Review: Tom Polo “Hit and Miss” at Parramatta Artist Studios

by Alex Wisser

Tom Polo’s Hit and Miss at Par­ra­matta Artist Stu­dios presents a mot­ley of slo­gans and one lin­ers, often framed in the form of moti­va­tional posters, badges, but­tons, flags and pin­ions, arranged for the most part in the main gallery on a pow­der blue wall.  It looks a lit­tle like the fan­tasy of a small child who has cho­sen to wor­ship not sport or celebrity, but the moti­va­tional indus­try and has decked his bed­room walls with naïve effi­gies of pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als he dreams will beguile and seduce his friends into pur­chas­ing his over­priced books and cd sets as a side effect of the immense pop­u­lar­ity his clar­ity of vision and inci­sive turn of phrase would win for him.

There is no count­ing on how many lev­els such a child is dis­turbed and mis­taken.  If he actu­ally did exist, I would, for his own obvi­ously trau­ma­tized sake, con­tra­dict my usual posi­tion and advise admin­is­ter­ing heavy doses of both sport and celebrity in alter­na­tion in the hopes of shock­ing his sys­tem back… at least away from this dan­ger­ous turn of mind.  And still we have not yet plumbed the depths of his con­di­tion, because, when we look more closely at the works, it becomes appar­ent that this kid has got­ten some­thing else wrong.  Instead of fill­ing our eyes and minds with the resound­ing acclaim of absolute and uni­ver­sal affir­ma­tion, our imag­i­nary child has included expres­sions of many of the emo­tions that sur­round the pur­suit of “per­sonal ful­fill­ment”, but are usu­ally excluded from its pro­gram­matic con­tent.  Many of the slo­gans express anx­i­ety, self-doubt, self-criticism and self-deprecation even as they main­tain their brightly opti­mistic pro­mo­tional atti­tudes.    Polo has cre­ated a self-help phi­los­o­phy that pro­motes the neg­a­tive on par with the pos­i­tive.   When you think about it, that’s all that any self-help phi­los­o­phy does.

The result is an uneasy sense of ambiva­lence that draws out and empha­sizes an uncer­tainty at the heart of much of this lan­guage.  Pos­i­tive state­ments take on a more men­ac­ing, and self con­flicted aspect.  The phrase “Win­ning not Whin­ing”, begins to look like bul­ly­ing, posi­tioned as it is beneath the droop­ing words “Sad Sac”.  These con­flicts and con­tra­dic­tions mul­ti­ply, pro­duc­ing a field of dis­so­nance, each work dis­rupt­ing the smooth func­tion­ing of the oth­ers, until you can­not be sure of how to read any of it.   The result is a dis­cur­sive flat­ness that mir­rors the visual flat­ness of the paint­ings.  The reader, like the viewer, is unable to dis­cover any depths of mean­ing into which they can project them­selves and this lack of a coher­ent, uni­fied sub­ject leaves the viewer ric­o­chet­ing between the var­i­ous unten­able sub­ject positions.

It felt as though the flat­ness of the pic­ture plane had some­how infected the sub­ject posi­tion of the viewer, and that where I stood look­ing at the work was as lim­ited in dimen­sion as the pic­ture plane of the objects I exam­ined.    There is some evi­dence that this is exactly what Polo had intended for me.  The cover of the cat­a­logue, for instance, is a print of one of the works that has been made into but­ton.  You can actu­ally stand in front of the work, wear­ing one of the works as a (flat) badge of the sub­ject posi­tion it per­mits (and dis­rupts).  This is taken fur­ther in a side room, dressed up as a the­atre, in which round paint­ings of var­i­ous crude, flatly ren­dered faces are arranged in depth as though sit­ting in the audi­ence, all fac­ing a sin­gle red paint­ing with the name tony writ­ten in black that hangs on the far wall.   The para­dox of paint­ings of human faces fac­ing a paint­ing of lan­guage estab­lishes a mis en abyme, in which sub­jec­tiv­ity ric­o­chets between the two posi­tions.  Where does the viewer stand?  In the posi­tion of dis­course (and dis­courser), look­ing at the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of faces, or in the posi­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tion look­ing at dis­course? Again Tom doesn’t allow us a com­fort­able place to sit and we are left float­ing, home­less between the two.