Brendan Huntley: Blurred lines

Brendan Huntley moves seamlessly between music and visual art, drawing and sculpture and tradition and rebellion.

Words: Paris Lettay

Photography: Mia Mala McDonald

While the craft origins of his prac-tice are ever evident, his work has always maintained an artistic sen-sitivity, intricacy and delicacy as seen in his well-known, distinctly expressive, abstract ceramic figures of human forms.

Brendan Huntley first shot to fame in the 2000s as the lead singer of Mel-bourne-based rock’n’roll band Eddy Current Sup-pression Ring. As an onstage performer, Huntley had an almost mythical status. It is said by many that during his live performances there was an unplace-able aura about him, as if he were a medium to some other realm.

However, the relationship of Huntley’s music to his art practice is rarely discussed, even though he was included in the group exhibition Double A-Side at Darren Knight Gallery from 4 March to 1 April 2017, featuring works from artists who play in bands and musicians who exhibit visual art. Although Huntley has been exhibiting work since 2004, his shift in focus from music to visual art has seen him rise in prominence as a significant contemporary artist. In 2013 he was included in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria and Primavera 2013: Young Australian Artists at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and he has since had major commercial solo exhibitions at Tolarno Galleries, exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong and was included in the 2014 Adelaide Biennale: Dark Heart curated by Nick Mitzevich.

Rather than his musical performances, the first thing that most note about Huntley’s work is his commitment to the traditional media of sculpture and painting. Curator Glenn Barkley has singled out Huntley as belonging to a new group of artists returning to traditional forms, when much of the contemporary art scene has remained under the spell of what American art theorist Rosalind Krauss calls the “post-medium condition”. Yet Huntley has little formal academic training. Rather, he describes his practice as a kind of homage to his parents, who produced ceramics to sell at the local marketplace and gave him much of his artistic training: his mum taught him to throw clay and his dad to paint. While the craft origins of his practice are always evident, his work has always maintained an artistic sensitivity, intricacy and delicacy as seen in his well-known, distinctly ex-pressive, abstract ceramic figures of human forms.

The naïve aesthetic of this work recalls the primitivist sculptures Pablo Picasso produced throughout his career, and even the artworks, objects and other ephemera regularly exhibited by the Surrealists in shows like the Exposition surréaliste d’objets in 1936. Affinities like this no doubt precipitated Huntley’s inclusion in Future Primitive at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2013 to 2014. Huntley’s new work, however, has shifted its focus to the female form – and recently in an increasingly abstract way, to such a degree that, despite the clear resemblances of the female anatomy, Huntley is somewhat reluctant to commit to the literalism of these references.

These new works will be exhibited in Huntley’s first commercial exhibition in Sydney entitled Sincerely Yours at Martin Browne Contemporary from 27 April to 21 May 2017. The show will in-clude around eight clay sculptures, five paintings and a series of eight new bronze sculptures. These are constructed, like collages, from what Hunt-ley refers to as “bits and bobs” (bronze objects reconfigured from moulds used by his parents) and “drawn: torsos (snaking lines of bronze). As seen in works like Untitled (Four) (2015/2017), Huntley buffs, polishes and uses different meth-ods of heat and chemical treatment to form an almost painterly patina surface on the sculptures.

The choice of bronze (over clay) actually came out of a desire to form what Huntley calls “sculptural drawings”, which preserve a speed and energy of line and mark-making unachiev-able with the fragility of clay. Huntley creates the torsos by drawing into clay with his fingers and then pouring wax into the drawn ravine, creating a wax cast for the bronze form. This transformation of drawing by Huntley places him in the distinct legacy of artists like South African William Kentridge, who transformed drawing into a form of animation in his well known 9 Drawings for Projection (2005) and Picasso who, as Krauss argued in her famous article The Motivation of the Sign (1992), transformed drawing into a mode of semiotic representation. The result of Huntley’s experimentation is a genuinely new form of “sculptural drawing”, possibly the most interesting of his recent developments. The works also don’t stand on a plinth, but like drawings they have a “for-the-wallness”, to use the pleas-ingly awkward phrase of American critic Michael Fried (which he coined to described the first large-scale photography intended for the gallery wall, coming from photographers like Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand).

However, the discussion of medium (with all its formalist trappings) is misleading if one does not also sense the trace of meaning in Huntley’s experimentation with form—because Huntley’s work is really about something much more simple. His sculptures and paintings are humorous, jovial and celebratory in the most non-trivial way. Like Huntley’s otherworldly onstage presence, they tap the same font of being that his creative practice – with its unique combination of sincerity and larrikinism – always seems to be entering and reckoning with. The sculptures already feel like important companions; maternal guardians that I don’t fully comprehend. Huntley tells me he tries not to overthink it. For him, they come from a place of love, but apart from that, he wants to allow the viewer to form their own relationship with the work.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 80, April-June 2017

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