On the occasion of Jordan Azcune’s recent solo presentation with COMA the artist has been in discussion with Bradley Vincent, curator at HOTA Home of the Arts, QLD. The two discuss Azcune’s practice as a whole, investigations into intersections between architecture and religion and the idea of ‘queer, post-Christian abstraction’.
BV: Hi Jordan. Congratulations on Fishers of Men. It is a beautiful, rich show – and a very focused, singular kind of investigation. What first struck me was the architecture of the works. The archways and round, window-like shapes plunge us straight into a specifically Christian realm, only deepened by the material realisation of the work. Could you talk to us a little about the religious framework that the exhibition exists in?
JA: Hi Bradley, thank you, it has been a pleasure producing the work and now opening it up again with you. The religious framework is something I’m still unpacking through my practice. To me, it sits as queer, post-Christian abstraction. To give you quick context, I was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness until my 20s. I was studying visual art where I minored in Architecture at Queensland University of Technology when I was ‘disfellowshipped’ from the Church. At the time I was exploring with simple material interventions, collaboration, sculptures, maquette, and installation that I saw as tongue-in-cheek precursors to the curious thing people call Public Art.
Straight after graduating I began a mentorship in public art and studio practice with Lincoln Austin, but Lincoln’s partner Leonard – an Eastern Orthodox Iconographer and senior Australian abstractionist – began to invite me into his realm of knowledge and practice. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment but over time and intimate exposure to their practices through – ironically – “witnessing” it, I felt there was something I could contribute to the topic, I had something to say that might open up another conversation, even if it was a hard nut to crack. Leonard’s Ikon practice was a mystery to me, Image of holy depiction was sacrilegious from where I came from, in the same light I found myself unpacking them from a theological standpoint. Leonard assisted in teaching me practical aspects of the ‘trade’, egg tempera and gold, as well as conceptually the historic weight of these in faith. In many ways I’m still learning and conflicted on how faith is/can be communicated visually.
Soon after, with the support of The Australia council, Arts Queensland, Urban Arts Projects, Leonard and Lincoln, I began research into eccentric Christian Architecture in South East Queensland that would be presented as a solo exhibition at Hassell Architects Brisbane Studio for Asia Pacific Architecture Forum. I sort permission and visited an incredible number of sites – including the largest stained-glass window in the southern hemisphere at Stuartholme Chapel by the hand of former Blake prize winner, Andrew Sibley – I can’t prove the fact it’s the biggest but it has a nice ring to it. The interesting thing about these spaces is that before public art came from government or new building developments, it more often than not was commissioned by religious organisations. So, there is a large number of art works that now exists behind a screen in a way. Even from the phenomenological perspective, the windows aren’t interesting until the light reveals the magic after you move inside these places of worship.
BV: Queer, post Christian abstraction is an interesting formulation, and one that might describe the artist as much as the artwork. I think the queering of orthodoxies always has an aspect of theatricality to it, and here, where the orthodoxy itself is soaked with drama, there is rich material to be reworked.
As a result, the works in Fishers of Men have a kind of camp-ness to them. Embedded in materials, in pigment loaded wax, there is a blend of intrigue, illusion and the sacrosanct.
JA: Exactly! Think queering orthodoxies and Madonna, that is what comes to my mind.
To me camp doesn’t have much to do with the materials in the works but maybe more how they are used and the surplus. Susan Sontag’s voice rings “Camp is generous”. If you calculated the surface area of each work and stretched it to that size, the works would be much larger than the frames that hold them. There is that sense of reveal in the works too – something that RuPaul contestants and Carlos Cruz-Diez are good at. As you move around the works they open up, transform and then return to where they started, but you can never see the whole surface, particularly with the deeper works.
Ikons and abstraction are closer than distant cousins, you can see the lineage. On a process level in my practice, you can see linage too as details of the cast and residue of the wax from one work feed the next. I was conscious of this when we placed the works at COMA, the moulds from Eve went into the work Thirst – so the works are generational, remnants passed on, each successive work effected by the previous – funny that Eve was the mother of sin/imperfection then passed that on to subsequent generations. The wax is the sacred in these works, it’s the material that I see the most potential in, as for its history as an ‘offering’ – it is a generous offering. It has the capacity to be commanding visually as painting medium and sculpting medium, it’s olfactory, it’s translucent, it is also the by-product the most importantly terrestrial creature.
