Who's There
Ronnie van Hout and the Anti-Hero Aesthetic

ANTHONY BYRT

Nothing is worse in all the world than the taste of bullshit in your mouth.

Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song

Saturday morning before ten in Dunedin and still-warm vomit steams against the cold grey stone of the Octagon. I turn to my friend and smile. 'Cool. I hoped I'd see some spew this morning.' He doesn't say anything. He just looks at me, sighs, and keeps walking.

***

Dunedin can be rough, and tonight will be bad. Tonight, the Highlanders will lose, and this old city's streets will be overrun by drunken young men looking for sex or a fight, running in packs, covered in face-paint, fueled by the failures of their heroes. And as we watch the Highlanders get beaten, my friend smiles. Earlier, I'd agreed to go to some student pubs as part of my 'Dunedin experience'. Clearly, for him, driving up Baldwin Street in a tiny rental car wasn't enough.1 No, this will not be an enjoyable trip. And there are three days to go.

And for once the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is no better. When I walk into one of its rooms a tired, angry man stares out of a TV screen and yells: 'Hey you! What are you looking at? You got eye trouble mate?'2 Not far from him, a homeless monkey vomits in a comer. Two other disheveled men gaze fearfully into TVs. The room is full of degradation, multiple figures in stained grey suits facing their own desperation and failure.

Ronnie Van Hout's I've Abandoned Me at the Dunedirt Public Art Gallery, May 2003

The place is a circus. A man, also wearing a grey suit, scuttles in and declares that 'it's like a galaxy of signifiers! This guy is obsessed with voyeurism!' and races further into the gallery.3 Instead of following, I stand there, confused. The guy on the screen keeps berating me ('how do you like this one? You like this? What do you want me to do, huh? Go on, you know I'll do it, I always do . . .'). Two boys, about nine years old, come in and put their arms around the sick chimp, almost knocking him to the ground. A security guard sees them and bounds up the stairs. They run, ducking between UFOs, horror sets, monkeys and rocks, Hitler and Charlie Manson memorabilia, and make it out the front door just in time. Still fixed to the spot, I start to reply to the guy on the TV but just as I open my mouth he puts on a lion mask and roars. I'd thought I might still have time to dodge this rabbit hole, to walk out and never come back. But by now, I know it's much, much too late.

This is the world of Ronnie van Hout. He is a liar and a thief. He is lazy and arthritic. He drinks too much and looks like he needs a wash. Instead of getting a job, he brandishes his inability to work like a badge of honour. He couldn't finish an art degree and still he expects us to look and listen, to allow ourselves to be degraded by his ridiculous speeches, his wisecracks and smartass antics.

RONNIE VAN HOUT Psycho 1999
Plastic, metal, modelling materials, monitor & video systems 1180 x 1640 x 115 mm.
(The Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki)

But if he is all these things, then it is also possible that he is a genius. No, this is not a place for temperate observations. The world of Ronnie van Hout is a world of extremes, where fence-sitting is death and quick decisions must be made. Love the monkeys or hate the monkeys. But if you don't want to make up your mind, you need to get out, fast.

The first email I got about the show said it was a 'mid-career survey' . It was called I've Abandoned Me, Justin Paton was curating it, and it was an exhibition of one of our most 'irreverent' artists. 'Irreverent' is a difficult description. It suggests 'difference', some eccentricity that needs to be tolerated. Now there's no doubting that van Hout is 'different'. And by focusing on 'difference', there is often a tendency to make identity art. And loosely speaking, van Hout is an identity artist.

RONNIE VAN HOUT Untitled Band Embroidery (Bass wanted. . . ) 1993-2000
Cotton embroidery on canvas, 1005 x 600 mm.
RONNIE VAN HOUT Untitled Band Embroidery (DEVO) 1993-2000
Cotton embroidery on canvas, 1005 x 600 mm.

The problem is, I don't actually like much identity art. And that is because there is a world of difference between 'good' identity art and 'look-at-me-I'm- disenfranchised' identity art. Which is why it's so surprising that van Hout, of all people, is accused of making one-liner work, when most identity art produced in this country is exactly that - one-line meditations on personal anxieties about place, exclusion and/ or (the need for) belonging. In contrast, van Hout quite rightly proclaims that identity is fluid, fictional, and above all, funny. And the reason identity is funny is because people are funny, except, somewhat paradoxically, a lot of identity artists. . . .

