Gathering an extensive inventory of images, shapes, forms, raw, earthen, and manufactured materials, the works in this exhibition seek ways to visualise and understand unknowable futures. Investigating the works by Kelly Austin and Amber Koroluk-Stephenson in Settings for Uncertainty we find their highly personalised, staged responses as ripostes to forces of instability. Though distinct in their respective creative practices, Austin’s and Koroluk-Stephenson’s works combined in the space of the Schoolhouse Gallery, are highly staged explorations of structure, composition, and illusion. The artists seek to create a hopeful and affirming visual poetry through their works, and craft a series of illusions through the works they present. Hidden behind pastel facades, orderly arrangements, and enmeshed in the generative process of making, there is a calm optimism that balances the darkness the works both reflect but resist.
It is difficult not to be affected by the constant unfolding of global and localised events that threaten stability, freedom, and personal safety. These are times of senseless conflicts, catastrophic climate episodes, the slow movement towards truth-telling, and an unending pandemic. When our lives and the lives of others around us feel to be increasingly at risk, the precarity and instability of life becomes amplified; it seems the things that are happening now, just cannot be real. What then, is the place of illusion in the work presented?
Imagining and making new worlds, at once the conceptual and aesthetic domain of art, seems a productive way to move forward. Both artists deploy abstraction to construct various spaces of stillness, order, and contemplation, and defiantly, spaces that address a sense of unease yet resist any tendency to unfurl. These are composed and structured spaces formed with arrangements of clay, glaze, paint, collage, canvas, and board – the transformation of such humble materials is part of the poetic illusion at play.
Search within Kelly Austin’s pictural and sculptural works to investigate arrangements of perfectly formed, open vessels, domes, blocks, and other geometric solid forms raised from earthen clay, slurry and dust gathered from various locations. Objects allude to function, yet they are not brought into service – bottles are closed over at the neck, the domes suggest a stronger interest in form than function. The precisely proportioned metal tray is so rusted it seems as if it may contaminate anything it might contain. A languid, yet rigid draped, loop form precariously, uneasily, overhangs its display shelf. It offers a gentle suggestion that it might fall and break, if not for the fact that it is so carefully controlled and balanced. Simultaneously it embodies movement, stasis and stability. The fit to form, stability of glazes and the containment of fugitive mineral elements in wild-harvested slips applied to the ceramic works, is deftly controlled so as not to seep, stain or peel. The considered placement of individual component pieces connect pictorial composition with sculptural forms redolent with a visual earthiness, texture, volume, and mass in quiet and ordered arrangement. The precise placement and interaction between each element withstands intrusion and is a source of quieting calm. This compositional illusion of stasis however, evolves. Carefully placed panes of textured glass frame and obscure objects in the sculptural compositions, and whist this can be seen as a painterly conceit, the viewer must move to negotiate an uninterrupted view of some elements. Overall, these works are staunchly, resolutely stable, contained and controlled. The sense of peace, stillness, and quiet, is managed and maintained through the evident and embodied precision of these careful spatial and formal arrangements.
Likewise, Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s works balance illusion against reality, exploiting sensational prompts toward catastrophe, collapse, and agitation. Space is highly constructed and complex. Gloved hands pull back the curtain to cosy, benign and quaint interiors, which offer a protective haven from the unsettled outside. Painterly depictions of impossibly stable, stacked children’s wooden blocks contrast with sandstone ruins, geometric tiles are cast against landscapes ablaze, depictions of cyclonic storm surges and child-like constructions of archetypal, imaginary houses on rolling hills nestle under fire-haze sunsets. Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings create a sense of instability, through oppositional or contradictory strategies based in an unsettlingly comfortable pastel colour palette, and contrasting arrangements that create impossible, surrealistic compositions. The paintings prompt us to consider if we really understand what we are looking at; they are compelling in the way their evocative content is revealed. The uneasy and at times conflicting interactions of carefully chosen symbolic forms including children’s toys, expanses of precisely composed floor tiles, bucolic landscapes and the strange, dislocated latex gloved hands create a playful illusion of an ambiguous nature. Lush drapery, carefully composed décor and elegant interiors are strategic compositional elements that strike an awkward balance between upholding a sense of control and the possibility that all this may topple. These richly rendered paintings invite a close inspection – they appear as fantastic illusions that elicit excitement, intrigue, and curiosity. Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s pastel-painted illusions evoke wondrously composed worlds, yet also suggest postcards from a dystopian future/present, unfolding in bright, irresistible colour, and form.
The works in this exhibition collectively elicit an appreciation that the strongly orchestrated compositions of Amber Koroluk-Stephenson and Kelly Austin aim to pique curiosity and prompt viewers to experience their exploration of illusion and uncertainty. It is through the evocation of tension and instability, that these artists’ works conjure a space to negotiate challenging ideas, and prompt viewers to imagine. There is an evident refrain in these works, that imagination is the place of freedom, possibility, and optimism as a balm to the instability of a troubled world and challenging times.
Dr Steven Carson is a Lecturer in Art and Graduate Research Coordinator, School of Creative Arts, University of Tasmania.