

Since the early 1980s, Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley—working mostly collaboratively, at times independently—have made memory modern with such a determinedly light touch that their combinations of text, objects, and installations invoke several worlds at once, among them modernist design, art-house cinema, biomorphic sculpture, biology, anthropology, autobiography, and feminist art. They navigate these realms in such a way that none alone dominates. And their material inventory is equally disparate, taking in wood, colored acrylic, molded ply, resin, cast bronze, perforated aluminum, steel, firebricks, neon, screen printing, photography, and synthetic-polymer paint. Not surprisingly, then, this survey of almost four decades’ worth of work, curated by Sue Cramer and titled “Temptation to Co-Exist,” contained a wide variety of forms: video projections, neon sculptures, refigured modernist furniture, a wall of homemade shields, and blocks of printed text (variously quotational, theoretical, and diaristic) interspersed with old posters and film stills.

Reaching beyond simple reference and adaptation, Burchill and McCamley’s multimedia and multipart installations took viewers on a journey through modern and early postmodern art and design that was precise and eccentric all at once. Pre-paradise sorry now (neon), 2001, for instance, presents two versions of Marcel Breuer’s famous 1936 Chaise Longue—faithful in form but deviating dramatically from the original with the substitution of luminous yellow or red acrylic sheeting for Breuer’s laminated birch and upholstered cushions—set against a backdrop of glowering neon signage that spells out the work’s title across two large waferboard panels. This work exemplifies both the discontinuity of the pair’s art and its synthetic ambitions. These kinds of combinations stretch back to early-’80s Sydney (the artists currently reside in Melbourne), where the duo’s collaboration formed amid a local feminist avant-garde preoccupied with the intersection of film theory and art. Early works focused on iconic female figures whose subjectivity had come unstuck—Tippi Hedren and Valerie Solanas, for example—not least because of, or in opposition to, patriarchal forces.

While exuding a glacial slowness via pastiched images connoting immobility or stasis, the pair’s works also chronicle the prevalence of spectacularized, consumerist modernity. Over time, the narratives—whether linear or nonlinear—embodied in their pieces came less and less to reflect the impact of cinema on art, and increasingly hewed to a broader, cryptic theatricality and palpable drama. Their more recent neon slogans, for instance, evoke torture, distress, and anxiety. Here, these works were the ground—or, better still, the projection screen—that prepared us for the survey’s most impactful room, which featured an assembly of clunky but eloquently declarative, emblematic shields that, yet again, inhabit several worlds at once: Homer’s Iliad, premodern and so-called “primitive” relics, present-day warfare, and contemporary art itself. Some of the shields featured handles, summoning us to take hold of the objects (an invitation negated of course by the museum’s prohibition against touching). This, coupled with the use of abrasive, often daft humor (one shield is emblazoned with the word RIOT written backward; another inserted the words EAT CAKE into the Coca-Cola logo), suggested the shields are, at a symbolic level, meant for battle. And as the artists bounced among materials, languages, and worlds, we became conscious of a similar multiplicity in the construction of our own selves; we became self-aware as spectators only partly in control of the violence implicit in vision.

Burchill and McCamley’s shields may even convey emotive qualities or conditions—distance, pathos, damage—just as their earlier, media-oriented assemblages zeroed in on an affecting, pathetic interval along a cinematic sequence. While their early work with film stills evoked the illusion of movement in a simulacrum of the succession of film frames through a projector, more recently their shields conjured figures moving in charged ceremonial formation. Perhaps the purpose of the duo’s modernist anachronisms is not to trace transformation (other, neo-modernist artists would explore this theme through repetition) so much as to reanimate the dead. Unlike many of their contemporaries who were artistically marooned by the fall of postmodernism in the wake of “the contemporary,” Burchill and McCamley have only seen their work’s relevance increase as the twenty-first century ends its barbaric, warmongering second decade.