Emblematic

Exhibition review Emblematic 12-31 March 1999 Smith+Stonely, Queensland Curated by Amelia Gundelach

Emblematic brings together the works of twenty one female artists from Queensland and interstate in an exhibition that claims to cross boundaries between traditional craft and art. These artists explore pattern, motif and the embellished surface through a hybrid approach to contemporary practices and the traditional crafts of sewing, embroidery and knitting.

The curator, Amelia Gundelach states in the exhibition catalogue that the artists "have resurrected aspects of their heritage - the craft-based practices of their mothers, aunts and grandmothers." The result of bringing these artists together in a single exhibition is a range of different interpretations of a common theme. As a whole, the exhibition is tightly connected and raises some broad questions about traditional categories of definition.

The simple act of placing the works in this particular gallery context suggests that they be considered as contemporary artwork and therefore subject to the same critique and critical interpretation of more accepted forms of 'high art'. Much of the art, however, fails to convey anything more than a decorative reading.

Lexie Anderson's Ash is a sensitively handled collection of hand-stitched motifs on muslin. However, while it is successful from a purely decorative perspective, it struggles to offer the conceptual depth or content to move it beyond this category. Louise Weaver's Cherry Blossom Bag is another example. It is well constructed, using a variety of materials and beads but it has not lost its tag of being a 'fashion accessory'.

At certain points in history, boundaries between art, craft and design have been necessary in order to highlight the different intentions and functions of particular works or approaches. To critique a decorative table cloth and a nineteenth century allegorical painting with the same criteria in mind would do neither of them justice. Despite the plethora of different media and approaches, there are still certain parameters within which so-called 'high art' is judged. One of these is the embodiment of provoking, conceptual ideas that go beyond mere decorative appeal. Parading a craft-based work as fine art without sufficient depth of conceptual content to back this up leaves the work somewhere in the no-woman's land between unsuccessful art and misunderstood craft.

A problem that is central to this exhibition lies in the fact that through many of the works fine art is brought back into the realm of craft and not the other way around as the exhibition claims. Julie Reeves' Insinuate, Empathy and Perpetrate fall into this category. The rich and decorative surfaces of flower motifs on strong colour backgrounds have been executed using oils and varnishes on canvas. While these traditional fine art materials have transformed the works into very beautiful and exotic pieces, these works resemble wallpaper more than modernist or perhaps formalist references and still seem to exist in the realm of craft.

The clear reccurring format of many pieces in this show involves small, square or rectangular canvases decorated with such materials as fabric, embroidery, paint and sequins. Vera Moeller stretches stockings across painted boards while Amelia Gundelach uses fragments of a number of materials and hand-stitching. These and the other such works have a certain visual attraction through their interesting exploration of materials but do not generate any powerful lasting responses. They are tied in with convention (their size and simplicity makes them commercially appealing objects) and from one work to the next there are neither dramatic juxtapositions nor conceptual advancements. Belinda Parslow's Wallpaper Blue, however, is an exciting piece that takes craft beyond its function as a tangible decorative item. The work consists of hundreds of large blue sequins which are mounted directly onto the gallery wall with pins. It has a simple beauty that does not claim to be anything more than it actually is. It is a temporary work that emphasises experience and there is a natural urge for the viewer to gently blow the sequins and watch them ripple and gleam in a wave of motion. The work extends the theatrical nature of sequins in costume design to the gallery context. Wallpaper Blue succeeds in its ability to include the viewer as an active and vital component of its functioning.

I do not think that the divisions between art and craft have been blurred as much as the catalogue commentary for Emblematic would lead us to believe; the practices of these women emphasise that all we've come to consider 'art' has been unpicked and unravelled. Without the ability to provide a challenging and stimulating dialogue with the viewer, many of the works in Emblematic slip away into the mediocre realm of easily forgotten decorations.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.