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Reviews/Fringe World Festival/Visual Art

Summer’s a world of dark threats

26 January 2021

Craig McKeough welcomes the chance to see master storyteller Shaun Tan’s illustrations up close in ‘Rules of Summer’.

‘Rules of Summer’, Shaun Tan ·
Ellenbrook Arts, 22 January, 2021 ·

Shaun Tan mines his own childhood story of endless summer days – where imagination is allowed, even forced, to run wild – to produce the rich amalgam of nostalgia and fantasy that is “Rules of Summer”.

This is not a familiar Western Australian summer scene of days at the beach or hanging out at the skatepark. Tan, who grew up in Perth’s northern suburbs, conjures a world where two boys, seemingly without adult support, face a world of dark threats, where the security of home is never assured and only a set of obscure aphorisms – the Rules of Summer – provide a wafer-thin form of protection.

If you loved Tan’s Rules of Summer book, published in 2013, this exhibition is a welcome opportunity to examine up close his evocative illustrations. And they work just as well as an engaging narrative on the gallery walls as they do on the page. The intricate detail of the oil paintings is revealed, and we can appreciate fully the technical skills of the artist – with his vigorous brushstrokes and the thick impasto qualities of the paint – as well as his prowess as a storyteller.

Shaun Tan’s illustrations from ‘Rules of Summer’ give adults and children plenty to talk about. Photo: Sean Bradsell

The way the Ellenbrook gallery has hung the exhibition makes knowing where to start the story a little confusing, but the first rule in the series sets the scene: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” The warning is accompanied by an image of a giant red rabbit lurking menacingly in a laneway, eyeing a single red sock on a line in an otherwise bare suburban yard. The two boys are huddled behind the fence, the elder with his arm around the younger, his other hand over his mouth. Make no mistake, the threat is genuine, and there are real repercussions for those who transgress.

The book Rules of Summer is a story of the relationship between these brothers, and the thin, elastic line that separates love and hate. In Tan’s imagined world, these opposite states are taken to their extreme. The elder boy appears as an ever-present guardian in all manner of perilous situations and then, when the relationship sours and descends into violence, literally sells his younger brother to the crows.

Anyone who has had to endure a long, boring summer holiday with only a sibling for company can surely relate.

The series of terrifying images showing the unfortunate boy imprisoned in a blackened train carriage as it hurtles through a dystopian landscape, escorted by an ever-expanding murder of crows, represents the low point of the sibling bonds.

But those bonds are durable despite the enmity, and we are reminded in two of the most pleasing paintings in the collection that we should “always bring bolt cutters” and “always know the way home”.

“Rules of Summer” runs until 14 February at Ellenbrook Arts. The gallery is open from 10am to 5pm from Wednesday to Saturday, and from 1 to 5pm on Sundays.

Pictured top: ‘Grasslands’ (2012), from Shaun Tan’s exhibition, ‘Rules of Summer’.


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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

Past Articles

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