Monash University’s Museum of Modern Art (MUMA) recently held a retrospective exhibition of Francis Upritchard’s work. Upritchard has cultivated a recognisable style over her career and Jealous Saboteur is a collection of her work spanning twenty years.
From her early collections of mock burial artefacts, to primate-like figures constructed from discarded fur coats, and her more recent enigmatic gurus, Upritchard has developed a highly idiosyncratic language of sculpture that frequently borrows from craft practices and a broad range of references from the deep recesses of museum collections folklore and counter-cultures to high modernist design.
As the above description on MUMA’s website attests, Upritchard retrospective touches on many broad and at times disparate themes providing an intense and somewhat disjointed sojourn into the artistic career of Upritchard. It is an experience that may leave some visitors disorientated.
Upritchard’s use of sculptural elements are varied, ranging from doll-like figurines, to jewel clad sloths, grotesque artefacts and repurposed furniture, making it’s difficult to know where to start when describing Upritchard’s latest exhibition. Robert Nelson’s article (The Age, 22 February 2016), starts with the 2005 lizard-like hockey sticks after which the exhibition is named, using them as a basis for describing the overarching aesthetic of Upritchard’s work. Nelson goes on to uses descriptions such as “delicately brutal” and “endearing and dire” to describe the Jealous Saboteur exhibition. The second half of Nelson’s feature focuses primarily on Upritchard’s miniature human figures which he describes as “derelict loners who have come out of their antiquated lodgings in their pyjamas.” He goes on to refer to them as “ungainly oddballs” that evoke feelings of sympathy and envy as they exist outside the expectations of middle-class society. Despite his assertion of sympathy, his description of these imaged personalities is anything but sympathetic. In fact, Nelson’s description of the exhibition in total is melodramatic and ominous. He leaps from one oxymoron to another as he tries to apply meaning to Upritchard’s choice of subject matter and materials. His use of exaggerated language successfully conveys the theatrical elements of this exhibition. After viewing the Jealous Saboteurs for myself I was left with the sense of having walked through the discarded remnants of a tragic medieval pantomime.
By contrast, Natalie Thomas’ review of Jealous Saboteurs (Art Guide Australia, 2 March 2016) is less affected. Starting with some background information on the artist, Thomas spends most of the article reflecting on the same figures that Nelson refers to as “oddballs”. Thomas makes note of the “sensitivity between the process of making an object and the relationship of the artist to the selected materials,” and the plinths that bring the miniature statues up to eye level. Unlike Nelson she does not delve into the intended meaning of the statues, but rather provides a context for them.
Both Nelson and Thomas’ articles include a quote from Robert Leonard, the co-curator of Jealous Saboteurs, and suggest that the figures are reminiscent of an alternative culture. Leonard asks: “Are they Kabuli performers, dervishes, American Indians, harlequins, or hippies in technicolour dream coats, gurus or imbeciles?”
However, Thomas’ quote of Leonard goes on for longer and finishes with: “Upritchard’s beguiling works linger out of the reach of any clear rationale.” The use of the extended quote by Thomas is important as it reflects her own view of Jealous Saboteurs. Rather than providing the reader with a thesis on the meaning of work, Thomas believes that Upritchard allows “viewers the space to begin making up their own stories.” Thus her less emotive description of the exhibition allows her readers to view Upritchard’s work with unbiased eyes.
It is no co-incidence that both Nelson and Thomas’ pieces devote considerable time reviewing the figures in the largest and final room, as these pieces are the highlight of the exhibition. Created 2011 to 2013, these little creatures are made out of modelling material, wire, foil, cloth, paint and human hair. The human caricatures are delicate with life-like hands and long, expandable limbs. However it is the hand-made clothing and gestures of each figure that make them uniquely and individual intriguing, unlike the sloths that are seemingly indistinguishable from one another. The figurine called Sun Worship, for example, stands shrouded in an oversized heavy dark coat and glasses, gazing upwardly. However there is no clue as to the meaning of this work and nothing to indicate whether this person is from the past, present or future, is male or female, a Sun God worshipper or merely on route to a sunbed.
Unlike Nelson, I find so suggestion that these figures exist “in the narrowness of their own experience, their routines and withdrawn preoccupations”. Nor do I find them enviably “unburdened of vanity”. The intricacy of their costumes suggest otherwise. In fact with titles such as Tourist, David Robin, Potato Seller, Jockey and Susan one could argue that they are somewhat ordinary. Perhaps they represent the normal of the future or the norm for those who live on the fringes of society. Regardless, like Thomas, I believe that the appeal of these doll-like figures is more about what is left unsaid: the room the artist leaves us to make-believe. I can’t help but think that Nelson’s feelings of escaping “competitive conventions that lock us into restless ambition” are more reflective of Nelson’s own experience rather than those projected by Upritchard’s unassuming figures in the Jealous Saboteurs. After all, doesn’t beauty lie in the eye of the beholder rather than the object itself? In the end we all see what we want to see. Perhaps Upritchard sees jealous saboteurs.
Nelson, Robert, “Jealous Saboteurs review: Francis Upritchard’s forlorn figures test our empathy”, The Age, 22 February 2016 [http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/jealous-saboteurs-review-francis-upritchards-forlorn-figures-test-our-empathy-20160223-gn0dpe.html]
Thomas, Natalie, “Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs”, Art Guide Australia, 2 March 2016 [http://artguide.com.au/articles-page/show/francis-upritchard-jealous-saboteurs/
MUMA, “Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs”, [https://www.monash.edu/muma/exhibitions/2016/francis-upritchard.html]