the curious case of the growth of the subtext


In recent years, whenever they have nothing better to occupy themselves with, conservative journalists and politicians take aim at postmodernism and the way some of the more incoherent followers of late 20th century French theoretical writing (a.k.a. “Theory”) have destroyed the education system and all that is good and right with the world.

James Guppy, 'Sunrise Boulevard' (Installation view), 2005, Acrylic on linen, 36x36cm each. Courtesy of Brenda May Gallery

James Guppy, ‘Sunrise Boulevard’ (Installation view),
2005, Acrylic on linen, 36x36cm each.
Courtesy of Brenda May Gallery

I have no problems with attacks on turgid academic prose, but what these good folk have failed to notice is that the notion of critical reading is now at the heart of popular culture. The average school child has a greater understanding of subtexts than of the world of Shakespeare. Although adolescents’ critical reading skills could be placed at the service of trying to understand what drives Australian public policy, they are instead turned to the service of watching television.

An instinctive understanding of multiple readings is why Buffy the Teenage Vampire Slayer is still a top selling DVD years after the series ended. Buffy has been the subject of learned discussions that encompass most aspects of its production. Feminists love its assertive female characters. Teachers enjoy the way its protagonists gain knowledge from books. It has been the subject of PhD theses and academic conferences. But the core of its attraction is the nature of Buffy’s world. Sunnydale is suburban Middle America, with quiet cul-de-sacs populated by McMansions, and vampires. The local high school, one of the centres of action, is a Hellmouth. The series works as a giant metaphor for the disruptions of adolescence and the sense of disquiet that has gripped modern Western civilisation. Headmasters (presidents, prime ministers) may present as fussy little tyrants, but they are really demons planning on turning suburban banality into Apocalypse. The task of the heroine and her friends is to defeat evil, and be misunderstood in the process.

'A cloudy day behind #56'

‘A cloudy day behind #56’

Australian television drama has been so starved of resources that it is simply not possible to produce scripts of this quality or to properly rehearse our actors, so the local tendency is towards one-dimensional realism or satire. But the world of our most enduring drama, Neighbours , Home and Away and even Kath and Kim is remarkably similar to that of international suburbia, which stretches throughout Europe, far from its origins in Middle America. The triumph of the garden suburbs, with their carefully manicured lawns, large gabled houses and streets dominated by the life cycle of the car, represents a triumph of the cultural values exported by the USA in the decades after World War II.

It is this apparently bland culture of the suburbs that so intrigues the painter James Guppy, whose exhibition, ‘Sunrise Boulevard’, is currently showing at Brenda May Gallery. The paintings are hung at an angle, so that they form a diamond shape. The result of this is to unsettle the viewer and to create an air of instability. The diamond also encourages fleeting glimpses, and a sense that whatever is seen may well be a distortion. Despite the homogenous nature of the architecture, the most common recurring form in these works is the yellow-lidded wheelie bin. We have created a society so wasteful that one of our biggest problems is the disposal of rubbish.

The edgy aspect of these paintings is not just in their faux tranquillity. For Guppy, Western civilisation may be a part of the march of suburban utopias, but they often look like ghost landscapes. His interest comes in part from his relocation to Sunrise Beach, on the outskirts of Byron Bay in northern New South Wales. Unlike the popular image of Byron as an upmarket architect designed community, Sunrise Beach is an empty, neat suburban transplant, with the pristine architecture of a project home building development placed next to a beach.

‘I’ve been living here for two years,’ he says. ‘It’s a weird place. Usually the streets are empty.’

'Before breakfast at #17'

‘Before breakfast at #17’

In order to show the way the residents of these apparently perfect suburbs are disconnected from any sense of place, he has placed them in the air. They float above the ground or even high in the sky. A real estate agent is so far removed from reality that he floats upside down in The Appraisal. A woman walks her dog, who strains against the leash as he knows he belongs on the ground. It is a great metaphor for dislocation. The only sense of clutter comes from abandoned supermarket trolleys in a vacant lot.

‘All we have are these material possessions,’ Guppy says. ‘The buildings are real, but we’re ethereal.’

Acting as a counter to this dystopia are children. The only neighbours who actually appear to inhabit the streets of Sunrise Beach are children waiting at the bus stop on their way to school. In his paintings they are at play, reacting with each other in games, flying through the air towards the ground, or hiding behind a fence. But even here not all is well. In Ruby Behind the Units, a half-naked child is crouching alone, behind bushes. In Guppy’s world of neat trimmed gardens and precise gabled houses, demons may lurk behind the lace curtains and children will do well to hide.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.