Flashback 2000s: How Dazz and Dav zinged* modernism

Posted on 3 January 2014
Loose Slot, Darren Wardle, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2006.

Loose Slot, Darren Wardle, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2006.


Intro, 2014

Australian art acolytes know Darren Wardle as the Melbourne painter who marked the first years of the twenty first century by exploding, melting, defacing, deconstructing and decaying several internationally famous icons of high modernist architecture. Examples include Harry Seidler’s 1949 Rose Seidler house in Sydney and Pierre Koenig’s Case Study (Bailey) House #21 in Los Angeles.

During the trans-millennial decades, I was a Sydney-based lightning rod for angst and anger among many operators of Australasian power structures. To protect their patches of influence, ideology and income, squads of respected baby boomers (my own zone, ironically) collaborated to surreptitiously upset and usurp all my ‘dangerous’ ideas to advance next-generation (digital) angles for architecture, academia and other domains of urban culture. They also sabotaged my historical research project: a PhD thesis on Douglas Snelling; a glamorous yet forgotten 1950s rival of Seidler’s and a pioneering Australasian interpreter of California modern architecture and design innovations.

New besties on our first binge, 2004. Photo Peter Zellner.

New besties on our first binge, 2004. Photo Peter Zellner.

With California and Sydney modernist architecture and daring creativity on our front burners, Dazz and I sizzled (or more accurately, sozzled) with repartee after we met in Los Angeles in early 2004. Introduced by American architect Peter Zellner during an outré exhibition opening at SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture), we elatedly and erratically cruised the Hills, the Strip and Santa Monica in my gold Hertz convertible.

Sharing acquaintances and aspirations in Melbourne, Sydney, LA and New York, we have regularly (a)mused ourselves and others during Australian architecture’s transitions from Harry-dominated modernism (Seidler died in 2006) to today’s ‘neo space age’, where art and architecture’s fundamental social meanings (especially permanence) are being accosted by a techno-tsunami that Al Gore named ‘Digital Earth’ and the Wall Street Journal termed ‘all things D’.

Obviously I encouraged his timely, painterly monsterings of Seidler’s perfect white domestic compositions circa 1950. Eyeing Dazz’s lurid, provocative canvases – and appreciating his laconic laddish wit and post-punk pragmatic wisdom – definitely helped solidify my resolve to ‘stand and deliver’ through my own monsterings from the chiefs and guardians of ossifying hegemonies during that first net-enabled decade.

Here’s how Darren and I explained each other back in the day – when I saw him ‘looking like a rat up the drainpipe’ of contemporary commercial art and he tabbed me as a ‘loudmouth Aussie sheila’.


Jackson on Wardle, 2004

Beyond the tragically parabolic trajectory of Howard Arkley, Melbourne artist Darren Wardle is springing off his predecessor’s theme of psychedelic and uncanny suburbia. He’s doing it with Gen-X eyes from his Heidelberg childhood, a digital camera and Photoshop, meticulous brushwork, and diverse American cultural inspirations between kandy kolor glamour and tawdry urban decay.

Film noir? He reckons he’s seen Bladerunner at least a hundred times. His favourite books? Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, a savagely forensic social excavation of Los Angeles, and William Gibson’s shelf of globally futuristic semi-fictions. Pop Art? Aside from British artist Patrick Caulfield, his gurus are LA masters since the late 1950s – like Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses from the Ferus Gallery activists group, John Baldessari and Colombian-born Lari Pittman. However, he’s trying to ‘steer away’ from the omnipresences of sixties Warhol and seventies David Hockney.

Anaheim, Darren Wardle, acrylic on canvas, 2004.

Anaheim, Darren Wardle, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2004.

Veering also off Arkley’s footsteps, it’s looking like Wardle is deadly serious about the United States – and the States is becoming reciprocally interested in him. His latest paintings are steeped with California connotations, more strongly than ever. And on the east coast, he recently signed with a Manhattan gallery, which has placed him in three prestigious group shows this year. This offshore emergence comes only three years after Wardle snagged his first gallery representation – with Nellie Castan in Melbourne, followed by Michael Carr in Sydney in 2003. As a first hint of his potential in the world’s most dynamic art market, he won a place in rising LA curator Lauri Firstenberg’s admired Painting as Paradox exhibition, held in New York in November 2002. After that, he turned down offers of representation from two Manhattan dealers to join the noted Chelsea gallery of Stefan Stux – who already has placed his works at the Armory, the Chelsea Art Museum and the Luxe Gallery.

