Stephanie Radok, “A little madness to be free” | Adelaide Review, April 2012

Stephanie Radok, “A little madness to be free” | Adelaide Review, April 2012

A Little Madness to be Free is the title of an album released in 1984 by the Australian punk rock band The Saints. I don’t really know the music but the phrase has remained in my head for years. It is a reference to the quote: ‘A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free’ by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote the novel Zorba the Greek.

Ariel Hassan’s new exhibition About Madness also leans on the edge of freedom implied by madness. Hassan’s artwork is extremely cerebral. His paintings and sculptures confound our expectation or need for either sensuality or expression with their logical coolness. In his essay in the catalogue of Hassan’s work, Melbourne writer Nicholas Croggon says that it is about ‘ambiguity, and about the task of wresting meaning from its clutches’.

For the last 10 years the works for which Hassan is best known are very finely painted, apparently abstract paintings, which resemble satellite weather imaging, or the works of Tasmanian artist Catherine Woo, who uses the patterns made by different materials to create abstract compositions which relate to natural or organic phenomena. But there is nothing organic about Hassan’s work.

To get the sources for his paintings Hassan squeezes blots of paint between two pieces of glass then selects a tiny sample of the texture and shapes thus formed, scans it into a computer, plays with it, prints it out, draws it onto a canvas and then, laboriously over many days and with very fine brushes, paints it. The resulting image is abstract but not an abstraction as it is a literal reproduction of a randomly generated texture. Rorschach inkblots come to mind when looking at the paintings and indeed it is surprising how often you can see strange distorted faces in these blobs, these nothings. What they show is a contradiction – logical careful time-heavy paintings referring to nothing. They have no gift of memory or connection to what we know or feel – rather they demonstrate the cleverness of the artist in somehow avoiding these common human pleasures and preoccupations.

That this refusal is a comment on art even as it goes under the name of art is part of Hassan’s agenda. What is art for, he asks, what is art about at this stage of the history of the world? He says in an interview with Brisbane writer Tim Morrell, “an artwork has to provide the desire for questioning what we know in order for us to feel inclined to want to know more – even if it reveals the meaninglessness of it all”. Hassan’s sculptures are also randomly generated. They are not models of brain synapses or machines for thinking but enigmatic forms that hold resolution at bay. His mirror lightboxes use the same formless forms as his paintings but spread across the viewer’s face like chemical spills.

The newest paintings, which remind me of the work of Jasper Johns, take words from some of the books Hassan has been reading and layer them onto canvases in cryptic poems in a complex system involving triangles.

A promising new direction for Hassan is his sound work called variations. In this work he brings together recordings of male voices quoting parts of Plato’s The Republic, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and the revolutionary manifesto The Coming Insurrection by Tarnac 9. It made me think of George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984 in its combination of the authoritarian and the random. Maybe all authority is random. Hassan tells me he is “translating an accident and making a new continuum from chaos”. Sinister? Nihilistic? As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, ‘A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions – as attempts to find out something’.