Can you perceive a potential for wrongdoing in a person’s appearance? Is there a place for beauty in the depiction of crimes? A confronting exhibition raises many questions, writes Karen Kissane.
PEOPLE WHOSE ACTS personify evil mostly look just like everyone else. It is only hindsight that makes us scrutinise them for any outward signs of their inner corruption: a hard glint in the eyes, a sullenness in the expression, a hint of threat in the swagger.
Our primal anxieties long for something, anything, that will mark them as Other, that can be relied upon to alert us to potential danger before it strikes.
But often there is nothing that would alarm. The only peculiar things about the appearance of convicted serial killer Peter Dupas, whose trademark was slicing off the left breast of his female victims, were his blank gaze and daggy pudding-bowl haircut. Christopher Hudson, the drug-addled city shooter who took one life and maimed several others, was a young and handsome Dorian Gray. Robert Farquharson was accused of killing his three children by driving them into a dam on Father’s Day but he came across as timid. He murmured to a reporter during a break in court, smiling gently, “I’m not a bad person.” The jury disagreed. (Farquharson is appealing.)
If those who have done great evil have no defining physical characteristics, then how is the artist to render them? How does one impart a sense of the mark of Cain, or the force of malevolence, or the isolation of the sinner who has been cast out? Or can this only be brought to bear by the gaze of the viewer who knows the story behind the image?
Artist Nick Devlin believes so. In his display at a true crime exhibition at Geelong Gallery, he mixes at random 27 charcoal portraits of perpetrators and victims and does not disclose their identities to the viewer. It is a silent satire on the faux 19th-century science of phrenology, the theory that criminality could be documented and measured in the features of the face and head. Find Jean Lee, the pretty redhead who in 1951 became the last woman hanged in Australia (she allegedly helped kill a bookmaker who would not reveal where his money was), or the young Myra Hindley (the British Moors murderess who helped her partner molest, torture and kill five children).
Or maybe you won’t find them – except for the portraits that have mugshot serial numbers in one corner, it is difficult to tell which of these respectably dressed and coiffed people were “perps” and which were “vics” (the latter include a man killed by the Manson family and Trotsky, who was the victim of a political assassination).
The artist Albert Tucker originally thought he saw inner corruption in the face of someone he painted from a newspaper photograph (Man’s head, 1946). The subject’s thickly lined visage is obscured by shadow and the narrow, sloping shoulders somehow suggest weakness, an inability to cope with life’s burdens.
Tucker had painted it from a newspaper photograph of a man who had been charged in court with kicking a small dog to death. Tucker later recalled: “I was fascinated with the utterly dissolute face of this man … he had that look about him, a collapsed kind of face, a kind of moral disintegration. And I realised it wasn’t so much the person that was fascinating me – rather, he stood as a symbol for all sorts of things that work in the human condition. I remember once I located the photograph again and it’s really nothing like it.”
For the artist painting a portrait is, himself, a viewer of the original image that is his subject, and projects on to it his own fears and loathings about the story behind it.
None of the portraits in this exhibition – True Crime: Murder and Misdemeanour in Australian Art – involved a personal sitting with the subject. They are drawn from police shots and photographs in the public domain, so the artist’s vision of the criminal is coloured not by the subject’s fleeting changes of expression or carriage or snatches of conversation but by the harrowing, if impersonal, material on the public record about their deeds.
Not all the works in this gripping line-up are portraits. Some of them capture neither the criminal nor the victim but the quality of the experience. Charles Blackman’s The Shadow and Prone schoolgirl, both 1953, were inspired by the Gun Alley murder. Twelve-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found dead in a laneway off Little Collins Street on New Years’ Eve, 1921, after being sent by her mother on a message to her grandmother’s house.
The vulnerable figure of a small girl in an iconic mushroom school hat and pleated tunic walks through a hostile landscape of industrial buildings with saw-toothed roofs, her own shadow thrown long in front of her like a premonition of the way she would soon become a shade herself. In the next image in the sequence, Prone Schoolgirl, the light has all but gone, just touching gently on her body as she lies dead on the grey roadway – again, alone.
Blackman later said the pictures had a lot to do with his own fear and “a lot to do with my isolation as a person and my quite paranoid fears of loneliness”.
