Clinton Nain is a shape-shifter. Predictability isn’t something you should expect from an artist who has been identified closely with the Torres Strait despite being born in Melbourne of mixed Ku-Ku Aboriginal, Meriam Mer, Danish and Irish ancestry and trained in Western art ways at the VCA and COFA. Since then he’s danced his art, he’s conceptualised his art, he’s queered his art, and he’s now hurling acrylic paint at the canvas in a dynamic expressionist way.

Throughout these mutations, he has remained firmly welded to the Blak political cause.

As Gary Lee puts it in the catalogue for the 2000 Adelaide Biennial dedicated to Indigenous art, Nain reignites the black, resisting and reworking outdated but persistent white hopes, masterfully undermining that very persistency itself. He puts paid to the sanitised, pretty art and throws it in the white face of complacency.

I think Lee was particularly enthused about Nain’s painting, ‘King Dick’ (1999) in which a black penis undeniably overshadows the white one beside it!

More delicate commentators often associate Nain with the works he made in the mid-90s for galleries such as Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne and Hogarth in Sydney using bitumen and bleach, an uneasy combination of materials that would have been found on Aboriginal missions and reserves. White King was, of course, his favourite brand of bleach, employed to overcome his works’ abstract appearance with a mottled calligraphy that had political bite, creating clear messages about the colonial history of this country. In the show, ‘White King, Blak Queen‘, he wrote, We have a fear of stains. They must be removed, bleached out with White King. But the shadows, the memories remain. Bleach usually turns things white, but whitewashing Blackness “ chaotically “ makes only stains and shadows.

At Art Atrium in Sydney now (via Sherman Galleries), Nain is moving inward from the skin to the deepest, darkest and most sinister side of the mind, as he put it at the opening of ‘Passive-Aggressive Dream’ on Saturday.

This poem (?) comes with the art:
Passive – Aggressive is an adjective/It can only be kept in ones inner mind/It is only thought and of ones behaviour that passive-aggressive energies can be released into our realities/In turn making it something tangible for us to believe it is real and see and or feel/The human mind has the ability to make a conscious decision and behaving passive or aggressive. With the capabilities of being both at the same time, disguising one as the other/Or is it all just a dream until you awake?

Looking at the bold canvases which almost overwhelm the small spaces of the gallery, my first thought was mid-career Tuckson “ the secret works that Australia’s greatest Abstract Expressionist created when he’d tried most of the 20th Century’s art styles and found them wanting, but before he narrowed his focus down to his last and most demanding minimalist stroke-making. For Tony Tuckson went through a process of emptying his mind as, for an eternity, he faced each blank canvas across his studio in order to concentrate only on gesture and colour before he attacked each one.

Clinton Nain, on the other hand, must go through a process of balancing his mind between the extremes of aggression and passivity in order to achieve the rival layers of colour and texture that suggest the hardness of the one to contrast with the softness of its challenger. The balances isn’t always equal, of course. The power of scything strokes in black, red or green sometimes defeats the silver of passivity in the background “ and vice versa.

As Nain explained at the opening, the continuing failure of governments and society to tackle the disasters of Indigenous health, housing, suicide rates and deaths in custody have almost allowed them to become an acceptable norm. But not in his mind when something like the events at the Don Dale Correction Centre in Darwin hit like a hurricane and make it impossible to consent to passivity as any sort of answer.

As Djon Mundine extolled in an opening address, The very thickness of paint layering in Clinton’s work asserts his wearing of Malcolm X’s great quote as a badge of honour: I’m a man who believes that I died 20 years ago. And I live like a man who is dead already. I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything.

In December, Nain will be in a group of Australian artists undertaking the first mission of the Australia China Art & Culture Foundation to a 3 day Silk Road Festival in Quanzhou, Fujian Province. The Foundation is a project of Art Atrium’s director, Simon Chan, chaired by Sinologist Edmund Capon. The other artists involved are Jason Benjamin, Tim Johnson, Fiona Lowry & the Tiwi Islands’ Maria Josette Orsto.