Colin Suggett
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Major Retrospective - RetroMoments 2

RetroMoments by Colin Suggett was a retrospective exhibition supported and managed by Latrobe Regional Gallery and toured Australia between 2002-2004. Following the exhibition Colin Suggett donated the works to Latrobe Regional Gallery where they have been housed ever since.

RetroMoments 2 re-imagines this monumental exhibition with the addition of numerous new works.

Suggett’s works are relatable as they often replicate everyday objects and events. The works are very much based on reality, but have underlying tones of humour, wit and often a darker sense of scepticIsm.

The exhibition at Latrobe Regional Gallery, 138 Commercial Road, Morwell, Victoria ran from 4th October 2015 to 14th February 2016.

The following is an essay written by Robert Lindsay, former director of McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park for the RetroMoments 2 catalogue.

 

 

Thinking big on a small scale

 

Colin Suggett's miniaturised mixed media models and tableaux from the late 1970s to the present day epitomise and also parody contemporary technology and its intrusion into modern culture. His animated machines and figures, constructed with superb technical competency and using robotic elements, lights and sound, create grand illusions on a small scale. 

Colin Suggett was born in Warrnambool on the 29 July 1945, the third son in a family of four siblings (Jill b. 1936, Robert b. 1938, Andrew b. 1943, Colin b.1945). His father, the local chemist - (L.G. Suggett Chemist) was interested in photography, and within his pharmacy maintained an extensive photographic section to which the Suggett children had open access, including the use of cameras, photographic supplies and 8mm and 16mm film. Colin, who was fascinated by publications such as Popular Mechanics, experimented with a wide variety of materials, such as drawing images on sticky tape to create animated films shown on a homemade battery-operated projector. He even produced a series of animated and live action films, the most notable being The King of Transylvania 1959 (16mm. 8 min, B/W). His inventiveness also extended to making a series of puppets and marionettes, the most ambitious being a fully articulated ‘hobo toff’ marionette with moveable eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, who appeared to be smoking a cigar via a hidden tube through which Colin blew smoke! This character starred at the 1957 school fete in a puppet theatre constructed by Colin and Andrew Suggett. 

Leaving school in 1961, aged 16, Colin travelled to New Guinea to become an apprentice watchmaker to his favourite uncle, Len, who had a jewellery and watch-making business in Port Moresby. Homesick, after 6 months he returned to Warrnambool and enrolled at the local technical college in a Certificate of Art course (1961-63) before gaining a scholarship and transferring to RMIT (1964-65), completing a Diploma of Fine Art in Painting. Most of the paintings he produced during this period were abstract, textured landscapes inspired by the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85). After graduation he was required by the terms of the scholarship from the Victorian Department of Education, to undertake two years industrial experience. He subsequently returned to Warrnambool and set up a commercial silkscreen printing works in a shop in the local arcade, printing posters, banners and tourism items for local businesses. Then in 1968 he returned to Melbourne to attend Hawthorn State College, graduating with a Technical Teacher’s Certificate.

His first teaching position was at Leongatha Technical School (1969 to1974) where, as Head of the Art Department (Film and Animation) and in conjunction with the Principal, Bill Bainbridge, he established a new and innovative filmmaking course. In 1972 Colin and Peter Cole (b.1946) an artist friend and fellow teacher at Leongatha Technical College, combined to create a major art installation in the cavernous warehouse spaces of Pinacotheca Gallery in Richmond. Utilising film loops and an array of lighting effects projected onto a labyrinth of cloth, canvas and plastic screens, they created an innovative environment that echoed camping structures and in its kinetic effects, the pulsing rhythms of the sea.

In 1975 both artists participated individually in the 6th Mildura Sculpture Triennial, which that year focussed on post-object art. At this time the Sculpture Triennial was regarded as being a major event for contemporary art in Australia, and Colin exhibited an experimental avant-garde sound work. During the exhibition however, he observed the bewilderment of the general public and their estrangement from much of the art on display, and he resolved to create works that could communicate to a general audience by addressing issues within a wide-ranging cultural context. Consequently his work now aimed to have a narrative that was ‘cynical, reactionary and political in the broadest sense’, but with widespread appeal, as he noted in 1978, ‘The aim is to take the viewer through the stages of fascination, interpretation, contemplation and perhaps realization. Different people opt out at different stages.’ [Artist’s statement for the exhibition VAB 5: Sculpture on another scale (1978)].

