Hazel Dooney

Peter Anderson, Brisbane News, 7-13 October 1998

Hazel Dooney walks the fine line between art and popular culture with innocent charm. These days it is common to find young artists whose greatest influences come from sources that most of us would assume have very little to do with serious art making. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that the line between art and other forms of visual culture is now so blurred that it is difficult to know where it is, or even if there is such a line.

In some areas of contemporary art practice, almost anything goes. But that "almost" is crucial. For while the boundaries of art may well be impossible to define, there are some things that don't quite make it - at least not for the serious aesthete.

While some artists challenge boundaries with grungy installations or obscure conceptual gestures, Hazel Dooney's art plays with a slightly trickier edge, walking the fine line between art and pop culture. The influences on Dooney's art are obvious - graffiti, cartoons, stylised graphics and illustration - but these are not what you would call the subject matter of the work.

Unlike many pop artists, or those cynical style scavengers of post-modernism, Dooney is not really commenting on the visual style of elements of popular culture; instead she simply seems to be working with them. What this simple approach produces is actually something quite sassy, a sort of pop song that is both heartfelt and yet clearly dependent on the clichés and technical tricks that make such things work - and it works here mainly because Dooney isn't trying to be too clever.

Unlike many artists who play at the edges of pop culture, there really are no secret references the viewer needs to hunt out before they can make sense of each painting, and for some, this may give the work a certain innocent charm.

Take Too Much Never Enough, for example. Here a slightly chubby blonde cherub clutching a giant heart is settled on a bed of roses, his golden winds cut off by the neat edge of the picture plane, his pure-yellow hair a tangle of stylised curls. This is a Valentine card writ large, an almost kitsch image, and yet it is presented here without cynicism, an honest gift to the viewer rather than a moment of excess or pastiche.

In this respect, we could almost say that we are seeing an example of post-post-modernism, or neo-romanticism, although, no doubt, both terms would be rejected by the artist as superficial jargon.

But this painting is almost a side story, one of just a couple of pieces that stray from the main thread of this exhibition, which is the story of "Ultra Violet".

While there is a narrative thread running through the paintings, the objective isn't to turn the gallery into a comic book, although that could be an interesting possibility to consider. Instead, what seems to be happening is that Dooney is giving us a set of moments, brief frames that make sense because they seem to be related, seem to be part of the same story.

In a way, what we lack here are establishing shots, all we have are close-ups and moments of action - like the sequence of four paintings that seems to represent the birth of the heroine.

To make her paintings, Dooney uses an approach that is not dissimilar to that used by sign writers, working with commercial paints in flat blocks of glossy colour, with each image planned in outline and each section carefully filled in. This is painting that aspires to the quality of a print, with colour evenly brushed on, and no sense of the order in which each layer was applied - everything, if you like, is equally flat, and depth is always an illusion.

And what of the story? At its most obvious, it seems to be a sort of sci-fi action adventure, about a hip young woman who might well have burst ready formed from a giant egg. This is a character with more than a bit of spunk, whose lips are always going to be just the right red, and whose smile will probably sometimes look a little like a "don't-mess-with-me" snarl, her blue-grey eyes will always stare back at you, and the outline of her jaw will necessarily be firm.

Most of the work in the exhibition appears to grow from the same roots as the Nineties girl band (or should that be grrrl band) - which means it has a slight touch of the Seventies to it as well, and is almost certainly made for television. Obviously, there's more than a streak of fantasy here, and perhaps just a touch of self-projection on the part of the artist. Yes, it's certainly pop art, but it's more influenced by Wonder Woman than Andy Warhol's Campbells Soup cans.