In the late 80s and 90s I remember seeing paintings by Mental As Anything guitarist and artist, Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) hanging at the Melbourne Art Fair. The little paintings of suburban landscapes with a mood of foreboding, the brooding sky hang over the isolated houses set in empty landscapes. They felt like a relief amongst so much large, pretentious and non-representational paintings at the Art Fair.
Chris O’Doherty considered his work Dada rather than Surrealism but basically he is a popular artist. When he started painting the term “pop surrealism” hadn’t been invented. O’Doherty’s pop surrealism was a cross over hit for rock musician, the high art market, as well as, the rag trade with the surf wear images.
In 1986 O’Doherty joined the irreverent Australian design label Mambo. He was one of the first generation of artists that created fashion from his illustration, a trend that has continued with street artists creating images for fashion labels. Crossover artists have been a feature of the post-modern breakdown of barriers dividing cultures and sub-cultures. O’Doherty’s crossover didn’t impress everyone; the writer, Patrick White, an early collector of O’Doherty’s landscapes didn’t like his Mambo work.
Currently there is are two exhibitions featuring the work of Chris O’Doherty on in Melbourne: Hallucinatory Anthropomorphism is at 45 Downstairs, Flinders Lane, Melbourne and Mambo: 30 years of shelf-indulgence is in the NGV Studio at Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia in Fed Square.
Hallucinatory Anthropomorphism is a large exhibition of almost one hundred recent works on paper by Chris O’Doherty. Both aspects of O’Doherty’s art are presented: his atmospheric landscapes and his pop surrealism. Many of the works build on his established iconography of three eyed motorcycle riding Jesus, mutant mixes of kiwis and kangaroos and one eyed trees.
Mambo: 30 years of shelf-indulgence has more work by Chris O’Doherty along with the other artists who worked for Mambo. Curated by Wayne Golding, a former Mambo ‘ideas man’ and t-shirt collector Eddie Zammit. This is not the first exhibition at NGV Studio that Zammit has been involved in; TEES: Exposing Melbourne’s T-shirt culture in 2012 displayed part of his extensive t-shirt collection. There is more than just Mambo merchandise (t-shirts, board shorts, shirts, posters, key chains, belt buckles, stickers watches, patches) and original art work by their designers. The most spectacular parts of the exhibition are the Mambo promotional items, the surf boards and the large sculptures by Hugh Ramage and Peter King based on the drawings of O’Doherty and Jeff Raglus.
Murray Waldren’s The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (2009, Harper Collins) is a workman-like biography of Chris O’Doherty. The large book contains too many details and not enough about his art and music; maybe you just had to be there. I would have preferred more detail about how New Zealand inspired the weirdness in Chris O’Doherty along with many of his compatriots rather than more details of various gigs. Mental As Anything is depicted as an art school band, a typical feature of the 1980s and the band had two art exhibitions as a band. Like Mental As Anything and Mambo surf wear the attitude was to keep on partying until it wasn’t fun anymore. It is hard to tell from the biography if it was ever that much fun for Chris O’Doherty considering the sense of angst in his art.