What Brett Whiteley’s series on killer John Christie captures is the morbid grotesquerie of Christie’s crimes. In 1960 Whiteley moved to London where he lived within blocks of 10 Rillington Place, where Christie had murdered seven women and buried their bodies. Several women had been rendered unconscious with domestic gas, administered through tubing with its release controlled by a bulldog clip. Some were raped post-mortem.
Whiteley used surreal mounds of flesh – stand back to get yourself anatomically oriented – in 10Rillington Place. Against a dark background the anonymous body of a woman lies with legs splayed, emphasising the sexual nature of the crimes. Her swollen belly might be a reference to Christie’s offer to perform an illegal abortion on a neighbour whom he then made one of his victims. The deadly tubing, snapped by the bulldog clip, snakes its way out of a corner of the painting, which is decorated at the top with images including Christie’s bony face, a penis and a photograph of police digging in his garden.
These are not paintings that make for easy viewing. Best not to contemplate the feng shui implications of having one hung over your fireplace.
It almost seems strange to have Ned Kelly in such a line-up. He has the status of mythic hero now, with an overlay of the political rebel. Mere hold-ups and clean-cut shootings of armed police officers hardly compete with the vicious perversities of a Christie or a Hindley.
Still, he remains the nation’s most famous criminal, and in this exhibition he is portrayed in very different ways. Sidney Nolan, in Kelly at the mine (1946-7) painted his iconic black-helmeted figure outside the hideout of the Kelly gang in the Wombat Ranges near Mansfield. A shadowy “normal” portrait of Kelly painted by Nolan in 1946 is believed to be based on a photograph from an early jail record in 1873, when Kelly was aged 18 – but there is no known picture of the outlaw in a tie and jacket, as Nolan portrays him here.
Gija artist Freddie Timms depicts Kelly with square helmet and body armor, a series of dots representing the rivets joining the suit’s panels, representing the incorporation of Ned’s story into Aboriginal dreaming in north-western Australia.
Timmy Timms offers an abstract dot painting symbolising the alleged massacre of Aboriginal men at Bedford Downs in the 1920s. A small circle in the lower right hand side of the work represents the place where the men were poisoned and burned.
Here lies a central problem for art about true crime: how close is too close? How far is too far? Abstraction intellectualises the human suffering and the human depravity of a crime, distancing one from the horror. Explicitness, on the other hand, can seem exploitative, if not downright lascivious about violence. As for creating a work of beauty from acts of ghastliness – that, too, creates unease in the viewer, with its dilemma about the ethics of moral airbrushing.
In this exhibition, the work that many women found too confronting was Catherine Bell’s Soap, Slip, Slash (2006). It is a short, hypnotic piece of film in which Bell sits on a toilet while a semi-naked pregnant woman lies unconscious on the floor in front of her. Bell (dressed in fine silver chain mail to symbolise detachment from the crime) lathers the woman’s pregnant belly and shaves it with a sling-back razor.
The performance is based on an American murder in which a young woman strangled a pregnant mother and then removed her child from her uterus, later passing the baby off as her own.
Bell says female perpetrators inspire a special fear because they contravene the boundaries of what is meant to be their “normal” role, presumably as nurturers.
But the most perplexing and visually arresting work in this exhibition is Mark Hilton’s exquisite portrayal of the Lebanese gang rapes in Sydney, Champion returns (2006).
The viciousness of the attacks in 2000 on several “skip” girl victims by 14 Lebanese men on a racial rampage made for hideous reading. Here, though, Hilton has created a thing of beauty. The background colours are candy pink and pistachio green; the figures are dressed in jewel-coloured, magnificently detailed traditional Middle Eastern clothes (although several of the young men wear traditional baggy pants topped by Western clothing such as baseball shirts and caps, symbolising their struggle with their cultural identities in a new land).
The only brown-eyed woman in the picture stands to one side watching, her face and body swathed in a black burqa, her hand up in – what? Protest? Confusion? Dismay? Or just helplessness?
The panoramic is rendered in the formal, detailed style of Persian paintings of the 16th century – a mute comment on the richness and sophistication of Arab culture. The visual beauty of form and colour contrasts shockingly with the brutality of the scenes portrayed, which include the hosing-down of one young woman after her six-hour ordeal.
Perhaps there must always be discomfort in the art of darkness.
Karen Kissane is law and justice editor.
True Crime: Murder and misdemeanour in Australian art will be at the Geelong Gallery, Little Malop Street, until 1 February 2009.
Phone 5229 3645; geelonggallery.org.au.
First published in The Age.