Words by Dr Kevin Robertson
To be confronted by a puzzle can be at once both a charming and an intimidating experience. A puzzle is a test of intelligence, a quality that though always important, has become increasingly valued. A puzzle tests us, and the outcome must be unambiguous—indeed in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, a wrong answer could mean death. But the charm of puzzles is also alluring. A maze is a visual puzzle that has its own beauty, but for Theseus, the Labyrinth was also a life testing experience.
Darryn Ansted presents a series of paintings in this exhibition Aspects of a Puzzle that engage with an architectural motif that appears both modernist and suburban. The colours and light that infuse these landscapes is pleasant and is recognisable as a West Coast phenomenon, familiar in both America and Australia. Titles such as Limelightand Magnolia further impress, with this feeling that ‘everything is fine’, but is this an allurement into the trap of the puzzle?
We are also enticed into puzzles by clues. The Minotaur inhabited a Labyrinth, in the myth, which was designed by the architect Daedalus, who also designed a hollow dummy cow in which Pasiphaë could hide to consummate her love for a beautiful white bull. The Minotaur is the monster love child, half bull, half human, imprisoned in the Labyrinth until he is eventually slain by the hero, Theseus. Such was the fate of monsters, for whom there was no compassion. The maze was so difficult to escape from that Theseus was given a ball of thread (called a ‘clew’) to use to find his way back out. This is an etymological root of the modern word ‘clue’, which we need to navigate our way out of a puzzle.
What are the clues that Ansted gives us in his paintings? A lemon on a table and a figure providing clues for the scale of the spaces represented in the paintings. There is perspective also (another clue), indicating that these may be real spaces, but something warns us that this belief is a trap. The sense of unreality is also ubiquitous in these works. A tiny figure gazes on a glass and stone monolith framed by geometric clouds. If de Chirico had lived in San Francisco or Perth, this is the strange atmosphere he may have painted. But he didn’t live in either of these places, so this too may be a distraction or red herring rather than an actual clue.
At some point in an exhibition, as in the Labyrinth, we turn a bend to find something that may overpower us. Painting exhibitions always find their final form as a sequence within an architectural setting and in this case there is architecture inside architecture. Around a corner, somewhere in this exhibition, can we expect a major work that puts all our fears and insecurities about our intelligence to the true test? Is this for instance in the massive Garden, where a cube on a table reminds us of the shared artifice of both puzzles and paintings? Is this the clue that lets us safely out of the maze with our reputations intact—or another allurement? Or, it may be in the earlier, small, beautifully simple, abstract works such as “Umber” or “Ochre” that provide a ‘clew’, stripped of portent, showing the path in, in order to indicate the way out.
Aspects of a Puzzle provides just that, different views of the unnamed problem. There is no ultimate conflict point or resolution as in the Labyrinth of Crete. Instead we hover inside one space then glide to the next. Within the presence of these paintings we stay suspended and engaged in their many intriguing qualities.