During the 1970s Colin Suggett made numerous 8mm and 16mm films and videos, which included: Kids make Films 1972 (8mm, 18 mins, col.) Celebration 1973 (16mm, 15min, B/W), China 1975  (8mm, 5 hour. B/W), and two films with the assistance of Australian Film Commission grants, Moments 1974 (16mm, 23 min, col.) and A Day at the Beach 1976 (16mm, col.). This last film involved a dispute with the AFC interim assessment panel, whose editing suggestions Colin considered would emasculate the basic premise of the film. The film remains unfinished and Colin’s disillusionment with the cooperative demands of filmmaking led to a renewed focus on making sculpture as an individual enterprise.  He thus adapted the theme of the film A Day at the Beach, which documented the complications and frustrations of a family excursion, transforming it into the miniaturised sculptural tableau Beach 1977, which was included in the 1978 Mildura Sculpture Triennial to great acclaim. Its success led to Colin being invited to participate with John Armstrong and Robert Klippel, in an Australia Council (Visual Arts Board) national touring exhibition VAB 5: Sculpture on another scale 1978. For this Colin developed three additional works: The $1,000 Chair 1978, Grandview Estate 1978 and Ascending Madonna 1979. 

Internationally during this period a new genre of miniaturised sculptures was emerging with artists including Charles Simonds (USA), who was creating small architectural tableaux built from small clay bricks; Anne and Patrick Poirier (France) who constructed miniaturised archaeological sites; and Michael C. McMillen (Los Angeles) who utilised faux arcade machinery and fictional military weapons to satirize cultural phobias and urban myths. 

McMillen, who participated in The 1976 Biennale of Sydney: ’Recent International Forms in Art’ with a work titled The Trunk Robot- a coin operated sculpture 1975,is one of the few artists cited by Suggett as being of interest to him. Certainly McMillen’s later works featuring miniaturised buildings, which utilise film industry expertise for trompe l’oeil special effects and invite the viewer into a Lilliputian world, demand up-close inspection, as do many of Colin Suggett’s works. Similarly, employing miniaturised architectural models allowed him to think big on a small scale, and to make a grand statement within the budgetary and spatial confines of a studio practice. 

Colin’s next work The $1,000 Chair 1978 represents a subtle impeachment of contemporary materialism with the captain of industry held captive within his cold, impersonal International-style office, his life and identity dependent on his industrial complex. The work exploits our age-old fascination with automatonic models. Here machinery with its gears and bellows is clearly visible and in control - driving the air conditioning, the subtle heaving of the man’s chest, and the ticking clock. All elements contribute to the viewer’s sense of vulnerability. ‘The man in The $1,000 Chair has mastered the world, yet his very success has isolated him, made his very existence depended on the machinery and the organization that created it’. (VAB 5)

Many of Suggett’s works also have at their base a strong social critique of society’s disregard for the environment. The third work commissioned for the Sculpture on Another Scale exhibition was Grandview Estate 1978, the artist’s comment on inappropriate real estate development in the small seaside town of Inverloch, noting that it is ‘the most expedient and profitable way of ordering our environment and the most boring’. (VAB 5) The work plays with a mirror box effect reflecting road curbing, street lighting and bunting stretching ad infinitum. Although this was Colin’s first work to address inappropriate land development and disregard for the environment, it was not the last. Beach Specimen 1979, was a response in support of a community concern against a proposed raw sewage outlet on the coast near Inverloch, in which Suggett created a miniaturised replica of the site at Inverloch cove within a small glass test tube. Displayed with allied scientific apparatus and a magnifying glass, the work was shown in a local shop window and helped defeat the proposal. Since that time Colin has continued to address political issues of concern, particularly in his cartoon computer-enhanced graphic work, of which Hanson 2015 is a typical example. 

Another key concern throughout Suggett’s oeuvre is with society’s consumerism and commodification, first seen in The $1,000 Chair and represented in other works by the symbols of modern materialism - industrial and architectural complexes with corridors, elevators and the twin towers of the American World Trade Centre.  Oh No Zone 1990 references the ozone hole in the atmosphere, while Oh No Tokyo 2010 is concerned with the rise of the ocean level. The abhorrence of the terrorist attack on the twin towers pulsates in the strobing image in After Image - The Persistence of Vision 2005, and in the innocence of Mickey Mouse in WTC Pedestal 2006; while a fluorescence glow and the vectors of a future potential explosion in Backpack 2005 reverberate with cultural angst and poignancy.

