Art has always been a deeply personal affair. Any and every piece of art – irrespective of form, medium, or intent – might be described as a self-portrait in which every line and mark says as much about its creator as its purported subject. While glimmers of this reality tend to flicker in most works, they shine through in Robert Hague’s exhibition, ‘Anatomies’ at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. The show, which arose out of the Blake Established Artists Residency Prize, is a survey of the past five years of Hague’s practice, and in many ways is an autobiography, chronicling the artist’s ever-shifting interests. ‘We’ve covered a real period of turmoil and change in my art practice,’ he says. ‘I think that all art movements are a kind of madness, you set yourself up with rules and dogma – but I’ve let all that go, here.’ Hague seems to have divorced himself from the tyranny of abstraction and late-modernism, which he had long been married to. Instead, his ‘Anatomies’ subordinates all of these concerns to a single imperative: ‘whatever it takes to tell the story’.
But the stories that Hague tells us are not by the book. In What Father Knew (2018), for instance, Hague presents to us the myth of Icarus yet breaks away from the well-rehearsed narrative in his sculpture of the falling boy. The artist’s work and title reframe the classical tale by not only engaging with the hubris of the son, but the responsibilities of a father. ‘It was the father’s responsibility to make a decision whether his son was mature enough to put on his wings,’ he explains. ‘My father loved art, but he didn’t have the courage, or the ability, to throw his life away and become an artist. He instead had a regular job and lived a comfortable life, but dreamed of being an artist and those dreams were visited on me. I feel that he put wings on me and pushed me off the cliff, and that’s the story of Icarus really.’ As he tells me, his father died 18 months ago and it is clear that this narrative has personal resonance. Yet the act of pushing and the reality of falling are again more complicated than the fable would have us believe. ‘It’s a personal work about the beauty and tragedy of falling – that sense of falling,’ Hague describes. ‘The freedom that is given to you but the dangers of being airborne.’
The paradox that underpins Hague’s work is that in making it personal, he also renders it universal. Under his hand, the towering edifice of history is made personal in a series of lithographs that depict souvenir plates. ‘A decorated plate, with a picture of Uluru on it, a family might buy and put on the wall to commemorate their trip,’ he explains. ‘It’s a historical marker for this family of an event that has occurred.’ Using this nostalgic and almost kitschy format, Hague depicts some of our most recognisable cultural icons – but, again, not as we know them. In one work, Frederick McCubbin’s unsuccessful gold prospector sits within the landscape of Claude Lorrain; in another print, Queen Elizabeth II surveys her kingdom from beneath a spit mask that resembles the ones used in Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre; and, elsewhere, a member of Pussy Riot occupies the central plane of John Trumbull’s Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1819-1820), disrupting the iconography of American patriotism. ‘I’m looking at how we decide the things that we celebrate and commemorate,’ Hague observes. ‘Why do we decide on the statues we make, and the images we have in our souvenirs?’ Each work is a complex web of intertwining historical and artistic references, which demands that its audience critically pick apart its elements and consider their presence. They are works that implicitly demand that the viewer not only actively look, but also see.
Among the eclectic mix of mediums and forms that constitute Hague’s oeuvre, it is perhaps easy to lose track of his artistic lodestar – the thing that binds his work together in the dark. Yet beyond the optics of obvious difference resides commonality. ‘One of the real constants that has been in my work over the last five years is the idea that we are broken,’ he says. ‘But that things which are broken aren’t necessarily bad – that it can be a positive quality.’ In What Father Knew, the body of the falling figure disintegrates, as do the plates in all of Hague’s lithographs, which are cracked and fractured. ‘When you think about sculptures of antiquity they’re always damaged, and we love that about them,’ he explains. ‘If you repair them, you ruin them. It’s fragility that we respond to.’ Rather than hiding scars, Hague highlights them – and once again renders the personal universal.
Tai Mitsuji is a Sydney-based writer.
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre
Until 12 May, 2019