Ronnie van Hout at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne

By Rosemary Forde

No one is watching you: Ronnie van Hout, 2018 (installation view). Photo: Christian Capurro. Courtesy Buxton Contemporary, University of Melbourne

A pair of lo-fi videos reveal a commitment to the gag, the ‘existential knock-knock joke’ as curator Justin Paton has described it, that has endured through Ronnie van Hout’s work in sculpture, video and photography across three decades. In Backdoorman (1996) and Backdoorman II (2003) the New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based artist takes a familiar comedy setup and stretches it into an endlessly looping game of near-misses and disappearing acts. In the first, shot from inside a suburban house, van Hout is seen on the far side of the front door, knocking, but no one lets him in. In the sequel, shot seven years later from a camera positioned outside the house, we see van Hout knock and wait. Again, no one’s home. After he gives up and walks away, the door is opened by another Ronnie van Hout, who peers out, looks around and shrugs.

The artist’s face appears in many different guises throughout this retrospective at Buxton Contemporary: as a zombie pecked at by owls (in D.E.A.D pronounced dead, 2004); in miniature and inserted into anthropomorphised bananas and sausages (such as Bad traveller, 2010, Bananaman (fallen), 2010, and Sausageman, 2010); bald and disembodied, as if Bruce Nauman’s Hanging Heads (1989) were attached to basketballs (All said, all done, 2012). These sculpted van Hout faces are flanked by a supporting cast of aliens, robots, men in chimp- and dog-masks, and empty, embroidered thought-bubbles arranged across two floors of installations in loosely thematic groupings.

But perhaps the most unsettling use of van Hout’s ageing face, cast in latex and painted in the exaggerated fleshy tones of stage makeup, is attached to a series of pyjama-clad, childsize figures. In works such as Doom and gloom (2008), Sick child (2016) and Sitting figure II (2016) these men-children crawl across the floor, levitate above shaky furniture and sit on a toilet with cigarette in hand. Until now, van Hout’s work has most often been seen in largescale public sculptures or in group exhibitions with themes such as art and humour, self-portraiture and the uncanny. The significance of this retrospective (curated by Melissa Keys) is to see van Hout’s work on its own terms: as using the strategies of comedy, horror and the self to explore the formation of identity.

In several videoworks van Hout plays the parts of comic, filmmaker or actor as if trying them on for size. In Stand Up (2016) the artist performs routines by Woody Allen, Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman word-for-word and without expression across a screen split four ways; in Brett and Michelle (2014), van Hout plays both central characters in a distilled version of Rowan Woods’s The Boys (1998). Van Hout’s amateurish delivery of the excruciating interactions between Brett and Michelle casts them in a new and more vulnerable light.

In the installation Bad Fathers (2018), van Hout presents a collection of lifesize sculptures of nude and crude male figures. These nine doomed archetypes of masculinity – the rock star, the soldier, the prophet, the drunk, the depressive… – are set on top and among plinths that take the form of domestic objects, such as ovens and washing machines, reduced to grey minimalist blocks. Acting as a backdrop is the video King Vader (2018), in which van Hout brings the stories of King Lear and Darth Vader – the ultimate bad fathers – together. As ever, the artist plays each character himself, appropriating dramatic scenes and tense dialogue in a no-frills production that cuts footage from the videogame Minecraft (2009) with shots of a lone van Hout walking through parklands. With its focus on the characters’ psychology, the video-installation conveys the exhibition’s prevailing sense of familial fragility and the inescapability of intergenerational inheritance. That is only made endurable by van Hout’s fondness for absurdity and slapstick, empathy with the dysfunctional and apparent faith in art and humour as modes of survival.

No one is watching you: Ronnie van Hout at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, 12 July – 21 October

From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview