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Placing Things

There is so much poetry compressed into the title Kelly Austin has chosen for her exhibition at the Devenport Art Gallery it almost seems a shame to spoil it with more words. 

For those of you lucky enough to see her thoughtful and perfectly-judged collection of ceramics this short essay will be at best modestly informative: words written to accompany objects can be thought of as an aspect of exhibition design, positioning the work and allowing it to be seen in its best light; no more, and hopefully no less. 

But Austin’s ceramics, made, gathered and displayed, also have a context beyond the here and now. They belong to a conversation that has been going on for a very long time; between people and objects, function and meaning, the hand and the eye and the heart, so these words might also be of use in framing this moment and carrying its memory forward. 

In terms of genre, the ‘still life’ originally sought to invest the objects that surround us, both made and found, with a surfeit of meaning. This depiction of things, painstakingly rendered as if to convince the viewer that the unreal could indeed be real, conveyed messages both venal and moral: look upon this display of goods and marvel at my wealth; take note of the withered bloom, the candle burning low and contemplate mortality. These images, for all their verisimilitude, were not ever really about the everyday. You were meant to look beyond the surface, because that is where art begins.

In later times the rendering of forms in paint on canvas became more of an exercise in shape and colour and there was a simultaneous shift in the types of objects depicted. In cubism it might be a chair, a newspaper, the neck of a guitar and a glass of absinthe, the ‘new’ made all the more shocking by the ordinary; in the more restrained of the modernists one might find a tablecloth, a cup of tea and some flowers in a vase; the familiar, the significance of the insignificant and beauty for beauty’s sake. 

The gathering together of objects, in art and in life, for aesthetic if not practical reasons, seems to be a deeply ingrained behaviour; the instinct to collect meets the need to display. When, in the hands of an artist, this is combined with the ability to make the stakes suddenly become far higher and the arrangements assume a significance that mere collections of ‘things’ are not expected to possess, or should one say exhibit?

Kelly Austin’s ceramics and her highly considered interventions are of this order of things. The objects she makes are at once their depiction and this aspect of her work has, over the course of several exhibitions, moved ever-closer to a point of equilibrium being reached between object, representation and display. As an artist, a craftsperson and a designer, Kelly Austin is now turning her attention to architecture. If this exhibition is anything to go by, I want the house and I want what’s in it.

Women in Design: Looking Back in Order to Look Forward

Design Canberra’s curatorial focus in 2017 revolves around the modernist antecedents of Canberra itself. As such, it looks simultaneously back to the utopian postwar visions of Canberra’s bureaucratic city planners and to the present, reflecting on the way the city’s modernist urban design and architectural legacy still shape and lend meaning to the experiences of its contemporary citizens.

As part of Design Canberra, four artists present solo exhibitions at CraftACT under the rubric Women In Design. Some might argue that such a title is an anachronism in 2017. Hasn’t the time passed for the categorisation of the work of a group of artists in terms of gender? Or can we read into this title another purpose, a sort of invitation to the same retrospectivity that informs Design Canberra itself? I would like to work with this proposition and suggest that the exhibitions that comprise Women in Design are imbued with certain themes and preoccupations that have both shaped and been shaped by women artists and designers in Australia since colonisation. My argument here is not that the artists have self consciously taken up these themes intending to refer to these histories. Rather, I want to propose that the histories are latent within the work, operating as a kind of aesthetic DNA.

For example, a strong thread running through the exhibition is a preoccupation with the natural world. Looking at Zoe Veness’s meticulous taxonomy of the colours, shapes and textures of the littoral zones of Hobart’s coastline, I am reminded of the botanising activities of the nineteenth century women who brought the European mania for botanical collection to bear on the alien colonies in which they found themselves. They collected the new plants they found there, grew them in their gardens and compiled detailed botanical sketchbook and in so doing they rendered the unfamiliar known and understood.

Chelsea Lemon’s beautifully articulated parquetry could also be understood as the latest iteration of a legacy that identified Australian flora as the basis for a distinctive Australian art. Promulgated by the writings of Lucien Henry in the 1890s, such ideas were taken up by a generation of women artists such as the woodcarver Sarah Squire Todd or the young Margaret Preston in the early twentieth century. Later, Preston used the structure of Australian flora as formal devices for working through forms of modernist geometric abstraction in her woodblock prints.

Domesticity might also be seen to be a strong thread in the work in this exhibition. It can be seen in the scale of Veness’s small items, in Lemon’s parquetry and in Kelly Austin’s arrangements of elegantly abstracted ceramic forms. Austin’s groupings could be seen as part of a complex lineage of work by Australian women artists that uses the domestic space as the site of experiment and meaning. It is a wayward lineage that can encompass the domestic still life images of Margaret Preston and Olive Cotton, Gwyn Hanssen Piggott’s arrangements of elegant ceramic object-types with their debt to Giorgio Morandi and more lately Kirsten Coelho’s collections of refined porcelain forms based on humble vernacular enamelware. In all of these, we see the common denominator of the domestic object put to work to question the boundaries between public and private, the utilitarian and the abstract, mirroring perhaps the way in which personal and public spaces merge and are contested in the lives of women artists.

Lynette Lewis’s work brings the themes of the natural world and the home together. Her bead necklaces are based on the seeds and plant forms of her homeland in Ernabella. As such, they allude to the seasonal shifts that govern the lives of her people, and to their nuanced and profound relationship with land.

Jewellery made by indigenous people has long been a vector of intercultural encounters. Depictions by European explorers of first contact with Tasmanian aboriginals document the shell necklaces they wore. Later, such items were sold as tourist souvenirs. Lewis’s work is emblematic of a rather more equal encounter, one that acknowledges and respects the complexity of the cultural context in which she works. Her necklaces are given a new language through the use of resin casting techniques learned through the Indigenous Jewellery Project, which brings indigenous and European jewellers together to exchange skills. In Lewis’s work, the material outcome of this exchange, we can see a new iteration of the two preoccupations that shape the work of the four artists in Women in Design: a bringing together of a shared understanding of Australian landscape and flora to articulate an expanded sense of the domestic and what might be considered home.

Anne Brennan is a writer and artist. She lectures in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at ANU School of Art and Design.