Saturday, 4 March 2017

Narrative 4: Jelena Telecki’s 'Opening Night (painter, sitter, muse)'

Jelena Telecki, 'Opening night (painter, sitter, muse)', installation detail, 2016. Photo credit: Amanda Williams, courtesy 55 Sydenham Rd

An ensemble cast of characters pass through Jelena Telecki’s paintings. They appear in multiple works in disjointed and variable scenarios and relations. Some are individualised, such as General Tito, the ex-leader of the former Yugoslavia. Others are types such as sailors in head to toe whites, or nurses smoking cigarettes. There are stage performers, and costumed sexual fetishists, and men in tracksuits wearing incongruously shiny white shoes. Their faces are in many instances obscured. Their distinguishing features are blurred, or disfigured or erased. Identity is contingent. A person might merge with another party, with an object, with a background detail. Characters are differentiated by their uniforms, by the prosaic details of their garments: the white lace-up brogues, the thick sport socks, and nylon Adidas trackpants: by what marks their place, or excludes it, from an established order.

In the last couple of years Telecki’s exhibitions have been stalked by lifelike figures who alternately posture, recline, or endure puzzling physical restraints. The faces of the sculptures are not visible. They wear sheets over their heads, they are thrust head first into furniture, they sprawl as if they are sleeping something off, or ready themself as if they might leap out of position and snatch your phone. Pathetic and menacing: pushed around, and set to push back.

Multiple characters are in play in Telecki’s 2016 installation, Opening Night (painter, sitter, muse). A man stares out from a painting: his face competes with his lavish fur coat and stately bulk for the viewer’s attention. It is a 1915 self-portrait by Swedish portrait painter, Anders Zorn, which Telecki has reworked. Zorn’s image regards two life paintings of male nudes, pinned to the opposite wall. One of the faces has been draped with paint, the other is screened by curling corners of unstretched canvas. On the gallery floor below is a tidy pile of packing foam, cardboard, raw canvas, and pooled dry paint. Discarded crumpled oil paintings seem to float to the surface: this is by the looks, the stylised rubble of art history where reputations and artefacts are consigned, and on occasion retrieved. Here the white shoes of one of Telecki’s stage performers, hover over a face in another painting: Telecki’s finely painted rendition of Jan Van Dyck’s Portrait of a Sixty-year-old Man (1618).

Two of Telecki’s figures are present. At one end of the gallery is a man in a brown tracksuit, white shoes and white cotton gloves. He is wedged face down in an upright seat, trapped in perpetual collapse by a second chair jammed onto his back.  Foam packing is strapped to his arms and legs and over his face. He strains toward a scrunched piece of paper that has been placed, or has landed, just out of reach. Slouching on the facing wall is another model, his head and torso shrouded by a white cloth. A blank canvas is balanced on his head. He is also in a state of disarray: a shoelace hangs loose from his glossy white shoes and a grimy $5 note pokes from the pocket of his black Adidas pants. Both of his gloved middle fingers are raised in obscene gesture. It’s as if the figures have unexpectedly manifested as reluctant emissaries of the unconscious, forced to reveal the goings-on behind the scene. It makes for a startling, comic and uncanny tableau.

The title of Telecki’s exhibition is a reference to John Cassavetes’ 1977 film, Opening night, in which a theatre actor rejects the authority of the script over the role in which she has been cast. The play’s narrative is repeatedly thwarted as Myrtle abandons the set mid-scene, addresses the audience, cries out or lies motionless. Her refusal to accept a diminished status, in art or in life, leads to her haunting by a dead teenage fan, who Myrtle willingly invokes as a doppelganger of her younger self. As Myrtle unravels, an exorcism is arranged; hallucinating, she violently annihilates her rival self. Myrtle subsequently arrives late and blisteringly drunk to the opening night but manages at the last to improvise an alternative ending and, in refusing the weight of established narrative, she sidesteps her character’s fate as well as her own.

Telecki’s sculptural figures have the quality of apparitions, summoned to revert time, and reclaim what has been lost, abandoned or repressed. The white shoes Telecki has frequently painted and clad her sculptures in, are ghosted by earlier editions of themselves: the white naval shoes worn by Telecki’s father and his comrades, sailors in the navy of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Telecki’s characters wear the shoes like fetishes: like haunted props for the restaging of memories. The sculptures’ heads are covered with sheets in an echo of the simulated ghosts of early spirit photography, and they are a similar means of testing the capacity of representation to claim veracity and authority.

Much of Telecki’s portraiture has been the result of her research into State Artists who are employed to repeatedly produce realistic portraits of the leader of a state. Telecki’s interest in the visual requirements of authority led her to assume the role herself. The performance soon went awry. In one example, Hijacked portrait, a classically rendered depiction of General Tito has been painted over and a woman’s face has been inserted in the place of his. In other portraits coloured circles buzz ominously over the leader’s face and inflated shapes press insistently at his temples. Rather than cementing authority, in Telecki’s work realism points to its own hallucinatory disintegration; and repetition of an image scrambles, misremembers and effaces its outlines. The leader’s portrait, once Telecki’s finished with it could be anyone or anything: a rubber-suited gimp, a cosmos of dead stars or a fat man in furs surveying his subjects.

Cassavetes’ Opening night suggests that narrative is oppressive, that defying its authority to determine an outcome is a matter of not just life and death, but, equally importantly, of life and art. Telecki’s work shares this resistance to authority and its directorial scripts. Like actors who’ve turned to take on the director, Telecki’s characters won’t stay in role. They refuse to play it straight, they are going to keep throwing their lines, adlibbing, interjecting. The blank canvas on the head of the cocky chancer in Opening night (painter, sitter, muse) is a challenge: try to fill it at your own risk. On the night of the opening an unknown viewer filched the $5 that dangled from the tracksuit pocket, goaded on perhaps by Telecki’s tableau of art history and power, narrative and defiance. Telecki replaced it, laughed.

Lynne Barwick, February 2017