Cosmic Love Wonder Lust Review: Messy Telling Of Sydney's Imperial Slacks Story

It’s hard to say what makes one set of artists more successful than another. A group brought together by little more than circumstance and luck attracts all the attention and accolades, while another, arguably just as worthy and talented, are largely ignored. Art fame is a fickle thing. But something special happened that brought a bunch of artists together in the Imperial Slacks building in the inner-Sydney suburb of Surry Hills.

The former rag trade sweatshops had long been a conspicuous bohemian enclave. Artists had first moved in during the 1980s to take advantage of cheap rent and generous ceiling heights to open up studios, small galleries and, perhaps most importantly, to throw parties. In the late 90s, what turned out to be the last Imperial Slacks artists moved in and started the scene all over again, this time with renewed generational gusto.

Many of them were students at University of New South Wales’s College of Fine Arts and they were a hugely talented and energetic bunch. Between 1999 and 2002, they collaborated on countless exhibitions, screenings, performances – and parties. While their eventual and predictable eviction from the building scattered the group across the city, country and world, many have gone on to hit impressive post-Slacks career highs.

Gladwell smoking his painting chest, after Magritte, at Imperial Slacks. Shaun Gladwell smoking his painting chest, after Magritte. Photograph: Courtesy of Chris Fox

Shaun Gladwell represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and of influential performance art group, The Kingpins Angelica Mesiti and Emma Price are enjoying notable post-collaboration careers. Others, including Alex Davies, Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy, and Wade Marynowsky, are established mid-career artists with high profile projects and exhibitions.

Related: Artist Shaun Gladwell in Sydney: reflecting on a career in transit

Cosmic Love Wonder Lust: The Imperial Slacks Project arrives on what is either the group’s 13th or 16th anniversary, depending on how you count – from their establishment or their demise. Spread across two distantly connected venues – Campbelltown arts centre and Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) in Rozelle, it’s a mix of old (early 2000s) and more recent works.

Curated by Campbelltown director Michael Dagostino and SCA’s Nicholas Tosutas, the exhibition attempts to recapture the energy of Imperial Slacks and makes some large claims for its artists. “Their collective incandescent energy and alternative way of thinking created a pulse beyond the gallery into life with the same intensity and sense of chaos,” states the Cambelltown room sheet.

Putting aside the hyperbole, any curator would have to justify why the Imperial Slacks artists are any more special or relevant than hundreds of other artists working in Sydney or elsewhere in Australia at the time. Or you could just not worry about that and put on a big show with lots of work in it. Dagostino and Tosutas have gone for the second option.

It’s fair to say this massive two-part show is a mess that works against any coherent understanding of its rich and promising premise. There’s no catalogue for the show so, when you enter either gallery, you’re pretty much on your own. At Campbelltown, there are no labels or texts, just a confusing treasure-map of the space with numbered dots. There is no room sheet at SCA either, but at least there are wall labels.

Videos are projected in both venues at jaunty angles but it’s not clear what is being shown – is this a performance or a video of some people sweeping up after an opening? Why is the show running across two places in the first place? But once you’ve fought through this confusing set-up – where some artists are represented at one site but not at the other, where some old works sit next to new while others are split between venues – there is some great art to be found.

From Monika Tichacek’s 2000 installation, Romance. From Monika Tichacek’s 2000 installation, Romance. Photograph: Courtesy the artist/Karen Woodbury Gallery

At SCA, Monika Tichacek’s suite of photographs Beneath the Surface Lies the Softness of Longing #1-3 (2015) offer a stark and dramatic narrative, while Simon Cooper’s The Suite Hereafter (2000-ongoing) features a spookily funny sequence of portraits of taxidermy animal faces.

Related: Angelica Mesiti: the artist who records a choir in song without a single sound

At Campbelltown, Chris Fox’s Instrument and Drawings (2015) is a series of magisterial drawings created using a purpose-built sculpture while Melody Willis’s modest paintings of fragmentary architecture from 2001 and 2015 are among the most beautiful works in the show.

Perhaps the biggest revelation of the entire exhibition is the breadth and depth of the work of Lea Donnan and Michael Schiavello, the two artists who opened the Imperial Slacks gallery, and who have forged impressive if not quite as visible careers compared to some of their peers.

Stories of the contemporary bohemian life of Australia’s cities are worth recounting and revisiting, whatever the anniversary, because they prove that despite the forces of conservatism and commercial imperative, there’s still life in our streets, galleries and bars. The disappointment of Cosmic Love Wonder Lust is that no story is told at all – committing the worse indulgence, it feels a lot like a show that’s forgotten to explain itself to the public.

Cosmic Love Wonder Lust: The Imperial Slacks Project is at Campbelltown arts centre until 18 October and Sydney College of the Arts until 12 September

  
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