Wardle was painting diligently towards these shows during a three month fellowship at the Australia Council’s Santa Monica studio beginning last February. There, he occupied a sparsely furnished, skylit, double-height space with a mezzanine bedroom and a roller shutter opening to the sports ground of a college across 18th Street. On the wall, his in-progress canvases depicted eerie perspectives of a Redondo Beach motel and its street corner; using oil on acrylic, with both spray-blurred and crisply masked edges, plus the west coast’s unmistakeable palette of hyper-pastel and neon tints. After first discovering LA and NY on a three month art tour in 1991, he has been back twice to California, absorbing its cultural idiosyncracies, modern art traditions, climate, colours and streetscapes, and allowing these to progressively inject his images of Melbourne’s dormitory suburbs.

Redondo 2, Darren Wardle, acrylic on canvas, 2004.

Redondo 2, Darren Wardle, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2004.

“LA’s ideas and history have been coursing through my work for a long time,” he says, ‘because those Ferus artists had a profound impact on my thinking. Just seeing how their work connected to the place; that gave me a licence to look at Melbourne in more analytical ways, and I felt I could become a lot closer to my subject matter.’

In the US, Wardle’s ‘supra-visual’ canvases (that’s his way of escaping hackneyed labels like ‘hyper realism’) are initially being pitched slightly lower than his highest Australian prices, which go from $900 to a recent top of $15,000. With experienced guidance from his dealers, and basic instincts to play his career intelligently, he has not ‘ramped myself up like an idiot’ since his first sell-out show, Urbane Profane, with Castan in 2001. However, he is focused on an upward track in both his home country and America. Although only one article has yet been published about him (Ashley Crawford’s profile in The Age late last year), and he has not yet been identified as one of Australian Art Collector‘s annual 50 most invest-worthy new artists, his works have been purchased by the curatorially savvy National Gallery of Victoria, Artbank and the National Australia Bank. So broader recognition seems only a matter of time.

In most careers, and especially art, clear air in the stratosphere rarely is attained before struggle in the trenches – regardless of talent. While Wardle discovered his gift for drawing and painting early on in his childhood – ‘aren’t you a little Leonardo!’ – his post-school 1990s was all about paying the dues. After enrolling for a Bachelor of Fine Arts at RMIT in 1989, he dropped out three years later ‘because I wanted to get into the studio and start exhibiting’. For the next five years, he read books voraciously, managed and exhibited artist-run spaces, sustained a studio from part-time jobs, showed in Berlin, and took up all the lifestyle vices commonly associated with ambitious creativity.

During those years, he was driving around in a ‘seriously unroadworthy’ 1973 Ford Escort coupe – sprayed magenta as a lurid echo of the post-1940s LA hot rod subculture which inspired many sixties Pop artists. Those sexy vehicular vibes are thriving again in art: witness the Car Nuggets of fellow Melburnian Patricia Piccinini. Employing his Escort as a getaway vehicle, Wardle sometimes snatched property For Sale signs to break up, paint over and rearrange as art. ‘I noticed that a lot of real estate hoardings are very similar to high modernism and if you took away the texts, some would look like Elsworth Kelly,’ he says. ‘I thought, I’ll take what they had taken from art history and reappropriate their commercial interpretation to bring it back into the realm of high art.’

Range_Li, Darren Wardle, acrylic on canvas, 2003.

Range_Li, Darren Wardle, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2003.

From the beginning of art school, he was fascinated by the streets of the city – but his initial style was borrowing from Basquiat, ‘throwing a lot of paint around’ and expressing the zeitgeist of graffiti. ‘I was using a lot of stencils and spray cans and if I felt I had a decent idea, I would take it outside to put it on street surfaces that had already been layered over. Obviously I was influenced by post-modern ideas in art school, but now I think a lot of that’s bunkum. These days I’m more interested in an eminent modernism.’

