Helen Johnson: Warm Ties

Art Free
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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You can say this for Helen Johnson: not many artists could fill their paintings with images of white British men farting lyrics from the Australian national anthem and get away with it. She is merciless with her target: the land-grabbing, money-driven British colonialists who landed in Australia and carved it up for their own gain. Her unstretched, ceiling-high canvases zig-zag through the ICA’s Lower Gallery, layer upon layer of caricatured images and barely legible text unpicking the wounded elements of Australia’s history.

Johnson’s work is heavily conscious of the ‘civilised’ veneer of these colonialists: how they rewrote history for indigenous peoples, and made bloody-handed deals over tea. Like a nineteenth-century satirical cartoonist, she uses bawdy and scatological commentary to rip the rug out. Scenes in parliament are crowded with images of portly bums imposing their mark on the country.

The idea of trespassing runs through each work. ‘Bad Debt’ is covered in exogenous animal species and noxious weeds brought to Australia from Britain. These are surrounded by muddied hands and feet that crowd and suffocate the painting. Look closely, and you’ll see a microscopic view of smallpox, a virus that devastated Aboriginal communities in Sydney. It’s a shame there is no information around to help contextualise the show, as it is crammed with hidden jokes and historical references that are so easily missed.

‘Warm Ties’ feels excessively cartoonish at times, particularly when a black and white image of a ‘swag’ bag-swinging burglar appears in the corner of the otherwise impressive image ‘A Feast of Reason and a Flow of Soul’. But what Johnson has to say is worth hearing, and if that message is packaged in a comedy fart bubble, so be it.


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