What a lot of identity artists don't take into account is that people who go to art galleries have their own issues and don't; really want to have to look at other people's problems, and that anxieties should be kept bottled up, good and tight, where no one can see them. Of course the flip side is that you might produce a Ronnie van Hout, who has all the paranoia an individual can cope with this side of loon. As a result, angst explodes from the gallery walls and oozes through its spaces, giving the whole place the pathetic stench of fear. It's a dirty show. Fetid, even.

RONNIE VAN HOUT Untitled (Ha Ha) 1997-98
Fibreglass, modellising materials & paint, 350 x 550 x 250 mm.
(Collection of Jim Barr & Mary Barr, Wellington)

I read in the catalogue that' . . . van Hout's career-long strategy has been to loosen the I's guy ropes and wobble its claims to confidence.'4 Not surprisingly then, the guy berating me is van Hout and the screen he yells from is part of the new work I've Abandoned Me, and this time, it looks like he's actually pulled out the pegs. In the installation, two Ronnies (yes, two Ronnies) stare into TVs. On one, angry-Ronnie gives an account of his career-to-date, trying on all his guises, from Elvis, to Sculp D. Dog, to the roaring lion and he tells us it's the last time he's going to do it, that he's tired and bored, but that as long as we keep asking for it, he'll keep performing. Like an addict, he can't stop. It's a futile attempt to turn his back on himself. He holds up a sign that reads 'I AM OUT OF ORDER'. Meanwhile, the other Ronnie watches Hanging Rock, that mythic Australian space of abandonment. He looks petrified, frozen to the spot, the eerie landscape causing gallery torpor. And in-between them, Monkey Madness leans against a rock, watching it all on TV.

It's a smart piece. It's at the end of the show, but frames the whole show. It's about fear, the fear of being a hack, of being stuck in a rut. It's classic New Zealand art anxiety. And because of this, van Hout ends up standing at the end of New Zealand's art history.5 But van Hout's art history is corrupted. He picks his way through it and samples the bits he likes and spits out the bits he doesn't, so that what you're left with are chewed-up fragments strewn across the floor or neatly made narratives that mimic art's search for deeper meaning. And all the while, the artist is in your face. Or artists. Or whatever he, or they, is, or are. Art history is sieved through his memory and the result is a group of anti-heroes who bumble through art's highbrow terrain and make a hell of a mess in their search for self-expression, for mystic truths.

RONNIE VAN HOUT Monster 1999
Colour photograph, 740 x 1125 mm.
RONNIE VAN HOUT Stranger 1999
Colour photograph, 740 x 1125 mm.

Because van Hout relies on memory and art history, nothing in his work is 'new'. And true to postmodern form, he squelches time and space down so that all his ghosts meld together. For instance, in I'm Not Here, he borrows from Bruce Nauman, but then mixes him with bits of McCahon and Caspar David Friedrich. Then there's a touch of autobiography (a screaming foot) thrown in for good measure. A view of Muriwai, that classic McCahon landscape, plays in the back of a cast of van Hout's head, while in another, an eye is replaced with a camera that feeds into a TV on the floor. All around, phrases of McCahonian angst are rephrased in the negative-I'm Not Here, I'm Not In . . . .

This negativity is because van Hout worries about 'not making it', so he copies the already been and dwells in a slacker aesthetic.6 That way it doesn't look like he's stuffing up. It's hard to get the slacker thing really wrong. Hence his rocks. Like he says, it's pretty hard to stuff up a rock.7 Of course, one of the dangers of slacker art is sometimes it's just plain bad, a little too slack. Not so here. Surface appearances belie attention to detail. Like his needlepoint band posters, for instance - embroidered reproductions of music shop flyers for bands who dream of stardom but just need one more member, that one bass player who is into Zep, Hendrix, AC/DC and Ozzy. Slacker dreams are recreated through careful handicraft.

RONNIE VAN HOUT Hello, Goodbye 2002
Plastic, paint, wig, fake-fur wig, wood & audio systems 500 x 600 x 320 mm.

