Robert Hague: Porcelaine. Megalo Print Gallery, 21 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston. Tuesday to Saturday 9.30am to 5pm. Until June 29.
Robert Hague is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based artist in his early 50s who has developed two quite separate careers - as a sculptor and as a printmaker. Apart from a foyer sculpture, the exhibition at Megalo focuses on Hague's lithographs that have been wonderfully realised by the master printer, Peter Lancaster.
In his prints, Hague is primarily a storyteller. He creates an intricate, multi-layered narrative full of irony and appropriation from art history as well as from contemporary history. In a manner not dissimilar to the Sydney-based printmaker Rew Hanks, Hague seeks to weave a complex post-colonial critique of Australian history and, like Hanks, in his verbal commentary obligingly provides us with a key with which to decipher the individual elements of his print.
Such prints, with their heavy dependency on theory and a literary gloss, are generally great favourites with curators as there is an easy story to tell and it is one that conforms to popular theory and is immediately intelligible to a general audience. They are prints to be read, rather than simply to be seen. Nevertheless, I do find Hague's prints seductive in their visual impact, his humour slightly wacky and their general meaning wonderfully subversive.
All of Hague's lithographs in this exhibition belong to the Plate series, with the recurring motif - a traditional English Wedgwood porcelain dinner plate - on which the narratives have been assembled. All of the plates have been broken and then mended with veins of gold, the kintsugi technique (literally golden joinery). This breaking and mending and the surviving scars is a metaphor for the complexity of history and of human life.
One of the earlier prints in this series, Blue Claude (after McCubbin), 2015, combines a Wedgwood paradise that is drawn from Claude Lorraine's mid-17th century neo-classical landscape with Frederick McCubbin's sentimental favourite Down on his luck, 1889. It is says something about frustrated endeavour patched up with rivers of gold. Hague notes, "Blue Claude is a work about the squandering of Australia's mining boom, both then and now and about how we choose to commemorate history within our domestic lives."
The prints seem to grow in complexity with time. Natives on the River (after Glover), 2016 takes as its point of departure John Glover's Natives on the Ouse River, 1838, into which Ron Robertson-Swann's Vault,1980 (give the derisive nickname the "Yellow Peril" by then Melbourne deputy mayor Don Osborne) has been placed in the middle distance. To add to the disharmony, in the foreground there is a quotation from John Longstaff's Burke and Wills, 1907, showing the explorers dying at the Dig tree. There are many levels of interpretation in this print dealing with dispossession, lack of cultural respect and the inability to survive in an environment in which you are a stranger. Whereas in the previous print, gold was added through gilding by hand, in this print, the yellow sculpture is hand-coloured.
In the lithograph King & Queen (after Don Dale), 2016-18, the complexity becomes bewildering. The plate itself appears damaged by a bullet hole, the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, sits enthroned (as she appeared in her full regalia at her coronation), but on her face is a Don Dale spit-mask. In the neo-classical vista behind her appears Inge King's modernist sculpture, Black Sun, 1975 (probably the Mildura version). There are also complex miniature scenes of Eurocentric interpretations of Oriental life on the borders of the plate.
Hague cannot resist adding layer upon layer of irony and commentary to his imagery - this elaboration, at times, becomes almost overwhelming.