“I like the sickliness of it, the artificiality,” says Rob McLeish. He is talking about the colour of swimming pools, that distinctive glassy aqua suggestive of sterility and the smell of chlorine. It is a colour that defines his new exhibition Distortions. Furthermore, depictions of swimming pool structures themselves also feature heavily in the show, which is a thought-provoking and technically ambitious series of 60 works at Neon Parc – Brunswick in Melbourne.
Sickliness and artificiality are key themes across Distortions, a delightful yet disturbingly weird exhibition of drawings from Melbourne-born McLeish, who up until now has been best known for working with sculpture and collage. His swimming pools are just one recurring motif among many in a show that explores some of the more obscure corners of culture – particularly in the online world – toying with and reinterpreting imagery as well as presenting slices of media, entertainment and leisure in fascinatingly warped ways. Cartoon characters feature strongly, as does digitally generated pornography.
“Swimming pools have been a motif of mine for a long time,” says McLeish. “I’m drawn to the aesthetic and formal qualities of pools – surface, geometry, colour – which I see as having interesting correlations to minimalist sculpture, combined with leisure, opulence, desire and aspirations of perfection.
“A swimming pool can be seen as a distortion of a naturally occurring body of water. Likewise, [cartoon character] Tweety can be seen as a distorted depiction of a bird, and the digitally generated pornographic imagery in the show can be seen as a distorted depiction of human anatomy and sexuality. All the different elements in the show are in conversation with each other.”
‘Pregfurs’ are also important in McLeish’s visual language in Distortions. These are a sub-category of the popular ‘furry fandom’ online subculture that celebrates anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities and physical traits. A pregfur is essentially a heavily pregnant version of such a character. “The pregfur subculture fetishizes and distorts the physical transformation that occurs during pregnancy,” says McLeish. “It’s quite bizarre, obscure subject matter but it fits into the show nicely.”
Creating an exhibition exclusively made up of drawings has been a new experience for McLeish. The large number of works in the show has offered a freedom of expression that was not available when working with sculpture.
As McLeish explains, having an exhibition of drawings is more flexible “in that there is less investment in any single work, so I can try more things without it being such a disaster if they don’t work out. The sheer number of works also makes it feel quite different.”
This renewed licence to experiment perhaps ties into, and has fed, the overarching theme of distortion, which, McLeish emphasises, “manifests in many forms: physical, psychological, sexual, cultural.” And he is aware that the mixture of unhinged cartoon characters, pregfurs, pornography and that relentless aqua blue (evocative of photographic cyanotypes) can be quite an overwhelming visual assault.
“There’s an intensity that comes from only using one medium in one colour. And the scope of detail in the drawings en masse is also pretty intense.”