But it doesn't take long for van Hout to abandon dreams of stardom and it happens well before I've Abandoned Me. To really make it, you've got to escape your past and your fears, hide your problems so people only see surface. Van Hout can't do this, and the results are disturbing. The real abandonment of self happens in the corridor of weirdness that joins the two main rooms. It's a walk-in scrapbook of fear and psychosis. On one wall, he displays his unemployment records with images of UFOs. His registered preferred careers include Museum/Gallery Curator, Photographer, and Kitchen hand. One of his potentially employable assets is 'has own bicycle'. Opposite these, murky green photographs of words emerging from the deep, words like 'Monster', 'Hybrid' and 'Abduct'. Failure and Fear face off against each other in that narrow passage.

Robert Leonard's suggestion that van Hout's work is 'the art of the ultimate fan' starts to concern me in this corridor.8 In Manson/Son, van Hout takes newspaper clippings about the Charles Manson murders and includes among them an advertisement for his own school reunion. Alongside this, his school Testimonial, an eerily accurate oracle of his career-to-come. Opposite, Crossroad recreates an old family photo, its figures popping into real space with black-and-white ghoulishness. In the background, a boy holds a shotgun in one hand. On the floor, a small figurine of Adolf Hitler is chauffeured around Auckland's dealer galleries while he listens to sixties hits. This proximity between van Hout 'the fan', weapons, unemployment records, images of things rising up from the ground, Charlie Manson and Hitler, becomes a little troubling, like you can hear him muttering 'the voices in my head. . . '

RONNIE VAN HOUT Monkey Madness, Self-Portrait, Sculp D. Dog 2001
colour photograph, 830 x 525 mm each

We're left with a distressing vision of the 'man alone', that classic Romantic character who isn't so romantic in an age of Columbine-style massacres and global terrorism. Solitude is no longer heroic and fean of abandonment can lead to psychotic behaviour, to nightmarish visions of loneliness. In Crossroad, a sign that reads 'Mash/Eggs' points us to the far end of the corridor and to the gloomily lit miniature copy of Norman Bates's house. A nightmare portrait of a seriously deranged artist is about to reach crisis point.

One of the more terrifying memories of my adolescence is watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre in third form. Trying not to be a 'girl' about it, I sat through the whole thing, through every knuckle-whitening rev of Leatherface's rusty blade. For weeks after that, I was convinced he was lurking in the hallway somewhere between my bedroom and the bathroom, every night. And it wasn't just Leatherface. That year I was also exposed to Jason, The Shining, It, The Exorcist, and, maybe above all of them, Norman Bates.9 Van Hout's Psycho brings all these appalling memories back-knife-wielding freaks, masks, psychos in drag, and deep, deep fear.

Inside the 'Psycho house', van Hout paces with a kitchen knife. Just like Ronnie, Norman Bates was afraid of being alone. Couldn't live without his mother after she died so kept her in her rocking chair, put on her dresses, and slashed motel guests. In the house, van Hout murmurs to himself, flashing the blade. And the whole thing happens not far from his father, who is speaking on Holmes about his sheep that was set alight (true story about Girlie the Sheep - 18- year-old Christchurch hairdresser tries to torch Theo van Hout's roadside-grazing ewe because he 'just wanted to kill something').10 Freudian narratives spew forth and offer up a self-portrait of spine-chilling desperation. Or it would be spine-chilling, if it wasn't so funny.

Horror characters often hide behind masks, slaughtering victims in feasts of spaghetti-gore, their disguises covering thinly veiled Hollywood-style psychoanalysis. Meditations on abandonment, faulty motherhood, icky psychosexual incest dreams, that sort of thing. But often horror films have sequels, and, more often than not, those sequels suck. And this is Ronnie van Hout. He hides behind masks and, dwelling in his childhood fears, butchers contemporary art. He is New Zealand art's bad sequel; the attempted copy that undermines the original and makes you think that maybe there was nothing to be scared of in the first place.

