Ostrich Flies

Bruce Nuske, SALA at David Roche Foundation

The commemorative trophy has become a zombie tradition. In the classical world a sculptured likeness or imperial visage on a coin really meant something. Of course today’s examples include such ‘trophy’ trophies as the Melbourne Cup and so on. But from here it’s a short taxi ride to the level of junior-level faux gold sporting trophies still carrying on as if they’d been designed by Praxiteles or Bernini. Bruce Nuske has been engaged with the idea of the trophy as seen through the filter of the David Roche collection. Now Roche, as is well-known, was a serious trophy acquirer in the international field of dog breeding. It has been suggested that he built his remarkable decorative arts collections along the lines of a hunter bagging the biggest game. It’s an engaging if simplistic simile which doesn’t admit the subtleties of balancing passions with the high levels of connoisseurship required to make the right choices that will stand the test of time. But, as a walk through his house, crowded with look-at-me items, demonstrates there is a point where the business of appraising high-end eye candy and canine rock stars appear to intersect. It presents as a group of trophy cabinets which contain awards, commemorations and judging memorabilia. Bruce Nuske, as an artist with a particular interest in the historical development of the decorative arts, plus the talent to interrogate traditions within a contemporary context, has jumped at the invitation to respond to the Roche collection. He is in f act David Roche Foundation’s (DRF) first SALA artist. Nuske’s advantage is that throughout his practice he has played the role of double agent in honouring traditional styles and techniques while plying a trademark brand of humour characterised by understated absurdity and an ability to recast historical ideas as contemporary possibilities. His response to the Roche collection reflects this somewhat ambivalent relationship. His most obvious ‘homage’ to David Roche the much awarded dog breeder and judge is a classical vase (Trophy for a Fake Dog) surmounted by a motley collection of dogs around the lip. The terra cotta vase has the patination of an unearthed artefact. The dogs are plastic – ‘real’ plastic as they say in the trade. Something about the enduring tradition of honouring achievement with cheap sashes, cardboard certificates and tin badges caught Nuske’s imagination. The fact that such ordinary, mass-produced items are crammed into trophy cases in an antechamber to David Roche’s bedroom in Fermoy House, with its leopard skin patterned accents, skeleton clock, Napoleonic pistol and liberal libations of swooning swans, seemed an absurdity but, at the same time, a reaffirmation of the manner in which David Roche conducted his life. Nuske’s long-standing interest in Classicism, and thus his fascination with the Roche collection of furniture and other items in the Rococo, Neoclassic, Empire and Regency styles is based on an admiration of classical order and its seductive aesthetics. That said, Nuske sees his work as playfully re-interpreting things rather than copying and reproducing. As such, some of his work sits somewhere between referencing high-end 18th century decorative art and Victorian revival with its dizzy mashups of styles. The secret of his success is that he hedges his bets with a dash of the Rococo, that 18th century mindset and style that valued playfulness, excess, ornamentation and asymmetry. Consider another of the artist’s works in the DRF SALA exhibition, a tea caddy being looked at by an ostrich. Its principal inspiration was an ivory tea caddy in the Roche collection. The other is possibly many of the porcelain figurines and indeed, animals, perched on shelves and in cases in Fermoy House. To this, add Nuske’s long standing interest in the fi gure of Empress Josephine and her passion for things Antipodean, particular Australian plants and creatures. The swan, which features prominently in furniture, paintings and other wares in David Roche’s bedroom suggested a link, in Nuske’s imagination, to the the black Australian swans that waddled around the plushy sward at Malmaison. The ceramic tea caddy it surmounts is classic Nuske in its slyly subversive ornamentations. But wait – there’s more. An ostrich, inspired by an actual 18th century design from the house of Furstenberg, is placed alongside looking wistfully upwards. Poor old Ozzie. He/she didn’t make it into the classical all stars team and Furstenberg’s plans to launch a hot little seller within the scientific community foundered on the fact that this bird didn’t fl y – in every respect. Perhaps if Nuske completes his plans for the SALA show by creating some ‘fancy birds’ of deliciously unknown provenance or breeding, three-toed Ozzie will have some company. So much and more to talk about with this gem of an exhibition. And we haven’t even started on the Rabbit or those ever-so-phallic perfume vials. SALA at David Roche Foundation Tuesday, August 2 to Wednesday, August 31 rochefoundation.com Image: Bruce Nuske, Trophy For A Fake Dog, 2016 brown and red terracotta with plastic dogs. Photo: Anna Fenech

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