exhibition review: ex de medici’s ‘cold blooded’
eX de Medici’s work can be like a slap in the face, or a punch to the gut. At first you don’t expect it. The colour, the ornate beauty, the familiar forms, and the incredible detail draw you into these exquisite watercolours. Then bam! Slapped in the face. It’s the intense imagery of these works which can at first disguise and then suddenly reveal their confronting and direct subject matter.
eX de Medici was born in the Riverina district, but has spent much of her life in Canberra. She studied painting at the School of Art and was part of the strong punk scene that existed in Canberra in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a period of activism and a do-it-yourself attitude and more than anything else punk represented the need to question authority no matter what. It is clear from de Medici’s work that these are values which have never left her art practice. Her work is all about the power that corrupts and effect that this has on our society.
Some of the most visually spectacular of de Medici’s works are brought together in the central gallery space of the Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra for the exhibition Cold Blooded, curated by Jenny McFarlane. A series of large-scale still life works where no inch of the canvas is left bare. Think of it like a pleasurable assault on the eyes. These works are in the tradition of 17th century Dutch vanitas still life paintings, which refer to the transience of life, the vanity of pleasure and the inevitability of death. The traditional symbol of the vanitas is the skull, and skulls are represented everywhere is de Medici’s work.
The first work in this loose series is Blue (Bower/Bauer) 1998-2000, a work which addresses the artist’s anger at the Howard government at that time. It’s also a comment on colonialism and the tropes and symbols that it embodies; Australian native flowers mix with Victorian figurines, Delftware and of course skulls.
The theory of everything 2005 is an explicit statement on greed, consumption and over indulgence with overt displays of flamboyant wealth. The work centres round a ridiculous white poodle statuette with enormous diamonds as its ears, a crystal chandelier hangs into the frame and there is gold, pearls, BMW logos and scattered pills everywhere. This series is bookended by Live the (big black) dream 2006, a dark wasteland from which there seems to be no return. It is the final decline, what is left over after we have destroyed ourselves.
This series of politically motivated work was de Medici’s first foray into using watercolours in her painting. It was a conscious decision to render political content in the traditionally feminine, conservative and sidelined medium of watercolour. Watercolours have been maligned by the art world in the past, but it is a medium that requires a huge amount of skill and precise technique. By choosing to present controversial subject matter in a conservative and highly technical medium de Medici appears to be subverting the way we think about what is (and what should be) acceptable in contemporary art.
Early in her career de Medici completed a formal apprenticeship in tattooing in Los Angeles and much of her early work was focused on this culture. She continues to tattoo today and what is so interesting about her move into watercolours is the similarity it has to the art of tattooing in it’s precise technique, gradient of colour and finality. There’s no room for error in tattooing and the same can be said for watercolour.
Guns are also a prominent feature in de Medici’s work and are symbolic of a larger theme of war, violence and the repercussions of authority via destruction. As the artist has stated about her work, “Actual guns appear frequently because nothing argues with a gun. They embody the natural tendency in human history: power through violence.” Representations of guns are interwoven into large still lifes, but also form still life’s of their own, such as .308 (rifle) 2004, Obey (in raiment) (pink and purple Beretta) 2003 and more recent works including Eutelsat has turned you off 2013. These paintings are akin to portraits, painstakingly completed in minute and accurate detail, these are meditative works which discuss war and violence through the machinery we create. What is most powerful about these images is what is absent, the human behaviour that necessitates these weapons existing and the destruction they and we inevitably cause.
A selection of eX de Medici’s most recent work is also on display and is what greets you on first entering the exhibition space, particularly Real Estate 2012-2013, a huge landscape over 5 meters long depicting the Shir-Kuh mountains in Iran. This monumental work is stunning and rendered in minute detail. The rocky desert mountains are complemented by ornate traditional calligraphy by master calligrapher Mahmoud Rahbaran. de Medici has travelled to Iran several times in the last few years and has been seduced by the beauty and complexity of the country, a place at odds with our Western perceptions. It will be exciting and fascinating to see how her work inspired by Iran continues to evolve in the coming years.
There is always something to look forward to in de Medici’s exquisite and intelligent art. The impact of her work is immediate and yet lasts long after you leave the gallery. Cold Blooded is a rare opportunity to see some of eX de Medici’s major works from public and private collections brought together for the first time.
eX de Medici: Cold Blooded is on at the Drill Hall Gallery. Canberra until 11 August 2013. More information at http://dhg.anu.edu.au/
 Paul Flynn, “eX de Medici”, Artist Profile, issue 5, 2008