Tom Polo’s Hit and Miss at Parramatta Artist Studios presents a motley of slogans and one liners, often framed in the form of motivational posters, badges, buttons, flags and pinions, arranged for the most part in the main gallery on a powder blue wall. It looks a little like the fantasy of a small child who has chosen to worship not sport or celebrity, but the motivational industry and has decked his bedroom walls with naïve effigies of promotional materials he dreams will beguile and seduce his friends into purchasing his overpriced books and cd sets as a side effect of the immense popularity his clarity of vision and incisive turn of phrase would win for him.
There is no counting on how many levels such a child is disturbed and mistaken. If he actually did exist, I would, for his own obviously traumatized sake, contradict my usual position and advise administering heavy doses of both sport and celebrity in alternation in the hopes of shocking his system back… at least away from this dangerous turn of mind. And still we have not yet plumbed the depths of his condition, because, when we look more closely at the works, it becomes apparent that this kid has gotten something else wrong. Instead of filling our eyes and minds with the resounding acclaim of absolute and universal affirmation, our imaginary child has included expressions of many of the emotions that surround the pursuit of “personal fulfillment”, but are usually excluded from its programmatic content. Many of the slogans express anxiety, self-doubt, self-criticism and self-deprecation even as they maintain their brightly optimistic promotional attitudes. Polo has created a self-help philosophy that promotes the negative on par with the positive. When you think about it, that’s all that any self-help philosophy does.
The result is an uneasy sense of ambivalence that draws out and emphasizes an uncertainty at the heart of much of this language. Positive statements take on a more menacing, and self conflicted aspect. The phrase “Winning not Whining”, begins to look like bullying, positioned as it is beneath the drooping words “Sad Sac”. These conflicts and contradictions multiply, producing a field of dissonance, each work disrupting the smooth functioning of the others, until you cannot be sure of how to read any of it. The result is a discursive flatness that mirrors the visual flatness of the paintings. The reader, like the viewer, is unable to discover any depths of meaning into which they can project themselves and this lack of a coherent, unified subject leaves the viewer ricocheting between the various untenable subject positions.
It felt as though the flatness of the picture plane had somehow infected the subject position of the viewer, and that where I stood looking at the work was as limited in dimension as the picture plane of the objects I examined. There is some evidence that this is exactly what Polo had intended for me. The cover of the catalogue, for instance, is a print of one of the works that has been made into button. You can actually stand in front of the work, wearing one of the works as a (flat) badge of the subject position it permits (and disrupts). This is taken further in a side room, dressed up as a theatre, in which round paintings of various crude, flatly rendered faces are arranged in depth as though sitting in the audience, all facing a single red painting with the name tony written in black that hangs on the far wall. The paradox of paintings of human faces facing a painting of language establishes a mis en abyme, in which subjectivity ricochets between the two positions. Where does the viewer stand? In the position of discourse (and discourser), looking at the representations of faces, or in the position of representation looking at discourse? Again Tom doesn’t allow us a comfortable place to sit and we are left floating, homeless between the two.