Frontier (Polystyrene house) 

Bruce James, 1998
in 'Every dream home, an artwork'
Spectrum Arts, Sydney Morning Herald

(The following article reviewed three artists, the text has been edited)

In my efforts to make a point about the film The Boys in last week’s column…

The Boys has preoccupied me to such an extent that I am beyond reasonable caution or wise retreat. As a filmic experience, months later, it creeps up from behind, puts a hood over your head and frogmarches you to an unspoken fate just out of frame.

From the point of view of art, or scenic design, more accurately, it conveys its vision of suburban reality through a highly abstract picturing of wall surfaces, fittings and furniture, inoffensive in every respect save the crucial one of their crippling banality. These details of store-bought decor are made to rhyme forensically with atrocities that transpire elsewhere and undisclosed, adding an unsettling geometry to events, if not a grid. In all likelihood for that reason, when Helen Garner reviewed the film on its release, she invoked Mondrian.

As a reader, no less than an art lover, I found it shocking to make the mental association between the most utopian of modernist painters and this most dystopic of modern subjects. Yet Gardner’s arty comparison was reasonable. And forceful, too. She drove it home like a knife.

Home. That word is of the essence in a number of recent exhibitions in Sydney. It’s also the word that seeps up from the rotted heart of the movie. For the boys of the title, home was the site of a thwarted kind of succouring, even love, as well as a well-spring of alienation, misogyny, violence and unacknowledged self-loathing. When Rowan Woods shot the film, his cast and crew commandeered a real house, a strategy that I imagine allowed its proportions and overall configuration to dictate dramatic action, and sometimes the lack of it.

When I first encountered the artist Mathieu Gallois’s plan to construct a replica project home in Blair Athol, now a residential development of 1,500 lots near the centre of Campbelltown, I was superficially reminded of The Boys. My prejudices operated powerfully to dislike the work, and also the fear which is my gut reaction to suburbia. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Gallois contracted as a sometime fabricator in the models department at Fox Studios, so there was prescience in my response, at least. He proposed to erect a full-scale façade in carefully crafted polystyrene, an impenetrable blank of a house, a mask, which would stand provocatively in the company of dream homes.

Basing his structure on an existing house at Blair Athol, he proceeded to negotiate the arrival of this cuckoo with the developers and nearby owners. With their support, and with unjudgmental sponsorship from local building and industrial suppliers, Gallois and his helpers set to work. If the Campbelltown community was tolerant of the young artist with the wacky ideas, the natural elements, by contrast, were unkind. A wind storm demolished the structure the day it went up. Rain saturated the materials, dampened hopes. Several attempts later, Frontier finally rose from the grassy hill-slope of the estate. It survived long enough to be visited by the curious many – including a bride and groom paying respects to their nearly completed love nest next door – and the initiated few; long enough too, for Gallois to document its tentative stay upon the stage of Australian art and architecture.

Though I saw his homage to Home Beautiful in its wrecked condition, it moved and challenged me greatly. What became apparent, seeing Frontier in its homey context, was its spiritual aspect. In this, it differed fundamentally from the three-bedroom hell-hole that featured in The Boys. Photographs show a monument as white and gleaming as a palace, a ticky-tacky Taj Mahal. It wasn’t a dream home, but it boasted the qualities of a dream. It was memory re-imagined into substance as real estate. The emptiness and ugliness of suburbia were certainly connoted, nowhere more plainly than in the cheap-as-chips elevation and insulting faux-porch, but Frontier gestured to a humble breed of beauty, despite itself.

In an unpublished statement, Gallois confessed to being more affected by the work than he had expected. Perhaps he approached it, as I did, with the jaded cool of an art professional, only to find himself seduced by sentiments silent, ancient and strange. Home goes very deep in us. Whether we solicit it or not – and some of us run the other way at the first sign of a gum-lined cul-de-sac or a kerb-side letterbox – home has a way of taking us unawares. Even if we come from “bad” or “broken” homes, we still cling to the possibility of happy nurture. Frontier was a polystyrene vouchsafe of that possibility.


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