In 1996, he again enrolled at RMIT and, refuelled by his intermediary reading and painting, gained a string of high distinctions, with Honours ticked off in 1997. He especially appreciated one lecturer there, art historian and theorist Linda Williams. Although ‘totally wired with a painter’s sensibility’, the post-graduate Wardle was worried about painting’s unfashionability during the 1990s. Although paintings are fundamental to the global art market, progressives have been preferring photography, new media, installations and public art. In this context, he began to wonder how be might reinvent his genre with ideas and techniques relevant to the 21st century. [Update: Wardle now is developing this topic towards a Masters by Project degree with Melbourne University’s Victorian College of the Arts.]

He’s come through that deep-think with notions of representing the city and its suburbs as artificial constructs, using techniques which synthesise manipulated digital images and seductively realistic painting, then styling and ultra-colourising the works to suggest social environments of super-abundance and overload – despite the absence of any living being from his scenes. He also decided to offer viewers a direct way to appreciate the works ‘on a simple level of enjoying the images’ – a strategy often rejected by 20th century artists for fear of seeming too facile, accessible and commercial. ‘But there needs to be an idea of generosity in art,’ says Wardle. ‘I want to say to people: here’s a piece of high art … and yeah, it’s something you can get.’ To rise above that primary level, Wardle brings in further edges and layers of meaning, which feed audiences concerned with more sophisticated understandings of contemporary and historical cultures.

Strata, Darren Wardle, acrylic on canvas, 2003.

Strata, Darren Wardle, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2003.

In one recent series, he used Rorschach ink blot mirror-imaging to communicate the repetition of housing in suburbia – and allude to the psychologies of residents. ‘It concerned me that city people were thinking of the suburbs as banal places where everyone just robotically mows the lawn, takes their kids to school and throws barbeques. To me, suburbs are also fascinating as psychological spaces. These are stage sets for enactments of desire – what we want. It was a bit of a hint about the psychological dramas that go on in these erotic realms of consumption and lifestyle.’

In another series, the apparent hyper-melting of silver and navy paint darkly alludes to heat vision and night surveillance technologies developed by the US war industry. The colours create enough light interference to confuse viewers about whether the pictures are positive or negative. From his conversations, emails and picture titles, it’s clear that he enjoys wordplay and is especially gifted with assonance. Yet he has dropped his post-modern experiments with text in paintings; his 1990s tendencies to depict, for example, an overscaled Q crashing from the sky into domestic territories.

In Wardle’s view, Ed Ruscha is tough to beat for cool juxtapositions of words. His own direction now is ‘spacious paintings where the image says everything, without distractions and interferences.’ Yet he’s prone to use obscure names (Xanax, Zoloft, Zyban) as titles. While the uninitiated may wonder if these are Greek gods, hip viewers recognise that they’re new generation prescription drugs concocted to help vulnerable people control their anxieties. ‘It’s not a piss-take; some of us construct our psyches through depressive medications,’ Wardle observes.

Construct is a key word for this artist. To appreciate his oeuvre beyond its obviously fluorescent seductivity, it’s necessary to wonder how individual psychologies are shaped, how societies are manipulated via the media, how technologies are being exploited and how trans-global interests decide the look and feel of our built environments. Considering all that, it’s not surprising that an artistic young thinker from Heidelberg would today want to engage intensely with constructs in the States.

—Jackson, Davina. 2004. ‘California Dreaming’ article in Melbourne, October, pp66-67.


Wardle on Jackson, 2006

This is an abridged dissertation on the formidable conversational arsenal that Davina has at her disposal.


Darren speaking at Davina’s 50th birthday party, March 2006.

The stand and deliver. “Hi! I’m Davina Jackson from Sydney. How do you know (insert your name here) Daz and what do you do?” It’s a guaranteed party starter and I have seen it used to great effect in locations between Melbourne, Sydney and Los Angeles. In LA it was tempered with a slight variation in kind acknowledgement of America’s challenge with geography. “Hi! I’m Davina Jackson from Australia.” It’s an efficient tactic that sorts out the men from the boys and can save precious time better spent in more interesting conversational cliques.

