essays

the flight collective

Louisa Ennis-Thomas
Curator / Co-founder
Knock Knock Contemporary Artists’ Initiative

mr featherwood and the flight collective 2013 charcoal and graphite on paper 570x750mm

The Flight Collective, current works from Melbourne-based artist, Adam Cusack, is a series of meticulously rendered charcoal drawings of varying scale. Both figurative works and object studies feature in this evolving series, which reveals a sense of Cusack’s personal symbolism and investigates themes of identity, transformation and popular consumer culture.

Surrealist influences are evident in Cusack’s dream-like imagery, melding object and human form. The main subject, recurring within the series, is a male figure with a cage-like structure in place of a head. This juxtaposition of the human form with a ribbed bird cage appears at first glance, almost comical but upon closer examination, a more serious reading emerges.

Adam Cusack’s life-long passion for graphic novels, animation and film simmers below the surface of the works. Each drawing, as it emerges in sequence, appears as though upon a storyboard in some timeless narrative. In stark monochrome, the flight collective references Cusack’s penchant for black and white photography and film.

Posing and photographing the subject is a formative element of the artist’s process, allowing for the arranging and blending of incongruous items within each composition. With a growing interest in digital media across the arts, Cusack engages with these technologies but it’s the simple materiality of traditional charcoal, which he adopts for the final production of his work.

Cusack’s finely resolved drawings belie the painful process of rendering for endless hours; the artist’s incredibly labour-intensive process becoming embedded within the creative memory of the work.

Across these drawings, the male body becomes fragmented; the central focus shifts from legs to torso to the back of the departing figure. In works such as running from shadows, the subject is seldom presented as a whole, rather viewed as though in a film close-up. Located against a stark backdrop of white, the gestures of the caged man extend beyond the picture plane, reminiscent of the action scenes of Cusack’s animated heroes.

steady ground 2014 graphite on paper 750x570mm

References to urban life appear in these works as the central figure dons the familiar garb of the urbane city-dweller, with denim jeans and Chuck Taylor’s a nod to the homogenous imagery of the fashion world. Well-worn jeans and sophisticated suiting adorn Cusack’s muse; these fashion accoutrements of popular culture are a repetitive motif.

The glossy fashion plates of the commercial world are mirrored in the taut renderings and carefully defined and arranged compositions of the flight collective. Smaller investigative works such as Divided (study) could have been lifted from the pages of a skate magazine. The lower limbs of a jean-clad youth straddling an innocuous crack in the pavement are presented in fine detail. In homage to the banal, wrinkled denim and Converse shoes are selected for reverential treatment.

The subject matter may be understated but Cusack’s approach to drawing is measured; each element carefully considered. The development of this series, extending from an early exploratory work in 2008, has seen continual refinement of the imagery presented. The initial work, Inception, is a much looser brush and ink composition, adopting Cusack’s trademark narrative approach. As the series has progressed, the intensity of detail and composition has become more complex and finely honed, resulting in the latest work, presented by Cusack as the central work in the series, tell me what you know about freedom.

No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

William Blake The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-93

The works can be viewed as a narrative sequence with mr featherwood, the central ‘character’, both self-portrait and muse. The strong stance and posturing of this figure resonates with a constrained sense of masculinity; this faceless subject, somehow caught up in the machinations of contemporary society. As the subject’s name would suggest, the artist links this figure conceptually with his interest in birds and reflections of an avian nature.

Animal symbolism in art has appeared throughout the ages. From early Egyptian art and mythology to significant references in biblical works, birds have been a potent symbol for artists, typically embodying spiritual concerns. And yet, for Cusack the imagery lends itself a more personal interpretation.

Linked with the central male figure, a crow frequently appears within Cusack’s drawings. According to the artist’s own statement, these drawings are revealing self-portraits reflecting upon innate human potential and the freedom to create. For Cusack, the crow becomes the physical manifestation of these ideals.

Flickers of memory; family history and personal symbolism underpin this series. The artist’s father and grandfather before him invested a life-time of interest in flight; aviation engineers with a fascination with what is possible and the technical know-how to achieve this feat. From childhood, Cusack watched
on and the potentiality of flight continues to hold a personal resonance, which is revealed within his current practice.

raven bone feather 2013 graphite on paper 500x500mm

Cusack’s bird is never caged and yet there are hints at past confinement. In tell me what you know about freedom, the crow stares steadfastly at his viewer, challenging us boldly with his defiant gaze. Beyond the shackles of the cage, the bird/artist is free to explore a sense of self and the potential to pursue some unchartered path of his own determination. And yet, ironically, the man himself is both cage and bird; both his own tormentor and his relief.

In Cusack’s smaller object studies, the form of the bird is investigated more closely. The anatomy of skull and wing are selected for detailed examination. Like his paternal predecessors, his interest lies in the intricate structure and physical potential of the form.

The recent rise in realism and hyperrealism in the contemporary art world is reflected in these works from Cusack with their velvet blacks and intricate detail. His ability to convey lush textural variety adds substantial depth to the work and yet what we see is not entirely real; the human figure is transformed.
mr featherwood is part man, part mannequin. At times, a hollow torso is revealed and yet, the lavish folds of clothing hint at something decidedly more life-like.

