Commentariat by Penny Byrne at Geelong Gallery

There’s a murder on the dance floor! A ballerina in a white tutu performs a graceful arabesque but, bespattered with blood, she holds a dripping sword in one hand and the head of her hapless partner in the other. This is one of the ceramic figurines in Commentariat, showcasing the works of Penny Byrne, at the Geelong Gallery. The ceramic figurine expresses such joyful abandon, and the scene is so bizarre, you can’t help but chuckle. This brazen ballerina is clearly delighted with her efforts.


It’s Murder on the Dance Floor, Penny Byrne. (Photo: Jeremy Dillon. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf)

Byrne uses cheap 18th century figurines, action figures and Barbie dolls to construct her pieces. They may be humorous but look out, they have a sharp, satirical edge. With titles such as Not Another Landmine Lamented Sallyanne, Banker Joker Wanker, or In the land of the Free they call David a terrorist – at home he was just a little Hick, Byrne is unapologetically political and the titles cleverly contextualise the work with irony, humour or sarcasm.

War on Terror Waltz presents two aristocratic figures, locked in a waltz but, oddly, they wear green army helmets and their ornate Victorian clothes, complete with lacy ruffles, are painted in camouflage. Grenades are strapped to the genteel lady’s waist, while the gentleman carries a gun and boasts a War on Terror Service medal. The innocence of the original figurine has been subverted with the addition of army items and weapons. Strange and unsettling, the incongruity of the scene is exaggerated by the mixture of aesthetically incompatible materials, plastic and porcelain.


War on Terror Waltz, Penny Byrne. (Photo: Jeremy Dillon. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf)
The image shown is slightly different to the one in the exhibition.

Byrne targets issues that she hears about on the news – war, climate change, peak oil, refugees, land mines, animal cruelty – no topic is safe from her critical eye. ‘Let’s Forget Global Warming’ Said Alice ‘And Have a Tea Party Instead’ really hits the mark. It depicts a young couple guzzling their ‘black tea’ straight from the petrol bowser. The ironic title captures the frustration so many of us feel about the complete and critical failure of governments and those with vested interests in oil, coal and other resources plundered from the earth, to address the issues of global warming.


‘Let’s Forget Global Warming’ Said Alice ‘And Have a Tea Party Instead’, Penny Byrne.
(Photo: Jeremy Dillon. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf)

Setting her sights on injustice and abuse of power, Byrne delivers her blows with unerring accuracy. The viewer is not left in any doubt as to the intention of the work. Sure her work is not subtle, and some would say it is vulgar, but this makes it all the more compelling. Could anyone miss the message in Shark Fin Soup, a vintage porcelain figurine of swirling sharks minus their fins, the graphic red enamel paint flowing from the wounds?


Shark Fin Soup, Penny Byrne. (Photo: Jeremy Dillon. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf)

Sometimes her work references historical ceramic practices or works of art. Doggie Bling is the ‘cutest’ piece in the exhibition, a pretty pink puppy covered in Swarovski crystals. This is one of a series she made in reference to Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God, an astronomically expensive work studded with £15 million worth of diamonds.


Doggie Bling, Penny Byrne. (Photo: Jeremy Dillon. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf)

Byrne has been creating her artworks since 2005. She honed her considerable technical skills during a successful career as an object conservator, restoring ceramics for some of the top museums in Australia. It is a curious double life that she leads – one half dutifully preserving and conserving the sacrosanct object, the other half, from a conservator’s point of view, devoted to destroying, disfiguring and dismantling.

‘I’ve spent my career restoring things, fixing things and not breaking things, and to actively break figurines has been quite a challenge to get used to,” Byrne explained at an illustrated lecture she gave at the Geelong Gallery recently. “Things really do smash when you hit them with a hammer! I don’t ever break really precious, good quality porcelain. I do have a cut off point. I could never smash something that is precious.”

The title of the exhibition, Commentariat is a play on the words ‘commentator’ and ‘proletariat’ and refers to the educated, middle class, urban dwellers, “the chattering classes”, who comment on politics and the media through the new technological channels of blogs and Facebook, but in Byrne’s case, she communicates in a medium as old as humanity itself, ceramics, and her artworks deliver a powerful punch.

Byrne is busily working towards her next solo exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney
(28 Sep – 16 Oct 2011). You can find out more about Byrne’s work on the Sullivan+Strumpf website at www.ssfa.com.au

In 2010 Penny Byrne featured in a very entertaining episode of ‘Artscape: Artists At Work’ on the ABC. You can view it here www.abc.net.au/arts/stories/s2884544.htm

Commentariat is on until 26 June 2011 at the Geelong Gallery, 53 Lt Malop St, Geelong.  www.geelonggallery.org.au  Commentariat is a Deakin University touring exhibition.

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