RONNIE VAN HOUT Sick Chimp 2002

Most surveys gain confidence after their halfway point, reflecting their creator's artworld ascendancy. Not this one. After the halfway-corridor of weirdness things get even more paranoid. There is Only the Only, in which van Hout talks to himself while he is asleep on the floor on the other side of the room. A UFO emblazoned with a swastika floats ominously above. On the back wall, a Nazi insignia doubles as formalist abstraction. Van Hout, a child of the Cold War, conflates UFOs, fascism and abstract painting as a bad dream.11 In School and House, van Hout peers out from the tiny windows of balsawood buildings while a UFO hovers overhead. Around the walls, grainy black and white photos of an alien abduction (van Hout is on the operating table). Next to those, a sad, sad spacesuit on a metal coat-hanger. And then, in the penultimate room, I've Abandoned Me, that final moment where multiple Ronnies face their failures and Monkey Madness, Sculp D. Dog and the rest of the motley crew come together for one last hurrah, and Ronnie tells us that this is the last time. And he means it. Really.

***

Ronnie van Hout is Colin McCahon, Bruce Nauman, . Ricky Swallow, Billy Apple, Douglas Gordon, Matthew Barney, Tony Oursler, Charlie Manson, Adolf Hitler, Norman Bates, Sculp D. Dog, Monkey Madness, an alien abductee who returns with a spangly spacesuit and the potential new keyboard player for De Vox, a dance covers band with future work on the North Island club scene. Watching his work is like watching a bunch of alcoholics get drunk at a party. It starts out being kind of funny, then it turns sad, then it gets scary. But at a time when so much boring identity art is being produced in New Zealand he is one of the few artists who knows that to lurk in the boggy marsh of fixed identity is to commit artworld suicide. Instead, why not copy other artists, why not imitate the already been? So he's late for the party. That's just because he was getting changed. Better safe than sorry, after all. But then, he seems to be saying sorry because it's safe, the work a constant apology for its own ineptitude. Nothing he says is new, and most of what he does say can usually be written off as 'bullshit'. But because the work always pretends to be something it's not, it never pretends to be something it's not, and that, is what makes it such good art. Or, at least, this is what ~ wrote in my notebook on that little plane that makes your stomach hit the ceiling halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch. Maybe I was just pleased to be out of there.

1. Panic set in about three-quarters of the way up when the car was screaming in second and it suddenly seemed like the front wheels were going to flip over the roof, leading to a somersault that would stop in a ball of flames somewhere near the bottom. To avoid what I saw as this inevitable catastrophe, I veered maniacally into the nearest driveway, which caused stomach-cramping laughter in my companion, who, by the way, has lived in Dunedin far too long and seems to find these situations, and my more than moderate fear of them, pretty damn funny.
2. Or 'I' trouble. But we'll get to that. See also Justin Paton, Ronnie van Rout: I've Abandoned Me (exhibition catalogue), Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 2003, p. 6.
3. Although we had a conversation later on, I didn't catch your name, so sorry for not acknowledging you properly, but I guess you know who you are, so thanks.
4. Justin Paton, op. cit., p.6.
5. If this was left in any doubt by van Hout's earlier 'art historical' works, then I've Abandoned Me surely confirms the point. The initials of this work (and of course the show) say it all.
6. One of the strengths of Paton's catalogue is the way it doubles van Houl's negativity by structuring its sections around 'anti- themes' like 'Disinheritance', 'The Unfamous' and 'The Unsurveyed'.
7. Van Hout made this point during an artist presentation at Waikato Institute of Technology, Hamilton, 9 August 2002. The best example of this is Rock Group, a row of rocks with Monkey Madness strumming his guitar on a tiny screen in the middle.
8. Robert Leonard, 'Ronnie van Hout: Overimpressed', Art & Text, no. 57, May-July 1997, p. 34.
9. The combination of Bates and Leatherface was awful, because even if I got past Leatherface outside the bathroom, Bates was going to be inside, hiding in the hot water cupboard. Though if we really want to get into it, I was being bullied by a girl in my class who didn't like my haircut. She was big and she was scary and, looking back, I'm pretty sure she had something to do with my particular proclivity for panic and fear at the time.
10. The work is called Animal Farm.
11. As early as 1997, Robert Leonard pointed out the importance of fascism in van Houl's work because of its dependence on 'weakness', which is one of van Houl's most distinctive characteristics (see Leonard, p.34). This also seems to be the only time van Hout criticises a living artist - John Nixon. The connection between fascism and Nixon's abstract painting reflects the differences between the 'Nixonite' painters and sculptors like van Hout in his current home of Melbourne.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 126 Autumn 2008