The works of Patricia Piccinini come to mind when reflecting upon the complex relationship between what is real and what is constructed within the realms of contemporary culture. Her works challenge our perception of the artificial versus the natural. Drawing upon the shiny appeal of consumer products for inspiration, her work, The Lovers (2011) fuses the seductive imagery of the automobile industry with animalistic qualities. This sculpture takes the form of an intertwined coupling of enamoured motor scooters, adopting the sensual and almost visceral qualities of animal forms. Piccinini frequently attributes mechanical ensembles with a sense of the living.

Conversely, Cusack’s mr featherwood is very much a man and yet with his caged cranium devoid of brain, mouth and sense organs, he becomes less life-like and more automated, blurring the delineation between man and machine. While Piccinini breathes life into her tactile creations, Cusack challenges us to accept the fantastical and to see beyond what is real.

Contemporary practice has seen a renewed interest in hand-crafted or produced work. In spite of the rise of digital technologies and global access to photography, realism in art maintains its appeal. The hand of the artist re-emerges in works which embrace technical virtuosity.

running from shadows 2014 charcoal on paper 570x750mm (Finalist – 2014 Paul Guest Drawing Prize)

Aligned with works from other contemporary Australian artists exploring figurative realism, Adam Cusack’s the flight collective shares its approach with artists such as Michael Zavros and Kim Buck; Natasha Bieniek also, albeit on an infinitely smaller scale.
Cusack shares with Zavros, his interest in the appropriation of imagery from popular culture and a sense of performance, where compositions are staged as though on a film set. Fellow realist, Kim Buck’s 2013 series, Lithology, engages her dynamic use of the human figure as a metaphor for the ever-changing landscape, embracing the power and fluidity of movement. Like Buck, Cusack’s figures remain posed and ready for action, even levitating from the ground. They are dynamic but caught in a frozen moment like an action still from an animation sequence. While Buck’s figures are entirely human, Cusack’s ‘mannequin man’ appears to be flesh but remains a shell.

It is a tease; the temptation to pursue the unachievable. Ultimately, flight makes the impossible possible.

Louisa Ennis-Thomas, 2015

Adam Cusack disrupts the human form, playing upon shifting imagery but it is his underlying interest in the freedom of flight which resonates most strongly throughout these works. The notion of flight has both wondrous and yet devastating connotations.

As with Icarus and his misadventures with the sun, if we venture too close,we may be burnt. And yet the sweet desire to soar free is always there, just as the artist savours the freedom of personal creativity.

the wind blows 2015 charcoal on paper 570x750mm

suggested worlds

Dr Jonathan McBurnie
Director, Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts

Writing about drawing is something I have slowly come to enjoy, not because it is profound, or even particularly revelatory, but because it is so entertaining. I chuckle to myself, turning phrases around in my mind, realizing just how far off the mark words can sometimes be. Drawing is for me an incredibly rewarding experience, which floods out into other parts of my life. The art I enjoy most will display an understanding of the discipline, even if it isn’t a drawing. The music I listen to is largely based on whether it works for me in the studio. When I admire a figure, or contemplate a face, even a piece of fruit, I am thinking of how I would draw it, where I would start the first line, how I could describe it. Would it be a breezy contour description, or a labored, chunky thicket of hatchings and marks? Would I exaggerate those hips a little? That scar? How would I describe that particular texture of the skin?

The inherent tension of drawing, of the real and the unreal, manifests throughout each stage in its own development. Through the physical execution of drawings, Adam Cusack’s work explores the tactile, sensual aspects of mark making, creating a body of work that incorporates many of the meditative approaches that cannot always be quantified in terms exterior to the experience of making them. By adhering to representation,
but deviating with imagery which evokes a kind of magical realism ~ cages for heads, shimmering white light, a peppering of symbols alluding to time ~ the work is both sincere and self-effacing, concealing its complexity by way of revealing its own secrets. These works revel in their own narrative ambiguity, demanding speculative interpretation, rather than a fixed reading.

The work is both sincere and self-effacing, concealing its complexity by way of revealing its own secrets. These works revel in their own narrative ambiguity, demanding speculative interpretation, rather than a fixed reading.

Dr Jonathan McBurnie 2017

I recently completed a thesis on the matter of drawing, and why we still do it in a world in which we no longer technically need to. It was a lot easier to write than one might think; drawing is a profoundly tactile, sensual experience. The skritch skritch skritch of a pen nib on rough paper, the slap of wet media, the dusty, the bottomless carbon obsidian of charcoal. Drawing, in its way, justifies itself. It constantly evolves as a discipline according to human thought and technological development. Drawing continues to operate within a continuum of human activity, enabled by technological innovation, suspending the fundamental truth of drawing inherent in its unrepeatability.

I get asked a lot about subject matter, and its inherent eroticism, often. Yes, it is a case of wanting to capture something fascinating to look at in a work. In a way, this is the easy part, for every artist is defined not through their skill level, their sales or patience for the schmooze, but by their inability to let certain things go; we are defined by our obsessions. Effective conveyance of some kind of message isn’t necessarily where the juice is. There is a place, a kind of half-conscious, slightly spaced out place that one can enter where problem solving and reflection all coalesce into some kind of process. Some people call it ‘flow’, or ‘the zone’. It’s not always easy to get there, but once you’re in, it is incredibly satisfying.

Opposing the monocultural force of the virtual world, but embracing its interconnectivity, drawing seeks to evoke through its imagery a questing, unfulfillable narrative desire in its viewers, while simultaneously satisfying their appetites for the visceral, physical and primal aspects of mark making. This is where Cusack’s work sits, shimmering between suggested worlds, and our very real and tactile world, almost vibrating off the paper.