Heading to southern Asia to gain enlightenment seems like the age-old Western cliché, and although it's clear Rob McHaffie understands the oft-commodified redundancy of such excursions, his new exhibition, Let's See How We Go, arose from an Asian expedition of his own.
Rob McHaffie took an Asialink residency during 2011 in Rimbun Dahan, Malaysia. Obviously inspired by the flora and fauna of the region, we see a new intensity in colour and vibrancy in the work. Blooming with luminosity, these oil paintings on linen capture a beauty and often calm joyousness eschewed by much of his previous work.
In these paintings, spiritual wisdom is granted to some and escapes others. Sculpting a framework for the characters in ceramic (ask the gallerist to show you the studies, which are also artworks), these become the references for the painted works, essentially loosening and sidestepping direct human references. The search for spirituality presents itself in varying forms. From a pair passively practicing Tai Chi in the limbs of a tree (Synchronized Dancer Holding Hearts), to youths having their picture taken with Jesus (Found Him), which reads like a fan image post on Facebook or Instagram.
Which God McHaffie is speaking to doesn’t seem to matter, as it appears McHaffie understands they are all the same and we are eternally connected. Whether he considers the great artists to be divine must be considered, with several references to Matisse and Michelangelo in this series. He also cites Henri Rousseau and Chris Ofili as inspiration. In one painting, the artist appropriates a Matisse composition and even one of the master’s women sits at morning tea alongside Muslims, Hindis, and even Buddha (Salamat Pagi (good morning Malaysia)). Light heartedly, Matisse appears again in Matisse practising his foxtrot, where as you may have assumed, we see Matisse shuffling his leather boots unaccompanied.
McHaffie makes comment without preaching. Feeding the monkey but the monkey has enough might be read as an allegory for the West’s predilection for feeding its own ego. The already eating monkey is offered a fruit as he sits in a tree surrounded by the lush and bountiful vegetation that maintains him without want. This suggestive painting depicts the tourist in a foreign land, bringing our own ideals and forcing it upon the passive.
This exhibition has a touch of the Tim Johnson and the Jonathan Richman to it – the punk/hippie turmoil turning spiritual. It has the anxiety of watching one falling off the wagon. Though, where one would usually be wary of hypocrisy, McHaffie delivers an exuberant optimism and authentic hope for pure love. Even the title is unforceful.
McHaffie is making a deal with the Gods. We are not sure how the deal has been struck, but it appears that he has negotiated some enlightenment on the path of the polluted temple.
Let's See How We Go shows at Darren Knight Gallery until September 29.