Emma Geliot's picture

 Sam Worthington. Parapraxis (2015), Helen Bur. Image: Sam Worthington.

Smoke Without Fire, the joint exhibition of The Abacus' own Helen Bur and Sam Worthington, lifts the veil on this smoke-screened dystopian dream we somewhat blindly walk through. Francesca Donovan reviews.

Smoke bombs crackle and pop, their foggy trails dissipating into the warm summer air. The clash of C I T I E S' cymbals and Beresford Hammond's plink of strings provide an undercurrent to the energetic buzz of The Abacus on the opening night of Smoke Without Fire. There is revelry and politics and understated anarchy in the air as observers clamour to take in every detail of this evening's assault on the senses; an exhibition that examines control, ritual and the uncanny.

Until The Fuzz show up. Yes, in a disheartening moment of reality reflecting art (or vice versa, depending on how you look at it), the private view was called to a close due to licensing laws - or some other mysterious bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. The two artists, Helen Bur and Sam Worthington (aka. Colour Doomed) were taken to an Abacus back room and questioned for an hour on the nature of the gathering. Perhaps the members of the police force were aware of the irony at this turn of events.Perhaps not. Besides Bur and Worthington missing most of the fun of their own private view, the incident was a disturbing parallel; perfectly illustrative of the depictions of control painted onto the walls of The Abacus. It could have been orchestrated as an artistic stunt, YBA-style, it was so serendipitous. Unfortunately though, for Bur and Worthington, it was not.

It is this kind of action that fascinates the two artists and Smoke Without Fire is suffused with feelings of unrest. Many of the works - created specifically for this show - are dark and maudlin; true to Worthington's style. The masked figure in Head Hunt would not look out of place among a collection of Slipknot album artwork. The small and yet powerfully confrontational portrait of a boy wearing bunny ears, Cuts, is reminiscent of the quietly dangerous despondent youthof early millennial films such as Donnie Darko. The figures themselves are painted with finesse and fine detail, while the abstract backdrops position them in a kind of canvas no man's land, leaving you with a sense of displacement. Worthington constructed a video installation for the collaborative exhibition: Makeshift splices clips of protest and war through a human narrative - a journey on which thoughts are overlaid, permeated by dark imagery and frank torment - accompanied by pulsating, metallic soundscapes. It is rather harrowing but, ultimately, all the clips are truthful scenes. I overheard one viewer exclaim, "That's a bit extreme!" And that's exactly the point.

Worthington demonstrates his creative processes on a static level in his series of five line drawings; the works display Durer-esque skill and Hogarthian anthropological attention to detail. Using just fine liner on paper, Worthington achieves depth and light, while the drawings are dark in their subject matter. Whole, Portrait 1, Schizoid 1, Tax and Schizoid 2 examine man's anxieties, focus, depravity and despair in microscopic scale.

 Sam Worthington. Ballast (2015), Sam Worthington. Image: Sam Worthington.


Helen Bur's Curb Series is similarly inspired by collective human nature and our movements in society. Where Worthington zooms in, up close and personal, Bur stands back and views us all from afar.Her stance is more complex than mere detached voyeurism, allowing a truth in portrayal that prompts reflection. The watercolours, in muted pastel tones, feature men, women and children safe in their anonymous, expressionless gazes and interchangeable gestures, disappearing into the masses. The first in the series of watercolours has been translated into a mural with a surprising delicacy. It is eerie to watch people passing by the windows of The Abacus, mirroring the nameless figures Bur has painted onto the walls. On the floor below the mural there lies a body-shaped gap, a chalk outline at a crime scene.

Many of the works in Smoke Without Fire began life as a google image search. Both Bur and Worthington's creative processes come from a place of observation and research. The images they use and develop evoke a strange sense of d j vu: they draw on the common iconography used in the media to convey scenes of protest and collective rituals, sensationalist and finger-pointing in nature.

Victim of Circumstance, Bur's oil on canvas, is one of the few instances in which she paints a known figure; a friend. The man's piercing blue gaze is challenging and powerless in equal measure, staring out as strong hands encroach on his space, weaving and manipulating sticks into his hair, playing with him as he were a toy. There is a strange disparity between his physical vulnerability and his emotional strength; he almost looks like a tribal warrior, succumbing to ancient rituals.

Bur and Worthington have both confessed to becoming more political in recent years. The elevated consideration, and indeed wariness, for societal systems of control is evident in Smoke Without Fire. The exhibition is charged with unrest, in its physicality and its commentary. This is the first time Bur and Worthington have shown together - despite having curated and facilitated other artists' works in unison as The Modern Alchemists for Empty Walls festival. It is impressive to see how their practices diverge, running parallel to each other under the same thematic umbrella, while still retaining individual artistic style. The joint exhibition is thoughtfully curated; the practices are intermingled as though Bur and Worthington are in deep conversation, reacting and responding to the other.

In Bur's Stigmergy, the exhibition comes to a head. A cloud of thick, pale smoke pushes masked figures to the outskirts of the canvas, cowering away from the attack. The scene is not fictitious. It is not uncommon. It is almost unsurprising. We are emotionally immune to the smoke without fire, expelled from a smoke bomb, utilised to subdue the masses.

The adage tell us there is no smoke without fire. In fact, in this contemporary controlled and patrolled age, the statement is no longer true. The work of Bur and Worthington - in their depictions of a familiar, uneasy militarised society - makes the point.

Smoke Without Fire runs from 10 - 26 July