The architectural motif of the elevator and the theme of salvation continue in works like Corridor 2003 where a Dantesque everyman sits naked, bereft of social identity and protection, in a cold utilitarian corridor that terminates between two lifts. He sits waiting in limbo at one minute to midnight for the arrival of a lift; will it be for the journey down to purgatory or his ascension to salvation? 

From 1975 to 1980 Colin Suggett was Head of Film in the Media Department at Rusden State College; then, following the breakdown of his marriage, he moved to the Victorian rural town of Venus Bay, purchasing 16 acres of costal bushland. For the next decade (1981-91) he lectured in sculpture at the Gippsland campus of Monash University at Churchill, before leaving to work as a free-lance computer-based graphic artist and sculptor, producing sculptures independent of the demands of the market place or gallery system and supporting himself through his graphic design business. 

A significant early work, Hawaiian Sausages 1981, initially created at the request of Clive Murray-White for a Monash University staff and student exhibition, The Food Show, was later shown to great acclaim, in The First Australian Sculpture Triennial in 1981 at Latrobe University. Later acquired by Latrobe Regional Gallery, it was the first work by Colin Suggett to enter a public collection. It was featured on the cover of Retro Moments: a retrospective exhibition of the work of Colin Suggett, curated by Donald Coventry for Latrobe Regional Gallery, which toured Australia 2002-4. In this work, three gyrating sausages dance in a frypan of bubbling gravy under a celery palm tree against a backdrop of pastel green Formica tiles, its ambience being reminiscent of a 1950s bungalow. The Hawaiian music was composed by Colin’s friend, Ross Chandler, and the humour and virtuosity of the tableau, from the red neon under the frypan mimicking the hotplate to the old ironing stand, add to the comedy and underscore the satire of the social commentary.  

The ingenuity of animatronics, and the overt use of the machine to emulate human attributes, is exemplified in Suggett’s Mouthpiece 1980. Here a disembodied mouth situated below a clinical fluorescent tube against a stark white wall, mechanically recites Malcolm Fraser’s political dictum ‘the 1980s - a decade of opportunity’. The speaking mechanism of a slowly revolving master-cylinder and the complexity of its extension rods, coupled with old-fashion technologies of reel-to-reel sound recording, are deliberately left visible, underlining the poignancy of the title with its satire and humour. 

Colin’s parody of political ideologies ranges from ‘one-liners’ such as the power ties in Bust 1990 and the double talk of Forked Tie 2003, to dramatic tableaux such as Zits Wars 1987. This work equates US President Ronald Regan’s imprudent announcement of his ‘Star Wars’ initiative against the USSR, with the adolescent acne wars and teenage obsession with image, of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye 1951. Zit Wars thus effectively emasculates the anxiety and over-reaction of the political class and the industrial military machine by likening it to that of personal vanity. The nostalgic Art Deco feel of the tableau distances the political potency of the statement while its obvious pseudo overkill derides false solutions.

Two major public sculptures by Colin Suggett have been included in the McClelland Sculpture Survey (McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery) - Mickey 2007 and National Anxiety Index 2010, Both works continue his robust social and political commentary, the former concerns the best and worst of American culture with a hooded Mickey Mouse featured as victim in the emblematic pose of the Abu Gjraib tortured prisoners atop a Christian cross made of oilwell rigging; while National Anxiety Index materialises the widespread anxiety caused by the global financial crisis.

In Suggett’s most recent sculpture Red Dog stalking 2015, the mechanism of the repeating movement is again visible and is part of the fascination of the sculpture. This work, which features the continuous rhythmic gait of a red dog, embodies associations with the work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), a pioneering photographer of sequential movements and the creator of early motion pictures), with a side glance towards Kriv Stenders’s feature movie Red Dog 2011, and as well, it is a homage to Suggett’s own pet dog. 

In the 20th century computer-based modeling has become the pervasive platform for analysis, evaluation, communication and decision making across science, finance, industry and public policy. As simulacra such simplified reflections of reality are invaluable tools of contemporary scientific enterprise. Although Colin Suggett earns his livelihood through modern technology there is, in his sculptures nostalgia for, and an appreciation of, mechanical mechanisms and machines and the pure enjoyment of the process of making things in the world of silicon chips. His sculptures, to quote the artist, are all ‘about making things’. 

(VAB 5)

Robert Lindsay

September 2015