Richard Grayson: Ways The World Ends

ABC Radio, Australia, with Bill Leak

Monday 16/9/2002

Producer: Bruce James

Ways the World Ends runs at Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney, to 28 September.



The Chattering Glasses has been to a Sydney exhibition and seen the writing on the wall - well, on the canvases, anyway. Trouble is, most of the letters are upside down. Here he is with his response - delivered standing on his head:

That’s how it feels. I’ve performed worse contortions in front of art works, but Richard Grayson’s latest exhibition at Yuill/Crowley gallery had me in knots. Or spirals. Grayson is the English-born, Adelaide—based artist, arts administrator and recent director of the Biennale of Sydney. He’s the one who came up with the Biennale 2002 concept, and matching title, The World May Be (Fantastic). In his own visual practice, Grayson is given to text-based images and installations - and, unsurprisingly, in person he’s something of a motor-mouth with a ready and frequently wicked turn of phrase.

Speaking of which, the phrases turn wildly in his new works, which comprise loose spiralling lines of text painted in garish acrylic colours onto square-formatted canvases. Coming as a sort of satirical antidote to his own, largely life-affirming Biennale, the show is called Ways The World Ends. It references apocalyptic prophecies from six different

sources, including Mary Baker Eddy, Rasputin, the wacko-Christian Bible Decoded project and something called Zeta Talk, apparently derived from alien murmurings on the Net. You get the gist. It’s all you need to enjoy the paintings.

They’re beguiling things, which they shouldn’t be, considering their doom-laden content. But Grayson has a likeable way with lines and colours, handled with the oddly adroit lack of care of an artisan who actually does a lot of lettering.

In that respect, and at this gallery, there’s just a bit of that great letterer, Bob Macpherson, in Grayson’s work. Both of them are people who know the power of the painted word in visual art. Of course, text in contemporary art has a terrible reputation, whether as a component in works or a consequence of them. Few experiences have such a capacity to

depress the soul as attending a show, yet another one, of worthily worded canvases - or Cibachromes - by a conceptualist du jour.

There are times when text has no right to co-exist with painting. In fact, most of the time it lacks this right. Painting is truly the silent medium, silent to the point of actual dumbness. When painters feel the need to make their pictorial images noisy with written language, chances are they have nothing to say. Grayson’s above that. He’s actually using words as

images, not instead of them. Part of the reason he twists his sentences into spirals is to make it impossible to read them.

Rather, the viewer sees them as a vivid and violent vortex of forms, an emblem for the end of the world. Maybe it’s unintentional, but from a distance this vortex pushes back out in the gallery space to make the shape of a missile head.

Can Dr. Strangelove be far away? Or George Dubbya?

In late medieval and early Renaissance painting, saints and angels would sprout forth gorgeously hand-lettered latin phrases, a sort of holy sputum. Grayson is their twenty-first century follower.