Things in Beauty, Beauty in Things

Bling! Bling! Bling! Curse the excess of gangsta rap all you like, but the ostentatious display beloved by celebrity has been around much longer than any of us would like to recall. Apart from its obvious connections to success (‘Look at me. I have arrived!’), these tacky accessories also operate as signifiers for tribalism, that the appendages one rapper chooses to wear distinguishes him/her from those chosen by another crew. The paradox is that now, due to the out-of-control spiral of expanding population combined with social media, it is the bling itself that takes centre stage with its bearer operating merely as a mannequin. Think of the Kardashians, Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti et al. In each case, it is their excess adornment that takes precedence; talent – whatever that is – becomes irrelevant. Jacob Leary is acutely aware of such ironic contradictions, not least through his own deliberate use of brightly coloured disposable plastics as a medium, bulging in crazed profusion to provoke equal measures of delight and discomfort.

In previous exhibitions, Leary has presented a diverse range of responses to similar paradoxes, all framed within a rigorous aesthetic sensibility. These include colour-grid excavations of laser-cut card, compressed dioramas of reflective holographic film, and vast panoramic fields bristling like bacterial outbreaks with their multitudes of beads, buttons and coloured collectibles (Hello, Woolworths! Hello, Coles!). For Beauty in things, things in beauty, Leary turns his gaze back to the body and its adornments. In his own words, these works ‘place an emphasis on the aesthetic realm of appearances, the world of surfaces (where) glimmers, sparkles and reflections are important in their relation to “excess”.’ His pieces are exemplars of the practice of ‘maximalism’, an approach which celebrates richness and excess through work-intensive (often obsessive) artworks, characterised by over-decoration, luxury and sensuality; and like bling, they often utilise illusionary fakes, such as rhinestones and gold-plate, as components within their construction. 

However, in Beauty in things, things in beauty, Leary is not interested in profusion alone. The photographic portraits he has augmented are of people known to him but through the digital process, they have also become something other, namely two-dimensional zones of tone, colour and pixel. In his own words, ‘the body is somewhat absent as a thought within the work and the face is likewise unanchored.’ Leary attempts to equate this 2D reality with the ‘un’-reality of the 3D plastic objects, ‘to heighten the object-ness of the work to a quite dazzled effect. Through the reduction of the compositions within the works to a series of color plains and faces, (allied with) the dense, almost haute couture detailing, I’m aiming to disrupt the ability for the eye to take in the whole. This becomes an act of disruption in itself – a confrontation to the gaze.’

Two earlier artists who celebrated a similar approach were Richard and Pat Larter, whose combination of painted figures set against highly patterned backgrounds also challenged these boundaries; and the works of their final years were filled with acres of cheap glitter paint which they happily called ‘sparkle-arkle’ in acknowledgment of its low-rent origins. The Larters saw no shame in using materials from the everyday to illustrate greater truths, and with his own contemporary employment of overflowing tacky plastics, Jacob Leary’s works prove no less provocative through their jostling juxtapositions.

Catalogue essay by Andrew Gaynor, 2019