PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED - The epitaph for my generation will read, "we left no warehouse unconverted."


Catalogue Essay by Kate Shaw

Suburbia has traditionally been considered more a subject for visual art than a site. Rather than placing suburbia under the microscope, the artists in Home Loan have physically and metaphorically located their practices within the suburb of Caroline Springs and have been invited to consider their relationship to a non-gallery venue, the Delfina Warehouse displays.

The stereotype of suburbia is as a place and a mind-set that is simultaneously the antithesis of culture and the embodiment of the "Australian way of life". This paradoxical relationship has led to a fascination for 20th century Australian artists with suburbia as a subject, subsequently creating a genre in its own right. The conventions of depicting suburbia as a place of conformity, alienation and kitsch started to erode with the work of artists such as Howard Arkley, Dale Hickey and Robert Rooney. This generation of artists incorporated new ideas then current in visual art that challenged the status of the art object and notions of cultural production associated with a national or international centre.

The artists in Home Loan have departed from the inherited ambivalence toward suburbia, instead treating it as site for valid cultural production. Rather than locate suburbia on the fringe of discourse or under the cultural studies microscope, the artists, in particular Stephen Haley, Bernadette Keys, Amanda Morgan, Blair Trethowan, Jarrad Kennedy, Darren Wardle, Natasha Johns-Messenger and Kate Just, embrace it as a physical and virtual space that both informs and forms their practices. Real and virtual, national mythologies and personal narratives, public and private, popular culture and art are explored in their works and amplified by their presentation and interaction with the Delfin Warehouse displays at Caroline Springs.

Located in Melbourne's outer suburbs, the Delfin Warehouses sit as incongruous replicas of their inner urban counterparts. It is telling that the developers have gone to great lengths to complete the surrounds, including cobblestone lane ways for that urban vibe. However, Delfin's simulation of an inner urban environment is pristine, devoid of the detritus, grime, crime and threat associated with the unpredictability of high-density living. Nearby display homes called the Armadale, Kensington and Hawthorn utilise copies of the facades of the Victorian and Edwardian houses found in these desirable and pricey suburbs. The branding of the Delfin houses is not dissimilar in intent to the nostalgic naming of these established suburbs, which referenced their WASP origins. However these faux housing styles are rather like the McDonalds "New Tastes Menu", customised to suit local tastes. Oversized houses on small land plots are referred to as McMansions in the US. The Delfin Warehouse is simply a new meal on the McMansion menu: all style and no substance, they emphasise that the virtual is becoming the accepted model for and Australian home ownership and the mythologies that support it.

Owning the quarter-acre block in the 'burbs and other myths of Australian he identity (ocker, bushman, larrikin) have recently collapsed into a two-dimensional space, dictated by the consumer logic of television marketers and housing developers. In discussing Melbourne's Streeton Views estate, Laurel Porcari and Peter Zellner argue that the picturesque has been supplanted by the televisual. Examples of these phenomena are the infomercial styled television programs such as ‘Changing Rooms’, ‘The Block’ and ‘Location, Location’ that accentuate the marketability of good old 'Aussie know-how' and 'do-it-yourself' clichés. This language of free-floating signs conveniently operates within the marketing strategies of housing developers and branding generally. Political, social and historical hegemonies are wiped clean and replaced with artificial-lakes and themed developments to be sold as an attainable life-style commodity. How does community evolve once the developers have left? Do they go back inside to the TV and watch a re-run of ‘Room for Improvement’, or do they start creating a new collective history? It is within this third dialectic that the artists in Home Loan situate their work.

The Delfin Warehouses at Caroline Springs have been designed by the architectural team at Delfin Lend Lease in response to "the trend toward a more urban lifestyle". This logic is continued with "special Warehouse lanes as part of our urban design strategy to develop inner suburbs within our larger communities". The Caroline Springs adage as a "place to live, play, work and learn" pretty much defines it as an alternative centre, disposing of the need (not only architecturally) for the original model. Whilst Delfin's urban strategy is superficial and theme-park-like at present, the future may not be as contradictory a scenario in the light of a recent example from the US. The San Fernando Valley, traditionally part of the suburban sprawl of Greater Los Angeles, has now been transformed into its own municipality (some suggested names being Valley City and Camelot). If its bid is successful it will be the sixth largest metropolitan area in the US, with a local economic productivity that competes with Los Angeles itself. For an area that is over 91 % residential, not only is the Valley's economic productivity surprising, but also its collective commitment to sever ties with the City of Los Angeles and its municipal agencies is indicative of its civic confidence. The US-based design group VALDES have used the term "spread" to describe aspects of this phenomena, feeling that "suburbia" and "sprawl" have become insufficient terms as by definition they imply a centre.

The relatively short history of the converted warehouse space has its origins in economic and spatial necessity. In the cultural compression chamber that was the island of Manhattan in the 60s and 70s (the golden age of the American avant-garde), live-in loft type studio spaces for artists were sought after and cost effective (per square metre). During the 80s, however, with space at a premium in Manhattan, they were gentrified into trendy loft dwellings for the burgeoning Yuppie class. Somewhat behind this developmental curve, the Melbourne version of the artist live-in warehouse studio has only recently seen developer driven renovation into apartment dwellings for the well-heeled, marking a significant shift in desirable urban housing for the "world's most liveable city". The Delfin Warehouses, with their obvious dissociation from this actual lifestyle and demographic, sit as stark reminders that artistic production is constantly being exchanged with mainstream culture: once a garret, now an apartment. The works in Home Loan reflect this fluid exchange between the outside and inside, where the notion of a radiant cultural centre is redundant and the new exchanges that occur act more like the navigational paths of electronic circuitry.

