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Acclaimed NYC-based multimedia artist TV Moore brings his immersive work home to Australia. By Kate Holden.

The complex art of TV Moore comes to Melbourne’s ACCA

Multimedia artist TV Moore.
Credit: CHASE C. MIDDLETON

TV Moore sucks on a cigarette. Crumpled soft-pack, in and out of his top pocket. He is talking about art schools. United States courses that cost as much as a Harvard business degree. About his time at CalArts outside Hollywood, perhaps the world’s most prestigious art school. One 12-hour class, “like jail”, pure critical discussion, nonstop theory by Deleuze and Guattari: the hardest thing he’s ever done. He is talking about how the high-school dropout from Canberra ended up in a crit tute on the other side of the word.

“Art’s become the coolest thing in the world now,” TV Moore continues, his name a shortened version of Timothy Vernon. “Ten years ago you were a weirdo, or you were goofy; now everyone’s wearing Prada, everyone’s in, it’s the coolest party, everyone’s rich…” He stubs out another cigarette. “Helicopters in Venice…” Moore isn’t wearing Prada. He’s in a dirty baseball cap, in a windcheater and shapeless flapping jacket, large runners and jeans. Looks something like Dickie Knee. He’s doing well to get dressed at all: the man is visiting Melbourne to work on the last preparations for not one but two shows, and a book of his art. He is busy, voluble, courteous, intense. “A few years ago when I was selling pieces, when I was younger, I was saying to everyone, ‘This is ridiculous, this can’t last.’ I went to America at such a perfect time… There’s no centre anymore. We’re close to Asia. Hong Kong is incredible. New York is amazing…” 

It swiftly becomes apparent that TV Moore is a mix of the pragmatic and the fabulist: the exemplar contemporary artist. He speaks cynically of the business he’s in – “these aren’t spiritual relationships; art is so unregulated, it’s a racket” – but produces works of feeling, wistful nostalgia and sharp satire. The slickness of his practice enables the wantonness of his instincts. 

He grew up in the suburbs, imagination scooting off the brick fences and wide flat parklands. No middle-class angst; rather, “an ongoing archive of wonder”. Boys’ school gave him confidence and comedy. “That’s all I got from that experience… Absurd and funny. So I’ve never taken anything seriously. I’m still a kid. What are the rules? You’ve got to have rules?”

Now he speaks in a flattened American accent, hard-knuckle delivery, wistful questions at the end of every sentence. He says startling New York-style things, such as “My vagina is so open right now” and “I’m a positron, not a negatron”. Wide-set Finnish eyes, a mark of distant heritage; rusty scruff of beard; frequent suckings of cigarettes. He talks in enthused non sequiturs: “I had crazy confidence. I lost my ego and stopped at that. You can’t eat fucking steak every day. You want wizardry.” 

And wizardry is what he does for a living. He’s been in this sharp art world for a long time now: exhibitions everywhere, praise from legends, blowing bubbles of gorgeousness into galleries from Lithuania to Santa Monica, Sydney’s Cockatoo Island to Manila. He’s in all the major collections in Australia, done all the big shows and galleries. 

For a couple of years he stepped away, “just read and travelled and hung out”. No art at all. Did not make a thing. Then out of nowhere the video artist started making huge photographic paintings – he cracked the code, as a friend put it, and picked up the newest technology of digital art and design. “A week later I was in America,” he says. “And happy.” 

Moore’s watchword these days is loose. “I don’t hold the ball too tight at all. You can’t force that shit out. It just has to come. Even with deadlines. You have to be loose about it. Even this show. It’s a nice trusting place to be, to have something this big, and just stay loose.” 

He has returned from New York for the major With Love & Squalor at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the show’s title from J. D. Salinger. He has a smaller show, too, at Station Gallery in Melbourne, called Three Paintings. They follow last year’s Rum Jungle in Campbelltown, Sydney, in which he demonstrated his adoration of colour, impersonation (in 2009’s What say u? Wii, lip-synching a young boy’s account of gaming fandom) and perpetual, wriggly insistence on further and further levels of reification and reiteration (that gaming performance is presented on video; the screen hung on a wall like a painting; the wall itself painted an arresting green). The new works will include and amplify this latest ecstasy of Deleuzian refraction. 

In the white-walled haven of ACCA, a vast, empty room is about to become terrifying. Sealing us in with a soundtrack of internet poetry and dentist-room ambient drone, TV Moore is going to have the place tiled from floor to ceiling in reference to another Salinger story, “Teddy”, and the hallucinatory shock of the story’s ending. A precocious child calmly foretells his own death in a swimming pool; departs for a swimming lesson; a few minutes later, there is heard from the pool “an all-piercing, sustained scream – clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls”. These sentences, Moore says, “frightened the shit out of me because it’s just a full stop. Did he just die? Like, what? So I’ve tiled this whole space, which is like an ode to that and that essence, to that pool. But it’s subtle. So it’s a feeling again, it’s a feeling.” 

