Growing Up: Ronnie Van Hout’s Tumultuous Year

There can be little doubt that it is a momentous year for Ronnie van Hout. He is currently showing at Station Gallery in Melbourne, he was commissioned to execute a massive and imposing sculpture for the top of the Christchurch Art Gallery, he was curated into The National: New Australian Art 2017 at Sydney’s MCA Gallery and he concocted a distinctly confrontational installation at Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary. And at each step he has managed to shock, bewilder, unnerve and amuse all at once.

There is clearly the imp of the perverse at play in van Hout’s odd self-portrait project, which seems to be undertaken with a twinkle in the eye and a tongue firmly in cheek. There is nothing of the defiant glower of a Mike Parr self-portrait; instead van Hout diminishes his physique to that of an eight-year old, dresses himself in jarmies and sneaks a fiddle with his privates and a cigarette on the toilet. There is something of the Los Angeles-based Paul McCarthy in his bizarre mannequins, but unlike the serious degradations of McCarthy’s victims, van Hout’s often seem strangely innocent, a borderline pubescent with furrowed brow, a middle-aged man diminished in stature and struggling to come to terms with his status in the gown-up world.

In 2010, for a survey show at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, the curators suggested that: “There’s something rotton in the state of Ronnie. Melbourne artist Ronnie van Hout is a master of slapstick existentialism. His tragicomic works mash up Sartre and Beckett with The Two Ronnies and The Nutty Professor. Often bearing his own features, van Hout’s figurative sculptures beg to be read as doppelgangers, mini-mes, and brothers from another planet.” But, rather than Sartre and Beckett, one recalls the strange worlds and ideas that infiltrate the novels of Philip K. Dick or the films of David Cronenberg.

In many respects, van Hout illustrates a derisive comment, most often made by sighing women, that men are incapable of ‘growing up,’ that trapped beneath their five-day growth of beard, greying hair and blood-shot eyes their remains a virulent strain of the ten year old; easily bored but just as easily excited. Indeed, for a man born in 1962 there is something off-kilter about retaining an obsession with the Lego-style robot of youth such as that seen in the massive reclining aluminium and steel robot Dayton (2014) installed at the Monash University Clayton campus. Then there are his unabashed fan-boy fixations with such classic 1980s sci-fi films as John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner. Indeed, the latter formed the basis for van Hout’s video/installation work I’ve Seen Things (2012) which refers to the famous Blade Runner scene where a replicant shoots a cop. In this case van Hout plays both rolls, in effect shooting himself. The title of his work was sourced from a line in the soliloquy Roy Batty (portrayed by Rutger Hauer) delivers as he reminisces before dying.

Alongside sci-fi and horror, cults and conspiracy run rampant here, again dredging up childhood memories. I’ve Seen Things combines tinctures of Blade Runner with the history of the Full Gospel Mission cult-like religious group, which was based near his childhood home in Christchurch and who built a compound called Camp David. In 1977, police seized more than 150 weapons from the compound, run by self-styled ‘Bishop’ Douglas Metcalf. Van Hout remains fascinated by the outsider/insider mentality of cults and religious movements to this day, the fear and thrill of their secretive activities.

Which brings us to the delirium of Quasi (2016).

Van Hout has gone one step further than Stelarc with his infamous ear on arm project. He has in fact recreated his entire face on the back of his hand in a five-metre self-portrait that dominates the skyline around the Christchurch Art Gallery. Surreal in the extreme, Quasi suggests the notion of the artists’ hand as the source of his or her genius. References to such pop-culture items such as Thing from The Addams Family and Victor Hugo’s outcast Quasimodo on the roof of Notre Dame are inevitable, but so too are the odd similarities to the bold symbols dominating the churches of Scientology and Mormonism. This is not the first time van Hout has been allowed to take over Christchurch’s skyline. In 2013 he cast a massive self-portrait sculpture that stands on the roof of 209 Tuam Street. Comin’ Down has the artist pointing at the sky, as though warning of an alien attack… or perhaps pronouncing himself the future of the nation, not without a massive dose of self-irony.

Things were somewhat more humble at Station Gallery where his followers consisted of his classic diminutive Ronnies, aspiring rock stars clutching microphones and cigarettes and arrayed in a variety of poses and situations. One squats on a toilet. Another, on all fours, re-enacts the myth of Narcissus staring at his own reflection on the mirrored floor. Yet for all their rock star aspirations, they are all in pajamas. Scruffy little tough guys, playing out their fantasies in their bedrooms while swearing in neon. The band leader dominates, pointing straight at you, you, the viewer, as complicit in van Hout’s fantasies as the artist himself. Indeed, without you the work is incomplete. But now you’re there you are complicit, in your pajamas and forced to look inside and interrogate what you are now that you’re all grown up.