Sunday, August 01, 2010

Mr Mombastic

Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of Australiana. To me, it's the cultural equivalent of never having gotten over a crush on Plastic Bertrand. A childish joke that should be vacuum-sealed and placed in a museum of ill-considered novelties.

My birth-mother nation is, I am afraid to say, often on the brink of toppling into inescapable artistic self-parody by excessive reliance on its limited vocabulary of clich├ęs. Outsiders - and I am, having lived most of my adult life abroad, definitely an outsider - don't find it funny or clever.

So, when someone actually turns this mawk magnet on its head and creates genuinely great art from the crass artifacts that comprise Australiana, I find I must scratch the surface. Such a someone is Chris O'Doherty, AKA Reg Mombassa, late of 80s pop funsters Mental as Anything and fresh from a long stint designing shorts for Mambo and blow-up figures for the Sydney Olympics.

The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa by Murray Waldren (HarperCollins, 432pp) came out in Australia last year and, as far as I can tell, is not yet available anywhere else. That I am reviewing it is quite possibly a pointless exercise, as it costs as much as a fortnight's worth of groceries and wine, a budget-battering AUS$75. However, the Larrikin's End Municipal Library has seen fit to purchase it, giving me the chance to peruse at my leisure. I must remember to check the librarian for signs of malnutrition.

All the classic components of crass are assembled - the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, beer cans, thongs, utes, barbecues, kangaroos, pineapples. But somehow, these magically conspire to create something wonderful rather than induce a desire to reach for a large G&T and go in search of my passport. How is it that Mombassa has burrowed his way into the cold heart of Pants while Ken Done remains fit only for one's fourth-best umbrella?

I think it's because he's a transplanted New Zealander. Kiwis have an uncanny ability to observe Australian life with great affection and empathy while maintaining a detachment from our mucky and rather nasty competitiveness. There is a layer of smugness which is almost mandatory in Australian artists taking Australia as their subject. Mombassa displays an objectivity that reads as sincerity. And he tells you something you don't know about something you think you either do or should know everything about. I'm amazed and delighted he's gotten away with that for so long.

Australians are obsessed with contributing to the nation's imaginary world standing. All you have to do to realise how anachronistic a notion Australian nationalism actually is, even if you think you're being ironic, is to leave the country for an extended period. The long stay is important because anyone will humour you if they think they don't have to listen to you for very long. London certainly set me straight. Britons know precisely three things about Australia,

1) Neighbours.
2) Minogues.
3) It's where Aunt Evelyn went in 1965 and was never heard from again.

Australia is Belgium with beaches, a perpetual summer with Plastic Bertrand.

One of the keenest observers of flaws in the Australian psyche is Kiwi Richard Lewer, long-time resident of Melbourne.

When I first saw Lewer's I must learn to like myself, (above), I was seized with great joy and a little jealousy. As school children, we were made endlessly to draw maps of Australia, its individual states and, occasionally, some of its neighbours. I can probably still fashion reasonable facsimiles of Japan and New Zealand. I may not have been as familiar with the reality of chalking up a hundred lines as Bart Simpson is but the concept is not lost on me. I received this punishment only a couple of times. 'I must not talk in class' was one. The thought of a child verbally interacting with her education was enough to send a teacher in search of a shaman in my time.

I must learn to like myself is the kind of artistic moment I dream of stumbling upon and celebrate when I do. For me the perfect artwork is like a magic mirror. You see a smarter version of yourself staring back at you. It is the statement I always wanted to make about my birth-mother country and never thought of - hence the hint of jealousy. It distils our seemingly intractable struggle with both internal and external identity into the penance of a disturbed and untidy but also incorrigibly aspirational child.

Kiwis get us in a way we don't get ourselves. Reg Mombassa can arrange a pick'n'mix of idiot icons whose singular talents would be lucky to score themselves a place in a snow dome into an ensemble cast of characters capable of performing Brecht.

Rosalie Gascoigne was one of the greatest artists Australia ever produced. She too came from New Zealand with an open mind and preparedness to embrace this country and the greatness it was ready and willing to reveal. When she arrived with her astronomer husband in the nation's capital soon after WW2 ended, she was alarmed to find that her contemporaries among the 'wives' were only concerned with the minutiae of decorum. Gascoigne was a university graduate too and not about to be defeated by what others made of her housekeeping shortcomings.

Neither was she inclined to make Hokusai-sized waves and discovered her milieu in Sogetsu Ikebana. Here she found a discipline worthy of her intelligence. She credits it with 'training her eye'. Gascoigne went on to create monumental but poignantly personal interpretations of rural Australia when many home-grown artists of European origin were still struggling to work out whether or not they were allowed to go there in art.

Reg Mombassa navigates his expansive territory with equal confidence. Taming the wild beasts of Australian trashonography into sweet and fine jokes is no mean achievement. But that's only a smidge of the Mombassa range. I was delighted to find that much of his work is in coloured pencil, a habit he got into on the road. And he draws and paints from photographs. If you have been to art school, you will know that it is a total no-no to admit to this practice unless you are stratospherically famous.

If you are wealthy enough to buy this book, or fortunate enough to have a library with undermanaged underspend, you will delight in the preternatural re-interpretations of family snapshots of people and places from the real life of Chris O'Doherty. He is generous enough to allow reproductions of the actual photos so you can see for yourself how he substracts the superfluous and adds the little sprinkle of self that takes you to where he lives.

The most exciting thing for me, apart from all the scuzzy background Mentals gossip which I missed over the last quarter century, is to absorb, in one great gasp, the extraordinary breadth of the Chris/Reg vision and goggle at the beauty of his mature landscapes.

Buy it or borrow it as soon as you can.