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Henri Papin is the artistic persona of an obsessive super fictional collector character invented by Hobart based artists Mish Meijers and Tricky Walsh.  His exhibition “Cutting and Grafting” has been extended from MONA FOMA for the upcoming opening weekend of Ten Days on the Island, at Detached, 7 Campbell Street, Hobart, from 1-4 pm on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th of March, and on Sunday 17th from 11-2 pm.

In previous shows, Henri exhibited racks of sugared eyeballs, a sausage emerging from the carved crevice in a book, a mounted washing machine and replicas of public spaces complete with “found” aromas to name a brief handful of everyday items gathered and remade in “The Collector”, the ongoing series of the artist’s theatrical explorations into urban transgression. ( Detached here ).

In “Cutting and Grafting” Henri Papin’s latest sculptural objects and installation environments demand we suspend our disbelief, so as to persuade our sceptical intellects to embrace an unforgettable artistic experience.  But just who is Henri Papin and what is he doing in Hobart? For Meijers and Walsh, Henri’s worldly artist mistresses, he is virtually egoless, so in some ways, the plausibility of his back story is of little consequence. “We (the artists) are the voices in Henri’s head. The relationship is complex and sometimes we forget who is in the service of whom, and what”, they say of a creative process that requires surrendering individual artistic outlooks in the provision of his vision.

Walsh and Meijers have been forging Henri’s artistic alter-ego for the last 8 years.  In this time, he’s emerged as a fictively convincing early modernist character with an insistent bohemian rigour edged in hyper 21st century feminist sexual candour. Look hard into the narrative layers of his sculptural assemblages and installations for symptoms of Dadaism’s digressive drawing room dramas, Surrealism’s dreamy psychological head-scapes and the Constructivists’ anxious visions of revolutionary change caused by unbuildable forms. Personal recollections of favourite 20th century modern art works overcome local fears of perverted claims of originality. Henri Papin has a way of reminding us that the best contemporary art invariably exists in intelligent dialogue with the past.

To me, Henri Papin relishes influences of early 20th century artist German sculptor Hans Bellmer’s blousy eroticism, a modest association that belongs in sight of the work of Louise Bourgeois, the French born star of late 20th century sculptural deviations. Equally Henri Papin belongs in a growing international cast of successful artistic alter egos, from American artist Matthew Barney’s distinctive performative meta fictional Busby Berkley sports heroism meets, to British pop performance artist Sparticus Chetwin’s intoxicating scenarios. While Walsh and Meijers are vigorous foragers of historical affinities and innovative cultural influences, in creating Henri, the distillation of their unique creative alchemy is best understood as part of a global visual conversation. Henri is “a processor of circumstances”, the artists say.

Henri’s invented identity is based not upon a belief system so much as a collaboration of uninhibited visual impulses stretching far from his creator-artists’ separate artistic styles. The “oubliette” or an “architectural manifestation of distortion” is one of the explanations given. We might also see Henri’s ideas as a response to a logical world perceived out of miniscule details, an intricately argued defiance of rational consciousness.  “One of us writes the stream of consciousness. One constructs the visual narrative…” the artists write. This process is interchangeable between them. Part of the joy in discovering Henri’s world is that we never quite know who is responsible for what element of his art works.

In “Cutting and Grafting”, viewers are invited to drop index cards into Henri’s “sleeper cell”, where he languishes in absentia, his mouth locked in a fierce toothy grin, his head a moulded Alcatraz escape prop left poking out of a rumpled bed, as if he’s long gone from his prison performance. Viewers’ messages shift Henri’s consciousness, not with what’s been written but in the nuance of a single word, or the shape of someone’s handwriting. His stream of consciousness online diaries and expertly crafted samples of collected memorabilia transform his reveries into wildly improbable objects and environments. The drama is in the details, closer observation of his potent poetic realm invites viewers’ to be changed.

Installed on Detached’s main floor,“The Great Pocket of Stibnite”, is an igloo-like environment made of haphazardly leaning timber structures covered in chunky silver-painted timber crystal fronds. It seems at first to fill the room entirely. “Forcing unfamiliar items into close proximities changes their meaning”, Walsh and Meijers say of Henri’s unfathomable choices of bizarre material juxtapositions. A cacophony of exotic and mundane items enunciate intriguing visual riddles; low tech infestations of energy, moodily suggestive excesses and the suppressed whimpers of abject loss.  A seam of steel wool is stuffed inside a crevice as an after-thought on “The Great Pocket’s” exterior wall. Inside four massive lumpy band-aid covered forms dangle beneath overhead spot lights. 

