Franko B, Unloved, Curated by a/political at Rua Red Gallery
In a short performance at the opening of Franko B’s Unloved, the artist takes a sledgehammer to three of his artworks, large slate-black depictions of symbols of institutional power – a dollar sign, and the NATO and UN emblems. Before the sledgehammer is swung, the artist distributes small cloth bags with red crosses stitched on them to the assembled crowd. Synonymous with the international Red Cross humanitarian movement, this symbol crops up repeatedly in the artist’s work. Franko B sports numerous tattoos of its cruciform outline – his shaven head is encased in a caul of dilated crosshairs.
Are the bags, which emit a somewhat medicinal odour, a giveaway, tokenistic mementos to be pictured and posted, hashtag Unlovedfreebie? Their function is more prescient and more practical. Each bag holds a small ball of cotton wool infused with an antidote to the scent of death. This scent, a pervasive sickly-sweet aroma, wafts through the galleries in an invisible current that threads us through the eye of its olfactory needle into an underworld of suspended animation.
It takes repeated swings of the sledgehammer to break the thick black material on which the symbols have been incised. The smell from the cloth bags, an ameliorative aid to life-sustaining inhalations, contrasts with the sound of the hammer blows, which ricochet off the surrounding infrastructure in fractured, rain-muffled claps of thunder. Destruction and creation, scent and sound, signal the enfolding of the ends of a multi-sensory cross, the crux of which we are about to enter.
Enfolding is evident in the stitches used to create a series of large portraits of young boys who are lying prone, holding guns as they stare, grin-grimacing into an unspecified hostility. Coloured threads appear and disappear, moving over and under the surfaces of raw canvas, building impressions powerful because of the intimacy and assiduousness of their creation, devoid of the sorts of markers that enliven and enrich, and grease the wheels of visual recognition.
Enrichment’s greasy underbelly frames the exhibition through two realistic sculptural representations in Rua Red’s preliminary gallery, one with a mirrored surface, the other with the waxy veneer of painted plaster. There, young boys lie in states of semi-undress. The sculptures channel the ambivalence and queasy discordance of virtual reality. Both crafted threads and mordent surfaces remain tied to questions of objectification and objective allure, to the means and motives of production, to the vagaries of institutional sanction and validation, and to the integrity of restorative artistic abnegation.
A red cross. A saturated, blood-filled intersection. Two lines of thought trying to cross each other out. The blind faith of craft and sledgehammer of transgressive desire. Trapped in the push and pull of human history, the work withdraws and pulls us away from categories and functions that would rehabilitate shattered emblems of salvation. In the policed parameters of our frenetically fluctuating gaze, the stench of death makes of our recrudescent innocence the instrument of a lifelong revulsion.
Childhood trauma seems destined to be recycled endlessly through the meat grinders of history. Human frailty and the endurance of conflict puncture and rupture and stitch themselves into the soft, forgiving flesh of abandoned bodies.
In a plethora of small sculptures dotted across the gallery, the reality of rejection is made rigid, impenetrable, ceramic-solid. Representations of isolation and dejection are rendered through states of endurance deserving of our empathy and compassion. Above the glazed sheen of the fire-hardened clay, detachment and aesthetic judgement hang like a levitating yogi.
In the main space, a recording of a song – Jesus’ blood never failed me yet – sung unaccompanied by a homeless man in 1971, plays on a loop: an irredentist conviction stealing through the gallery’s acrid air. The destructive and healing power of touch, and an art that points us towards the hammer blows of exploitation and debasement, leave fingers reaching for an intersection that will not cross itself out.