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You are looking at a fucking catalogue essay

Catalogue essay for Speech Patterns, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth


I am walking down High Street in the gentrified suburb of Northcote in Melbourne, thinking about the structure of this essay for Jon Campbell in the exhibition catalogue for Speech Patterns. Histrionic people and little dogs inspire me in the context of shop fronts displaying trinkets made of resin and conscientious tears. Sometimes I feel like tapping on random vitrines and positioning my face between the hot yoga flyers sticky-taped to the glass. Pressing my cheeks there until they look like Pipilotti Rist’s Be Nice To Me (Flatten 04) (2000). Puffing and huffing, with everyone looking, to yell, ‘Hey! Your splash pastel aesthetic is giving me a rash, losers’. Ugh, the idea of wasting a second of my life with these people, who probably play UNO high on ketamine, makes me yearn for global warming. Anyway, I am meant to be relaxing right now, making space in my mind for what I love, not what I hate. Cowabunga turtles. I mean, Ohmmm.

The plan for this catalogue is to write an introduction stating my position, then move on to three paragraphs which unpack form, content and context; followed by a conclusion. I wrote an opening sentence to keep me focused:

What are you fuckin lookin at is a lithograph by Jon Campbell that shows this colloquialism painted in an abrasive font above a nebulous backdrop, to occupy the totality of the image.


I like this line because it self-consciously addresses mediums with an economic language that also favours lively adjectives that help to capture the energy of a single artwork that is representative of Jon’s wider approach. The tone has to be serious to demonstrate that I really engaged, but a bit quirky so as to signal creativity, like shaggy hair after 8am. Within this tonal region, I want to focus my critical attention on What are you fuckin lookin at (2015) while drawing from other pieces to consolidate my view. The idea is that words are more illicit than images because we have a Judeo-Christian legacy of ‘the word’ as creation and heresy in the West. Jon’s work trades in this primordial sense of danger-as-style to incite suggestive images in our heads, rather than on the canvas, and to establish an aesthetic of efficiency. This precedent makes phrases like ‘fuck yeah’ in Fuck Yeah (Australian sing along) (2018) – where Jon placed this slogan on top of a record cover – more rousing and direct than figuration or abstraction. His work is quick to unpack but its longevity relies on a mental picture, a semiotic residue that lashes onto a myriad of associations through time; it circumvents the dearth of tautology by relying on the surplus of visual culture.

I need a structure to unpack these ideas because I am playing it safe. It is the first time that I have been asked to write for a museum and it is important that I come across as sympathetic. Hence, I have to victimise myself in one full paragraph to elicit a symbolic hug. Something that makes everyone feel like good people for giving me a platform. But the piece also has to be angry to fit with the Buzzfeed/Junkee stereotype that a millennial writer with a foreign name in the arts conveys: the whole tamale of safe spaces, trigger warnings and micro aggressions. While ‘the conversation has shifted’ – this outdated delivery is so 2015 – subtler forms of anger remain. Grumpy cat mode is a crowd pleaser for the Professional Managerial Class, Northcoteans, Arrested Development Folk – whatever you want to call this demographic, who refuse complexity in favour of simplistic optics.

Thus, I want to talk about how the hand-brushed lettering of Jon’s lithograph What are you fuckin lookin at invokes the iconic Sex Pistols font, to convey a state of rage with its bold and uneven strokes. I am interested in how the cloudy texture in the background, made with blue spray-paint then printed, resembles the ethereal imaginings that we reserve to express inner speech – such as the ubiquitous thought bubble in cartoon language. I want to describe a disgruntled state of rumination: a choleric reaction to an other, most likely a stranger, that is kept within the bounds of the mind, without necessarily reaching the external realm of speech. It represents that fuming reaction that we indulge in when someone decides to look at us at the wrong time, in the wrong place ...

‘Hwuar arrre yoo fukin lukin at.’

… I suddenly tell myself, when a creative type, dressed in an orange Carhartt WIP jumper and a blue Uniqlo beanie, comes out of the organic grocer Terra Madre, interrupting my concentration as I stroll along. His demeanour bothers me, as it painfully suggests that he is one of those people that leave their car with the engine on ‘just for 5 minutes’ in the oddly reliable streets of Northcote. He looks like the cartoon Hey Arnold! went to film school, and is now watching Mubi wearing a fucking headpiece from Muji, high on the CBD oil that he stole from grandma who has insomnia. He makes lists about obscure cinema with the public setting turned on because he wants to die. But Nickelodeon won’t let him. This dork believes high culture is his human right because he was born a few days before the fall of the Berlin wall – making him an embodiment of democracy and free expression. I suspecttheholisticpsychologist and The Empaths’ Survival Guide taught him pissy language like ‘co-regulation’ on Instagram. Yet he accuses other people of using wellness vernacular when they try to establish a genuine connection because he is projecting his own emotional mediocrity onto others. Everyone is a narcissist, except him. In the last election, he surely turned his Instagram stories into a campaign for the Greens, targeting everyone that is already voting Green. Vice Media and Mexican skull tattoos are not embarrassing in his ‘friendship group’. Smoking was cool in high school but now his breath stinks because he neglects hygiene, and his hair is full of knots. I want to brush it but I’d rather touch hot lava from El Popocatépetl than his head. Somebody cuddle him, please.

