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Simon Cavanough; a precarious suspension

Keri Glastonbury

Simon Cavanough, Silly Aggressive Lust
Simon Cavanough, Silly Aggressive Lust

Simon Cavanough is a path-maker artist, his work is about forging myriad in-roads towards ascension, as in Head on a Stick, the impossible blueprint for the clever boyish self-image (no body, but a spindly tower of etched lines and geometries), holding aloft its cute decapitation. Happy as Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, who ends up flying high above the city in a glass lift. Cavanough’s show, Pathway to Wellness at the Scott Donovan Gallery, contains the dream of becoming an anarchic Biggles, except the planes are all plastic or in pieces, co-opted for the war machine or wedged between bits of rock in a precision flying fantasyland. What else goes up? There are balloons inflating, little bridges, factories, houses, Puffer Dude! All Knockin Back the Sky.

Though what you’ve really got is a beer bottle flying machine, propped on top of a delicate, almost collapsing, undercarriage. That’s where the strain comes in. What must come down. After all Cavanough isn’t singing naively along to the radio in an impossibly green field-sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight—his work reminds us that we are grounded horizontally in a world of detritus, not vertically in the ether. And his inventions are all awry, are unnecessary, like Structures for Holding Up Clouds—a piece of scaffolded yellow styrene. Also toying with precarious suspension is his collapsing bridge, The Road to Wetness and Dribble, a reinforced gloopy drip about to break. Nothing inspires confidence, All the Good Things Sometimes Fall Over. (And indeed, at the opening, people are accidentally bumping into and knocking fragile pieces off the podiums!)

Model making seems to have become very popular in contemporary art—artists are making models of things popular consumer culture already produces en masse, and exhibiting them in galleries. Cavanough’s antipathy to recognisable form—he uses everyday materials similar to arte povera—comes with the criteria that things must be dissembled and unrecognisable as such. He might use the pared back frame of a plastic lotus flower, as in I’ve Been Looking at the Ways of Higher Beings, though by the time it’s incorporated it’s been completely pulled apart. You get the sense that it’s important that the work doesn’t reek of popular culture, that the impulse behind it is a frustration with form and meaning, the dumb materiality of what’s finished and proper and produced. His reconstructions are forever attaining, never achieving, recyclable and fragile in their coherence—just one possible iteration. This isn’t the model-making associated with late 20th century nerd boys making sci-fi, anime, mecha—it’s deliberately not that pop.

The assemblages are the products of a ‘poiesis’—“or all representation whether visual or verbal is a making, a constructive activity, a poiesis” (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). Though model-making is technical, formulaic, you must follow set procedures, there are diagrams, it’s in every way rule governed. It’s a craft, if anything. Perhaps Cavanough is attracted to the anti-art nature of craft—is tempted to abandon art practice. Just as Duchamp gave it up "in favour of playing chess" in 1923 (though he didn't really). "In fact he continued working on his long-term project The Large Glass…What is important here is the gesture rather than the fact. (Kay Campbell, "Out of Humour" in Wit's End, MCA, 1993). And Cavanough seems also to deviate, because the instructions don’t allow for an intuitive or perceptual path. So he ends up making art after all. Once you leave the manual behind, what emerges is bricolage. And there’s the sense that the artist has had to invent his own narratives driving the will-to-form from these askew assemblages—there’s a wizardry, a role-playing or warped war game feel. Why are the plastic figures of Airmen suspended on stalagmites of fibreglass, tumbling like circus performers, euphoric and gleeful, or, more likely, are they free-falling from the sky? The organising principle of these often small 3-D works is that they are whatever the artist has scavenged, perhaps from a studio floor strewn with beer cans, model aeroplane parts, Redhead matches, and the refuse of styrene and foam, as it fell in the bin. All the accidental flotsam and jetsam of one person’s idiosyncratic practice and aesthetic eye. The process reminds me of Hany Armanious’ fantastic folky and arcane installations, involving the chance juxtapositions of found objects.

Cavanough is also technical, literally inventive—like his contraption for failing to fully inflate a pink balloon—which again puts in way too much effort for outcome. Its electric bellows, piston, plastic tubing and dirty old saw blade, all try to breathe life into the balloon—while straining and trembling with effort, shaking under the pressure. Is there a pathway to wellness for the patient on such a shonky respirator? Or does playfulness undercut the masculinity, the whimsy of pink balloons that will cure? It seems the artist is as wistful as his titles. You feel he might be wryly writing off some punk excesses of his youth—Silly Aggressive Lust signals his awareness of the eternal air of adolescence underpinning the avant garde: Graffiti: I once thought it would be cool to nail some meat to a wall of a bank but now I’ve mellowed.

Failure is a leitmotif. Cavanough once tried his hand at rocket-science in the suburbs—I’m Going Higher Than I’ve Ever Been Before II—though the event, the aspiration, the experimentation was what cathected. It was an attempt not just to test a hypothesis with almost guaranteed results, but to witness the danger, and abjection of failure, harking back to when flying machines crashed at air shows, rather than today’s high tech ‘friendly fire’ accidents. The rocket did get a metre or more off the ground, climbing the structure built to launch it, getting as far as the path went—while failing to reach the sky’s aporia (perhaps luckily for the residents of Tempe). I get the feeling the artist would also like his practice to launch and re-launch itself in unpredictable directions, while necessarily factoring in failure—I can see him as artist-in-residence at a regional RAAF base—as a dishonorary wing nut. Poetic licence, pilot’s licence—wanting both.

This show is toned down for the gallery setting, less elemental spectacle. It’s Cavanough in ‘hobbyist’ mode, building A Little House for Me & You in a city bedevilled by property development. It’s a modest, generative show, making some runways out of the ‘endism’ that characterised the embers of the late 20th century. The minutiae of this work is fitting, giving a perspective on the ground that suggests the aerial view—it’s metaphysical (both poetic and material) but doesn’t require transcendentalism out of the cosmos. And the show adds subtle continuity to the artist’s body of work that exceeds the gallery paradigm—his work has always been endlessly deconstructive/reconstructive, concerned with both disinvention/invention. Simon Cavanough continues to make fragile, failed objects—resisting art—in that they are kind of hard to classify, fetishise and buy. He’s also exhibiting here in a gallery facing imminent closure (perhaps to re-open somewhere else)—though this isn’t about being trapped in any victimhood cycle, Oh Wizard, rescue me with your canoe. It’s more a bit of nostalgia for old magic—for the sky which remains plentitudinal.

Simon Cavanough, Pathway to Wellness, Scott Donovan Gallery, Sydney, April 2-26

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 33

© Keri Glastonbury; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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