That claustrophobic resonance is an apposite reference point, for Moore is a devotee of reverberation and its weird terror. His splendid career – from Australia to New York – has been increasingly preoccupied with echoes, reflection, repetition, multiplication and overlays. His paintings, such as the bright daubs of colour, often described as “lurid”, of his Rum Jungle exhibition, squirm impasto upon impasto; his famous video works broadcast from plural television sets and screens, facing each other or disarrayed in empty rooms; he uses cartoons and collage, decal effects and mimicry, slathered-on theatre make-up, distorting homages and staged melodramatic re-enactments. Moore’s is a world of Borgesian doublings and refractions, piss-taking appropriations and pop-culture pastiche. It is funny, macabre, wayward and unsettling. Step inside a Moore room, and you will walk out to the mental echo of a modern scream – or a just-kidding cackle – from tiled walls. He will deny it if asked, and assure us modestly that his work is merely a reflection of himself, “a fucked-up broken art iPod in my head”, but TV Moore rather enjoys messing with our realities. He says with satisfaction, “I look at the world as a toyshop now. It’s mine.”

Moore will frequently use tropes and iconography from childhood – recently, old-fashioned cartoons – but flights of fancy produce serious works. Some might find them too cute in their mortgaging of prior greats. Others will relish the twisting of straight lines of lineage into curls. His 2014 show # E N Y A at Roslyn Oxley9 included The Way Things Grow, a hand-drawn Disney-style animated homage to the classic 1987 film, The Way Things Go, of kinetic chain reaction by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Previously he gained fame for The Neddy Project (2001-04): filmed renditions of the biography of criminal Neddy Smith, lavish with crude cardboard props, mixed with an account of the life of Ned Kelly. Transformative restagings are a big thing with Moore: in the new ACCA show there is a work, Vin-ish, a computer-generated rendition of Vin Diesel in tears, based on YouTube footage of the actor. The rendered fake Vin is crude but detailed, his tears viscous and helplessly pouring. Moore isn’t mocking male emotion, but using a clownish digital performance of it to suggest inversely that even computers, even machines, have feelings, just as uber-macho commercial actors do. The piece is also, inevitably, another homage, to Bas Jan Ader’s film I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971), featuring the artist silently weeping. 

The hallowed ideas on repetition and difference of Deleuze, as well as Baudrillard and Derrida, all clamour to be mentioned in relation to Moore’s work, but he digested all that stuff long ago at CalArts. You don’t need a textbook to enjoy his work. “It’s just playing,” he says. “It’s ongoing reinterpretation of gesture.” Reinterpretation of theory gestures, perhaps, as much as of the cultural and art artefacts he adjusts or venerates. What the visitor to a Moore show encounters is a very astute, acerbic sensibility that makes works – some cute, some melancholy or macabre, some hilarious or gnomic or amusing – in order to express its own preoccupations. “I look at what I want to make at any time, what interests me, what archives I have, what’s going on: I react to that and edit it and make that the work.” 

He’s a flâneur, a bricoleur – a gatherer and scavenger. “Artists are seagulls. Lots of pillaging.” With Love & Squalor will include Tripasso in Wackyland (2014), a pop-culture mash-up with Looney Tunes-esque cartoon overlays and symphonic soundtrack – garish, visually dissonant and disconcertingly mesmeric. It’s not so much that he loves cartoons, but they offer a language he can use to speak to other forms of art. The animation itself is, not insignificantly, outsourced to technicians. 

“What’s beautiful about this work,” he explains, “and the work of the past couple of years, is that it all starts very humbly – with my hand. It could be any era – well, it’s not a cave – but it starts with my hand. As the process takes off and goes, my hand starts to disappear. Then it becomes digital, it becomes more and more factory.” Is that a process of conscious elaboration? “I’m so hyperactive that I’m too impatient to watch paintings dry. So they start as traditional oil paintings. Then they might not make it to the next level, which is scanning – I do masses of scans. And then [they go on] to printing and then these sculpture things. So there’s a process involved. Starts with a painting and then my hand’s removed.” He appreciates the lineage involved: “dealing with the old, using the latest and greatest technology”. And the ambiguity of form. “Is this a painting? This is a painting, or speaks to painting. But they’re not paintings. But they are. The gesture implies that they are. The medium says they are not. But the discourse is a pictorial painting discourse. And I like that.” 

Moore is not always the merry masher-upper. There’s a place for what he calls “wrong alchemy: this gesture thing, looking at the past but without playing in the ruins, creating something completely new”. It expresses his New York savvy and his contempt for Facebook modernity. Former works have included delicate conceits such as a sculpted self-portrait, based on his description of himself to a blind woman. There are near-empty rooms refulgent with harmonious, blushing colours. His art is restless, keen, precise. There is melancholy and nostalgia there, but also imagination and defiance. “I don’t want to be the jester,” he says. “It’s trickery, but I’m not taking the piss and I’m not being ironic … but there’s magic in it.” 

“My sense of direction is sceptical,” runs one line of his computer-nonsense poetry. That may be. But cynicism is outrun by sensibility, even poetry. TV Moore, contented and confident, shrugs. “I’m an enthusiast, you know?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Mental echo". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.