‘Hey DYE-go’, he says out of nowhere, ‘how are ya doin mate?’

God, be merciful to me, it turns out I know him from somewhere. I’ve forgotten his name but can’t tell him because I am a people pleaser: I don’t want him to stop liking me. Or worse, get angry at me. I need to exit the situation politely and return to Jon’s catalogue. So I reply, ‘Your presence is like a hammer-drill trepanning my skull. I obliterated you from my memory as a coping mechanism’, then I mumble with a tense jaw, ‘remind me who you are if you must?’ Oops, that came out the wrong way. His face now looks like cheese melting in the microwave, so I say ‘I am sorry … sorry that you are a turd’. Oops, that came out the wrong way too, ‘my bad, a dog’s turd’. This must be fawning – when one ignores one’s own needs to avoid conflict and becomes overtly apologetic. But I am in therapy now, doing a mix of ACT and CBT, and I am healing, ‘what I need from you right now is to get the fuck out of here, I am busy’. Oof, I think he is crying now. It is true what they say about toxic people resisting boundaries; doing the work is hard. But it feels good to communicate my needs to this fuck knuckle.



I learnt this term in Jon Campbell’s acrylic painting Fuck Knuckle (2019) where the artist painted these words in orange over electric blue, similar to the colour palette of surf music. The skewness of the letters in Fuck Knuckle brings to mind Kurt Cobain’s Jag-Stang guitar, which follows the Fender Jaguar (traditionally associated with surf) but displays a more crooked shape than the original guitar (suggesting dissent). Jon also filled the letters ‘u’ and ‘c’ with circular shapes that reference the colourfulness of 60s post-painterly abstraction to encapsulate the visual culture of this era. The painting hangs on unstretched linen, like a flag, to synthesise a complex sentiment with minimal symbolism; the incensed connotations of its words (‘fuck knuckle’) are complicated by the upbeatness of its enunciation (colour palette). It looks like someone added the word ‘fuck’ to the lyrics of The Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ USA’, and blasted it during a museum opening, to make a misfit statement. More than a political stance, the painting conveys an attitude that is both antagonistic and carefree, like a pelican stealing a sandwich at the beach. Once again, it is an efficient deployment of words that become poeticised once they swirl in the mind, where they find references to lash onto within a shared pop cultural reality.

While What are you fuckin lookin at conveys inner speech with its semblance to a cartoon bubble, the banner quality of Fuck Knuckle implies a public uttering. Both paintings deliver a rude address to the spectator by commenting on the status of the works as art, to create the impression of a subject presented in fragments (what a person thinks, then articulates). The former does this by provoking the viewer, asking them to consider the object of their gaze or look somewhere else; and the latter by ‘offending' the viewer, or suggesting the painting is twittish in content or style. This device grants the illusion of agency, for these works appear to speak as if they were alive. However, rather than invoking the horror of possession, where a demon inundates speech with murderous obscenity, Jon imbues the words with the comedy of anthropomorphism, making the inanimate become sentient. One feels like Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum (2006) in which displays come to life at night to initiate obnoxious exchanges. But in Jon’s critical zone, rather than soliciting a PG-13 adventure like Stiller, we are invited to consider what is within the mind of visual culture by listening to the way the objects speak.

Jon’s work motivates me to think about Northcote because it has a local feel; it is deeply rooted in Naarm/Melbourne’s urban landscape. His imagery resembles commercial graphics – the lettering that populates the suburbs. It is like hearing a place talk in a vocabulary that is duplicitous, for it is word and image at once, and generative, as it evolves through time. Yet it is accessible, since it communicates with a language that is readily available and easily understood. Jon’s work is brief because pop culture is expansive and its associations are infinite. It crawls in our heads with ciphers that find their coding in personal messages within. Channelling a working-class upbringing, his address makes me wonder what an older version of Northcote would say if it could speak back to the excesses of monstera plants and melodramatic creatives who go bouldering as soft therapy because they are suffering from First World atrophy. Would yesterday’s Northcote ask ‘What are you fuckin lookin at?’ I bet today’s Northcote would answer something pissy, like ‘I am an empath’ or ‘my inner child’. I wonder what the equivalent of Northcote in Perth is, and if the intelligentsia in that suburb sucks too. If they only eat bread from bakeries with heavily tattooed staff and are capable of understanding just as many perspectives (sourdough worldview). While promoting themselves as the embodiment of inclusivity, even though they quickly reveal themselves to be punishing and intolerant. Thank god no one can read my thoughts, and I never committed this essay to the screen, because these streets are made of eggshells. The conclusion is that I would get exiled to Fremantle.
Ramirez acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Land where he lives and works, the Wurundjeri people. He pays his respects to Elders past, present and emerging of the Kulin Nation.