Stephen Haley's animated video Loop acts like a tour for the potential homebuyer through a possible space for purchase, such as would be experienced in buying off the plan. The deployment of the tour fly-through as a cheesy marketing tactic is emphasised by the elevator version of ‘Girl from lpanema’ in the accompanying sound track. Loop intersects the real and the virtual when the loop ends in the final frames, feeding back through the monitor that is being watched in real space, and starting again. This loop highlights how the real is increasingly supplanted and preceded by the virtuality of the digital and the model.

Amanda Morgan's work splices together banal out-takes and unclimactic moments from Suture, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Conversation, Blood Simple, Dead Man and Lost Highway. Two large screen TVs sit in dialogue with each other, with one screen operating the remote control that is channel surfing the other. Together they create another video space that upset representational codes and acts to cumulatively reframe its narrative, offering a multiplicity of sometimes-conflicting readings. They also mimic Morgan's process of exchanging meanings between art and popular culture. Her process, firstly borrowing these videos from the Arthouse section of Blockbuster Video, then editing in Final Cut Pro and After Effects, reflects this exchange of values and methods. The (remote) controller has no control over the perception of what is being formed in the present.

Natasha Johns-Messenger's works also upsets readings of what is presented and what is actual. Johns-Messenger invites the viewer to participate in perceptual paradox, in work that often situates the viewer as subject and spectacle. Small Architecture locates architectural figurines in the Warehouse to alter the viewer's perception of scale in the surrounding environment. The photographs that read as figures in landscapes are contrasted with the inclusion of the actual figurines in the space in which they were photographed; a space-ship is actually a gas jet, a city square is an arm of a chair and a sunny park is a window sill. In a more theatrical light these "little people" are like escapees from the developer's models for Caroline Springs, contemplating their environment and perhaps planning a micro-revolt.

Bernadette Keys lends humanity to a subject matter that could be bleak or misrepresented. No Trace (2002) was a photographic sound installation in which Keys worked closely with the people whose lives had been affected by the murder of a close family member. Departing from documentary, Keys depicts an abstracted version of the world that contains the blurred emotions and eroded barriers of a collapsed public and private space. 'Almost Living' was prompted by a recent infanticide at Caroline Springs, and explores this tragedy in terms of the latent emotional atmosphere that occupies domestic space. Darren Wardle, Blair Trethowan, Jarrad Kennedy and Kate Just draw on personal histories and utilise imagery of the popular, hand-made, functional and domestic in their work. Their work openly admits that deep in the closet of many a groovy inner city artist is a suburban childhood. Personal histories not only inform their subject matter, but also their modes of practice and relationship to the art object.

Darren Wardle's Enter Sandman is a decorative montage of imagery drawn from suburban culture. Enter Sandman references the Metallica song, the Holden Panel van and its association with dreaming and fantasy. As a bedroom fit-out for the Warehouse, it plays with associations of the male space within the traditionally female domain of the domestic interior. Wardle's bedroom is a teenage car hoon fantasy complete with blue light mimicking the streetcars. The wall-affect-like 80s wallpaper used in the montage is strangely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's lavender Mist (1953). Wardle creates a head-on collision between art and suburban culture and public and private space.

Blair Trethowan and Kate Just re-connect with their subject matter through the physical activity of making stuff. For Just this is a cornfield from her hometown in the US and for Trethowan it is his mother's paintings of a scene remembered from her childhood. Both artists re-consider the conventions for the production of the art object.

'Painting by mum, frame by me' by Trethowan alludes to the actual frame he has made for his mother's paintings and the metaphorical cultural framework that surrounds the reception of an artwork. Getting to hang out with his mum and see what she would come up with for the work is a sincere gesture by Trethowan to reconnect with what a work of art can achieve not what it is supposed to achieve within the rhetoric of art history.

Kate Just uses everyday materials and domestic processes in her practice. Fertile Ground is a re-working of The Pickin' Patch, a knitted cornfield that adds a surreal twist to "new growth" both in housing developments such as Caroline Springs and as a family priority. As a remembered site it highlights that Caroline Springs was once a farmland. As a non-indigenous species of plant it is also a reminder of the colonisation of Australia.

Jarrad Kennedy's 'Bananaz' also draws upon childhood memories in relation to the reception of an artwork. Kennedy remembers skaters using Ron Roberston-Swann's 'Vault' (1980) as the perfect launching pad for a variety of tricks. The marks left by the skateboards, and the sculpture's function in the skaters' performance, gave it a new dimension beyond its original intent. Kennedy's simulacrum of Vault could at once be playground equipment, a shelter or public sculpture. Using the yellow fencing from the renovation site of the NGV International, 'Bananaz' recalls Dale Hickey's use of suburban fence paling in Untitled (1968) and results in the same kind of "deliberate hybrid" this time traversing time as well as art genres and conventions.

The imploding hierarchies explored in Home Loan situate contemporary suburbia as neither a stereotypical subject, nor a site for the replication of culture, but rather a site for production in its own right. Whether Home Loan is preaching to the converted, or will develop new faithful, remains to be seen. What can be said with certainty is that the themes explored by these artists are very much indicative of what we are living now: lifestyle, bring it on.