Peering through one of several eye level apertures in “The Great Pocket’s” outer wall, I want to understand what these foreign three dimensional forms might mean. One form resembles a static mushroom cloud of exploding foam, splashed with a dangerous neon-red colour; an undeclared secret oozes out of its minute drama.  The central object looks like an amputated human torso, deceptively tinted with a skin of nude coloured bandaids, exuding foam as though its been injured by the angry splashes of red paint dribbling down its body. A third dumpier object wears a slightly darker skin of an alternate brand of sticking plaster and a glossy white painted helmet of gigantic mince meat fronds. The pandemonium of the layered materials and the sense of distorted symbolism the interior of the Great Pocket creates, can at first seem overwhelming. Ideals of control through asserting the rational are endlessly challenged. A great deal of the artistic charm in “The Great Pocket” comes from its sheer material silliness.

Mannequin arms decorated with a gallery of prison tattoos protrude from “The Raft of Medusa’s” roiling fleshy poly-plastic body parts. From a fishing pole protruding from the mast, a rotating 1920s plaster arm dangles, its fingers gently tracing an endless circle in the sand below. Mounted on the raft’s milled lumber mast, flesh coloured foam bubbles out of a medical thigh mould suggesting sweat trapped beneath the surface. Featherweight hand-carved raw balsa wood replicas of workshop screw clamps are mounted on the cross bar.  From its wooden base of cut out sled blade shapes, The Raft bucks as if on a rough sea.  Energy crackles.  A row of old fashioned metal domestic meat grinders decorate the vessel’s stern. The wall beside The Raft is dotted with life sized cast replicas of bright red mince meat, suggesting Medusa reaches a messy end in Henri Papin’s telling of the classic tale.

But when we separate the material details lending The Raft’s its suppressed air of theatrical longing, Henri Papin’s floating scenario is a crime of the senses. “We are all meat. Under the skin and the teeth and the hair the essential matter differs only slightly”, write the artist. 

Inventing Henri’s meta fictional persona would appear to be a formidable artistic challenge. His dreams described in narrative prose illuminate his persistent hunt for the forbidden delicacy of the French Orlotan bird. In his dream, it is his way of “avoiding God’s gaze”.  Scientifically distilled essences of relived experiences are repeated endlessly in “The Magnetic Confluence”, installed in Detached’s rear mezzanine. Here we meet Henri the guileless hobbyist. In “Confluence”, three magnetised turn tables installed below manipulate iron filings rotating on old celluloid records. An elegantly phrased video close up of the iron filings in constant magnetic motion is projected onto the wall behind it. Mounted on Henri’s signature timber scaffold systems decorated with mannequin limbs, birds’ nests and other inventively reconfigured collectibles, each of the turn tables performs its own separate act of sacrificial destruction. The artists write, “Obsessive behaviour forms its own trap. The remembering starts to weed out and eliminate the irksome details which interrupt the flow of the narrative, or which become problematic. This inner censor pulls away the rotting layers to reveal the new, to recreate ever perfect memories and a kind of entropy is reached…”

How do Meijers and Walsh separate themselves from their fictional character’s demanding experiments? In his personification of artistic processes, Henri’s visual logic is often endearingly simple. Be warned that the art works’ apparent complexities may unravel into effortless metaphors.

“Cutting and Grafting” is intricate, obsessive and compelling. It is as if a pair of madly gifted children had been trapped in a recycling unit for several weeks living on a restricted diet of red cordial and lemon crisp biscuits. “The Glasshouse” is a petite replica of a greenery, decorated with fishing flies made of dog, cat and human hair which may or may not have been consensually harvested. A spine of flesh coloured modelling plastic fronds decorate a medical glass vessel. Moulded plastic cacti leaves burst from an old rubber inhaler bladder, the tiny transparent room is fecund with hybridised horticultural suggestions of the shabby moral sagas plaguing Henri’s life as a fictional artist. It is an intricately rationalised object founded upon pilfered pleasure, sometimes verging on sheer visual puerility.

“Inosculated” is a word artists Meijers and Walsh use to describe what begins to happen when Henri enters their heads.  It means cross pollinating unconventional materials with visual ideas. The results in “Cutting and Grafting” are provocative cross breeds of creations hosting Henri’s narratives. As an invented artist-collector persona, Henri liberally indulges his inventive symbolism as a favourite medical disorder. In so many great works of art, memory’s persuasive reflex invokes familiar affinities. But while we habitually seek symptoms of ourselves in approaching creativity, the visual power of Henri Papin’s intensely rendered universe offers the exquisite possibility of an experience of art that will undoubtedly changing us.

All about the exhibition, Detached here