David Austen, Milton Keynes Gallery, 10 February – 25 March 2007

Reviewed by Cameron Irving for Untitled Magazine

As if to stress the venue’s position as a visual arts centre to passers by, the Milton Keynes Gallery is coated with the trademark day-glo palette of Michael Craig-Martin, who’s commissions have become a familiar motif of cultural gentrification across British cities. This contrived optimism did nothing to prepare me David Austen’s solo show – the largest and most comprehensive overview of his work for ten years.

The first work I encountered was a black and white text painting that abruptly read: BLIND. As my eyes adjusted from the candyfloss visuals outside, Blind, (2004) promoted a converse vision: one of despair, bleakness, even pessimism. The sugar rush was over, it was now time to come to terms with some serious soul searching.

A smallish space with a high ceiling housed some two-hundred framed sketches comprising the series Darkland (2004) that adorned a wall to such a height it prevented one from seeing some of the works clearly. Quickly executed in Indian ink, the works delve in to the depths of human relationships, depicting emotions of anguish, desire and isolation with ejaculatory immediacy and confidence. Presented alongside, read a corresponding list of one-word titles such as ‘ Sex’, ‘ Couple’ and ‘Artist’ that functioned to reduce descriptions of human activity to their bluntest and most crude. The juxtaposition of curt titles for explicit imagery meant for a mixed reading and a clash of sensibilities, permitting them to be read as either simple deadpan categorisation or rash tabloid sound-bites.

The centrepiece of the show was a specially commissioned black and white film, both scripted and directed by the artist. Filmed in the first floor Drawing Room of the Regency House, Brighton, Crackers, (2007) is confined within an elegant, but austere room stripped of any signs of recent habitation, yet peculiarly decked out with examples of Austen’s work to producing claustrophobic, self-referential mise en scene.

Enter the sole protagonists: Tin and Heart, looking restless and dressed in dark theatrical attire. Their necks display small tattoos of the magician’s motif of a moon and stars (also a recurrent emblem in Austen’s work) – their fingernails painted in deep, gothic black. As though on the run, they use the house to hide out, and spend their rest-bite engaging in fragmented dialogue/ monologues that range from apparently innocuous ramblings to verbal recollections of an explicitly psychosexual nature. Unaware of the facts behind the narrative one can only wonder if these are related to incidents that have resulted in their predicament, or whether they remain pure fantasy.

Whilst overtly referencing literary figures such as Beckett, Crackers subtly reflects a particular British fascination with individuals who lead nomadic lifestyles working as travelling entertainers. Perhaps based on the suspicious perception that there resides a sinister side behind the make-up, the film addresses this prevailing notion that is often portrayed in mainstream comedy programmes such as Little Britain or the League of Gentlemen.

What at first seems an innocent request, the film closes with Tin’s line: ‘ Can we smoke in here?’ Addressing at one level, an undercurrent theme in Austen’s work – loss – it highlights the change in cultural attitude towards smoking, adding pathos to an activity that once held glamorous implications in the silver screen and on stage, which now – potentially – seems destined for obsolescence. More sinisterly, however, referencing the cosy protocols of everyday life, reminds us that the pair are now outlaws. Having crossed over to the criminal underworld the seemingly innocent rule might have far more severe consequences if broken than we might envisage.

Described in the press material as an installation, the last gallery contained a wealth of ink drawings, text paintings and hanging sculptures dating back to 2001. Cluttered with literary and art-historical references, the collection included canvases echoing the once radical experiments of Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee. Bleaching the optimistic potential of the spectrum, the paintings parody a style more akin to the drab efforts of the amateur. Austen spent the earlier part of his career working predominantly as a painter, and the examples on show displayed the breath of the activity still being pursued in the artist’s studio, despite his recent departure into filmmaking. Although the works are not critical reflections as such, they seem to revisit confident exploits of his ancestors with a wistful air, but refrain from adopting the cynical perception of the demise of the activity, nor champion a ‘ triumph of painting‘ culture either.

Heart Snatcher (2005) is text painting that could be seen to epitomise a prevalent strain in Austen’s way of working. Perhaps plucked from the ether of newspaper headlines or a title of a romantic novel, the painting presents a synopsis of a complex love scenario as a mere cipher, sealing it in the confined world of the two-dimensional plane. Under Austen’s custody, individuals embroiled in such circumstances become unwitting participants in a dark multi-mirrored landscape, not unlike the world Tin and Heart are potentially fleeing.