These images are images of us, middle Australia. Good art often asks us to be self-reflective in some way and these images “stare” at us from the wall. They ask, “Is everything as beautiful in Australia as shown on a Wonder White ad?” What are the assumptions and ideologies of the normal Australia? They are difficult questions but like a good vanitas, the fragility of our assumptions, is couched in superficial and fashionable beauty.
What makes these works contemporary primarily is their appeal to the long history of art and photography; ceramic, too, is an ancient material here made anew. The traditional genre of portraiture is also updated and brought into the world of high fashion and advertising. The artisanal work of the porcelain masks links them to a long tradition of makers. The works are contemporary because they elide history without irony. The fragility of the material makes everything more precious and heightened; the transient flowers are forever frozen as if in a moment (like an ice queen turning things to stone). The unglazed surface seems to add to the dusty softness. It is a contemporary move at the moment to come back to skill and the traditions of genre. What we have here is perhaps what David Hickey and Jacqueline Millner have called conceptual beauty, where aesthetic categories of beauty are used to critical ends.
In finely wrought porcelain Couttoupes makes floral masks that fashionable young men and women wear. Sometimes the face is totally obfuscated, sometimes the mask is more like a veil as the tendrils of plants lightly touch the face of its wearer. The works are uneasily transhistorical. They are on one hand like declassed eighteenth century portraits and on the other speak to the common absurdity of contemporary fashion shoots. Perhaps in terms of modernism they most directly reference the flower heads of Surrealism or the cactus and flower men of Symbolism. In that stream of modernism the image of the flower/ head created a strange romantic unease and uncertainty representing in some way modern life’s anxiety especially towards the natural world. On the other hand we are so used to these images now that their avant-garde shock is itself a little historicised. What we are left with are slightly vague and dreamy images of an indisputable aesthetic appeal.
The seduction of the images are part of their critical strategy. The title Eponymic Emperialism relates to the practice of colonial power naming flora and fauna and land marks as a way of enculturating a land. So most obviously in this series the Banksia is named after Joseph Banks for example. When you start to think about it though many words that we use to discuss Australia have a deep colonial baggage: Victoria, La Perouse etc. Eponymy is the act of naming things in this way. It is hard to re-image these things with any criticality because long ago these words have become so naturalised as to make critique difficult. One thing that lead Couttoupes to this topic too is that ceramic in Australian history has often been used as part of this eponymic process, through commemorative medals and plates.
The critical mode of these works is something called critical whiteness. Instead of the parody and pastiche of postmodernism the works uncover ideology through over-identification. In a way they are the inverse of the post-colonial work of Christian Thompson or Simryn Gill’s series of 1999-2OOO (for example A small town at the turn of the century). What these images and masks do is to image whiteness so that we can look at it from a point of critique. The images become hyper-white, and by doing so denaturalise our assumptions of whiteness. They are images that implicate the viewer and suggest, hopefully I think, that our assumptions are still up for negotiation.