Breaking the Chains of Colonial Linearity: In the Studio with Dean Cross

Dean Cross in his studio. Photo by Dario Hardaker @oiradphotos. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Dean Cross, Chariot, 2020, wallpaper installation dimensions variable; The boy in the moon grew up and got arrested, 2020, synthetic polymer on linen with jerry can, 119 cm diameter (painting), 47 x 35 x 13 cm (jerry can). Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Dean Cross, I WILL NEVER DANCE AGAIN, 2009-2019, oil, synthetic polymer and charcoal on unstretched canvas and linen, synthetic polymer paints on acrylic (panel), 200 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Dean Cross, You, Me, Us + Them, 2009-2019, synthetic polymer, and charcoal on canvas with carpet, found image and possum skin, 224 x 210 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Dean Cross in  his studio. Photo by Dario Hardaker @oiradphotos. Image courtesy of the artist and  Yavuz Gallery.
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ART Power HK

 

Speaking in a raw and unfiltered manner, Sydney-based artist Dean Cross shares his thoughts on digital imagery, the pleasure of a studio practice and politics of Aboriginal art.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

 

Dean Cross in his studio. Photo by Dario Hardaker @oiradphotos. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

 

They say first impressions count. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the intuitive judgement we naturally make of another person, through the theory of “thin-slicing,” which argues that in the first seconds upon meeting a person, we form rapid assessments and these impressions can be largely accurate. My first impression of Sydney-based artist Dean Cross—sitting across from me at a local café near his studio as we met for morning coffee back in early March—was of a man who spent a lot of time thinking; an artist whose art was an externalisation of his thoughts sans the words. I could tell we would have a fruitful, albeit intense, conversation, but that most of it wouldn’t be about his works which were being shown at Yavuz Gallery’s new Sydney outpost—his first solo exhibition with the gallery. As our conversation later unfolded back in Cross’ studio at Carriageworks, I became more inclined to agree with Gladwell.

Speaking in a raw and unfiltered manner, Cross points out the various objects scattered around his studio—including old monochromatic photographs collected from eBay; a gold-leafed wallaby skull on the floor; and what appears to be a tourist-style didgeridoo perched atop a black wig on top of a white fluorescent light. It reminds me of my own days in art school, when my best friend and I filled every inch of wall and floor space in our shared studio with an assortment of items and random assemblages—all ideas in the crafting—with no concrete sense of their meaning. I share this sentiment with Cross and he agrees. He tells me this is the first time he’s working out of a real studio space, and the impact has been positively profound towards breaking out of the mould that, as artists, we must have all the answers before we call an artwork complete.

“Actually, having the studio has changed my practice significantly whereby without this space, I was working show to show, producing work for shows, and in that way, the ideas generally do come first,” says Cross. “Whereas now that I’ve got this studio, it’s both a blessing and a curse, because I’ll make work and think visually, but I don’t necessarily have the answers yet as to what it is and where I’m going or what I’m even thinking about yet.” While he is more often categorized as a conceptual artist, Cross prefers to avoid being boxed into any single discipline and let the work lead the medium. Looking around his studio, however, its abundantly clear photographs and archival materials arouse his interest. “A digital photo doesn’t really have any materiality. There are probably data analysts who would disagree. But I consider it to be immaterial,” he tells me as we scour through the small pile of old photographs on his desk, almost all purchased from eBay. Pointing to the back of a 100-year-old wedding photo, he asks, “It’s a real challenge philosophically as an artist, like why make any more images?” We leave the question hanging in the air, silent and unanswered.

