It’s uncanny to see an exhibition by John Citizen. I like to think I have good taste in contemporary design, particularly modernist minimal interior design, and Citizen’s paintings are enticing; he could furnish my apartment any day. The temptation to buy was overwhelming – I agonised over ‘Blue Vase’ but found them too disturbing: what’s with the contrasting feature walls or the colours – such a discordant palette! How could you live with the coloured people – that is the paintings within the paintings? Oversized and outlandish, these figures disrupt the formal tone of the living spaces. Everything about Citizen’s Coloured People is disconcerting: painted in outline they are patchily described and inharmoniously rendered with grey clothes and lurid, almost sickly faces. It is as if Citizen has based them on second or third hand degraded reproductions, you would not want to be one of his subjects!
The creator of these ‘Party People’ has been playful also, including in his interiors versions of works painted as Gordon Bennett (ooh, should I let the cat out of the bag??). These mini simulations — the striped paintings or footprint rug — are at home in their contexts, being marketable culture that evokes connections with Australian indigenous art, American abstract painting or the 1940s textile and furnishing patterns by Margaret Preston that relied on Indigenous art for its inspiration. Citizen’s art looks good but it never lets you forget that we all inhabit each other’s cultural space.
Conveying a static temporality, Citizen’s interiors are reminiscent of paintings by Vermeer, although his is a very contemporary stillness or emptiness. Even the titles are frozen, registering specific dates. By contrast with Vermeer’s sense of poetry, John Citizen displays the values currently pervading both the spaces of art and the private sphere. Commerce and governance are our architects. Sensuous beauty and physical or emotional pleasure are distilled through material illusion and corporate strategy, market culture supporting even the cannibalisation of originality.
While recognising there is a sense of humour at work here, Citizen is a term to be taken seriously. It acknowledges a communal membership and the framework of systems determining personal and national rights and responsibilities, structures that can also easily be undermined; just recall the recent proposals for thinking about our history
Rather than playing the joker, John Citizen acts the devil’s advocate in the lounge room and the spaces we inhabit. These paintings evidence how the appropriation of culture can be applied to lift the veil on the representation of others and how the desire for a fashionably conservative style is repeatedly accommodated over values enabling a civil yet diversely populated domicile.
– Jane CitizenGordon Bennett’s profile