I have never thought about it this way, but the earliest wax works I know are the Fayum Portraits- 1st century Roman Egyptian wax encaustic on timber panels used as mummy portraits – do you think they are camp? I think they might be, but maybe it’s a material coincidence? Fayum portraits are helped in this regard by the use of gold. Materially these artists knew gold and wax are compatible on a molecular level and can last the test of time. I’ve used gold leaf on wax before but the gold in these works are actually artificial gold pigment stolen from an Adelaide student Theatre. I like that camp can somehow reference an ancient practice but still go to the disco with only $5 in its pocket.
BV: Superficially, we might be tempted to think of the Fayum portraits as ‘Camp’. They are all eyes, aren’t they? They seem self-conscious in a way that we might take for contemporary mannerism. I think you are more correct though that it is a material coincidence and the fact that our viewing of them is filtered through decades of queer iconography.
Though the gold in your work this time is both artificial and sketchily acquired, I’m reminded of your affinity for it as a material and its potential for evocation. And it’s obviously richness. I love this notion of ‘generous’ as a quality of camp. Of abundance! And of the reveal. You have created surfaces that hold more than you could possibly fit into a mid-sized arched frame or small round relief.
These surfaces, the colours they hold (and reveal) are informed from an exchange you did last year to Miami, Florida, right? I think of Miami and I think of beach side architecture and breezes and Gianni Versace’s house (both of the real thing and of Ricky Martin in the soapy Mark Murphy recreation of ‘The assassination of Gianni Versace). Of sunrises that you might see because you’ve been up all night. Of open shirts in the very same array of colours as the iconic deco buildings….
JA: There is this story about Gianni that he would design clothes for Miami Vice and set designers would paint the building in the background to match.
The funny thing about that is Miami Art Deco buildings were all once white or Florida Keystone. The colours were all added after the fact – painted Leonard Horowitz’s pastels as a way to reclaim them from demolition. So, there is a sense that colour was used as armour for the buildings.
I think good architecture should be about the body – clothes, the same. the Urban energy of Miami is sexual, it’s exciting, provocative, and unpredictable. Somewhere between danger and pleasure, performed with flamboyance. Colours and bodies pulsate, sometimes on the offbeat of each other, but it works. I think architecturally it is a city that body reacts to. There is this streamline symmetry in the deco lines and forms, but there is this ecclesiastical reference in the buildings that make you want to physically lift your head as you walk through them. I wanted to make these artworks architectural but also speak about the body in scale – the ‘Pill’ shapes reference the curved and streamline but are about the width of my shoulders. The form seems slippery, like a circle that slides down the wall. In some of the panels its really obvious that tension of scale, where your mind completes the semi-circle inside the panel and your eye tries to position the full circles at either end and work out the distance somewhere in the middle. The rhythm in the works seem to confuse that which I enjoy too.
BV: The pill and the body and Miami. When I think of these as anchors for the works I can’t help but think of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Something about the heat of the tropics, combined with the ecclesiastic, conjures a particular kind of queer lineage, one that is steeped in both ritual and survival. And this use of colour as armour seems an inherently queer device. One repurposed here so successfully.
Ecclesiastics plus queerness plus theatricality invokes for me the works of artists like Derek Jarman, Kenneth Anger, General Idea and Felix Gonzales Torres. Particularly Jarman though, with his affinity for metals and metaphor, sin and salvation.
For you, are there particular antecedents for these works? A narrative that you see yourself continuing or contributing to in some way?
JA: Sergius and Bacchus, maybe? That is tricky, I was born the year between Gonzales Torres’ and Jarman’s death and there will be people that knew them still speaking their personal work and memory. I think because of the sensitivities and open-ness of their practice it is possible to ‘know them’. They haven’t gone away in that regard. It’s a privilege to work along side my own mentors, who share their direct linage with me. It lessens the chance of mis-appropriation and makes work truth. I have no issue in acknowledging that that experience is the most enriching for me to continue.
BV: They are relationships that are serving you well. I look forward to seeing the next body of work, and the next.