 

Dean Cross, Chariot, 2020, wallpaper installation dimensions variable; The boy in the moon grew up and got arrested, 2020, synthetic polymer on linen with jerry can, 119 cm diameter (painting), 47 x 35 x 13 cm (jerry can). Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

 

Prior to art, Cross had a successful career in dance and in his formative years, he even dreamt of being an Olympian in gymnastics. But eventually dance, which he tells me often left him feeling as though he was on autopilot, reached a limit for Cross, and the search for new challenges, and the freedom for improvisation—which he first discovered in painting—led him to pursue visual art professionally. Born in 1986 of Worimi descent and raised on Ngunnawal/Ngambri Country, Cross’ multi-disciplinary practice calls forth Australian colonial narratives, challenging the Australian myth through a critical lens. Cross sees it as partly his responsibility to “attempt to reconnect the chain and undo some of the complications of these stories so that my children and grandchildren may not have some of the baggage that my father has, and may be able to feel more comfortable or capable.”

 

Dean Cross, I WILL NEVER DANCE AGAIN, 2009-2019, oil, synthetic polymer and charcoal on unstretched canvas and linen, synthetic polymer paints on acrylic (panel), 200 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

 

With the weight of this history heavy in the air between us, I find out that Cross does not shy away from a good critical discussion so I ask him frankly about his thoughts on decolonisation; a problematic word in my own dictionary. Cross concurs that decolonisation may just be a buzzword for a utopian ideal, a word that sums up something we wish to see in a nifty way. “I think actually what has happened and what we mean is decapitalisation because I think capitalism, liberal capitalism especially, is colonialism and that is kind of an unbroken chain,” he says. “Actually, when we talk about decolonising, what we’re hoping for is decapitalising but we’re not ready to say that because we actually know it’s impossible.”

Aboriginality in contemporary art is, more often than not, contentious and to this day, easily misunderstood or misrepresented. Certainly for myself, the gap in awareness always keeps me cautiously on eggshells—ever curious yet challenged to understand more. Cross, in that candid manner I’ve quickly come to appreciate in our conversation takes me through the assemblages in the making on the wall—of the tacky tourist representations of Aboriginality he’s mashing together with reprints of Polaroids; photocopies of now decommissioned Australian one and two cent coins; print outs of what looks like a Ned Kelly impersonation—resulting in ultra-flat perspectives and collages rich in repetition and mark-making. “I have a politicised body and so my work is therefore inherently political. But I think the trends, the market, or however you want to describe it, supports work that fits into a certain narrative about Aboriginal art. I’m trying to speak beyond that language.”

 

Dean Cross, You, Me, Us + Them, 2009-2019, synthetic polymer, and charcoal on canvas with carpet, found image and possum skin, 224 x 210 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

 

He adds, “I describe it as Aboriginal art being in its Mannerist phase. We’ve had our Renaissance—and I’m indebted and grateful to the brilliant artists that have come before me, no doubt—but actually, I think that you then also have this responsibility to push and broaden that spectrum of what Aboriginal art can and can’t be. We have to continue that conversation which is currently rooted in a prohibitively colonial thinking.”

“I mean even our sense of linearity is a modern kind of colonial concept. But you’d like to think that at least in generations to come, there will be a little bit more open-mindedness maybe,” says Cross.

Early in our conversation, Cross had told me how he was becoming less inclined to talk about or answer for his work; that demanding answers, he felt, was a sense of entitlement belonging to a colonial way of thinking. Yet I can’t help thinking as we tipped over into our second hour of talking, Cross has shared a lot. But where does it go from here? What will these ideas in the making on these walls eventually lead?

 

Dean Cross in  his studio. Photo by Dario Hardaker @oiradphotos. Image courtesy of the artist and  Yavuz Gallery.

 

Cross jokes, “Actually the most political I can be is to make purely formal abstract paintings, right? Remove all the ideas and reduce it to just form and material, and completely go this sort of way where it’s like that’s actually the most radical thing I could do, being like a modern formalist, right?” With that, we leave yet another question unanswered.

As he walks me out, we talk briefly about the gold-leafed wallaby skull on the floor, and he shares with me the Aboriginal value of respecting the Earth and all of nature, of the sacred place of animals and all that the Land provides. At least the answer here is clear.

 

 

 
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