The slice and dice. This very skillful maneuver is heightened by an even greater degree of difficulty after a bottle of wine. It consists of very subtle strategic dissections of a subject; person, idea or issue, from every available angle. It can also include dramatic hand gestures for emphasis and control. Gradually, samurai-like, the subject is sliced like meat off a bone, or diced like an aged wedge of hard cheese. This procedure gains frenzied momentum until a crescendo is reached and little remains but to swiftly move on to the next subject. Repeat procedure until too tired from laughing or wine runs out.

The daisy cutter. It’s a quick little sucker that cuts a subject off at the knees before it can gain a foothold over a discussion that would otherwise be interesting. “Well, he’s always been a little on the dim side. It’s not his fault. You’ve just got to understand that after so many years in his position he’s never going to generate any excitement amongst groovers that are operating in the 21st Century!” Thankfully, brainpower is conserved allowing hip participants to move their minds forward into more enlightening territory.

Sustained incursion with flanking maneuvers. The depth and complexity of Davina’s repertoire was unleashed during an urgent campaign to establish the Australian Architecture Pavilion at Venice. Ths righteous battle saw Davina deep in the heart of the “No Biennale Zone”. In her capacity as a Post Modern General, she marshaled her ideas with precision, persuaded the feint hearted with her optimism, strategized with allies and out maneuvered conservatives with astute political sensitivity. Set backs were met with the Bunker Buster: “History will not be kind! They’re just stubborn old Modernists intimidated by women with better ideas than their own!” She sliced, diced and daisy cut with a steely resolve. More importantly, she stood and delivered!

As you may have suspected, I wouldn’t want to be on ‘The Wrong Seidler Davina’.

Davina and I gained “traction” in Los Angeles, We met through mutual architect buddy Peter Zellner at George Yu’s amazing exhibition in SCI-Arc’s gallery on the dodgy fringe of Downtown LA. Peter is a great mate and lecturer at SCI-Arc. The first thing he said to me that night was that I had to meet Davina Jackson. “She’s a live wire. You”ll like her.” I”d already heard her Aussie accent cutting swathes through the room. We met and hit it off back at the after party in Little Tokyo. She was researching her PhD, in hot pursuit of her “bloke” Douglas Snelling. A tremendously handsome guy, for an architect, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Aussie heart-throb Errol Flynn. Davina assures me that Snelling was talented as well.

I was in LA with the Australia Council studio residency getting hotwired into the sprawling mass of suburbia that I like to call “The Beast”. She was looking for Beauty and I was looking for the Beast. The next few weeks provided segues galore around LA, as only a movie town could. The 3 of us had probably too much fun for people supposedly working hard at being creative. Many stimulating ideas were discussed in cars, bars and exhibitions around LA, often continuing up in the Hollywood Hills at Peter’s place above Mulholland Drive, with the twinkling LA basin below us. Some were of course half-baked and off the grid, but then many of them had “traction”.

The ideas and festivities continued back in Australia. Davina has been a great inspiration, not least by supporting me in Sydney and maintaining our fantastic rapport. It’s an ongoing art and architecture talk fest. This segues down to Melbourne as well and has developed into a friendly intellectual bond that usually involves more than a couple of drinks.

Her incredible generosity and unflinching engagement with the cultural landscape of Australia includes a level of commitment that extends beyond tired regional paradigms of how Australian talent might engage with an international dialogue over the coming years. She moves between many disciplines and is always on the lookout for fresh ideas that have potential to burst forth in another territory. This is not pursued in an Ad Hoc fashion but rather is connected to her broader ambitions, her master plan, which is to unearth streams of creativity and thrust it into the limelight. It’s an inspired and inspiring conviction that will surely position Davina as a visionary facilitator of cultural endeavors in Australia and internationally.

—Wardle, Darren. 2006. ‘Davina Jackson: Weapon of Mass Deconstruction’, speech notes for Jackson’s 50th birthday party in Sydney, 18 March.


Outro, 2014

*zing definitions from a Mac dictionary:

noun–energy, enthusiasm, or liveliness.

verb–(no object)–move or vibrate swiftly, or with a high-pitched buzzing noise.

verb–(with object, Nth Amer.)–attack or criticise sharply.


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