North Adelaide School Of Art Gallery 13 May - 4 June 1998
The Promise of Fruit offered an intelligent and creative melding of a traditional medium, tapestry, with an exploration of post-colonial readings of ways of imaging the Australian landscape both geographical and botanical. Multiple messages and levels of meaning are greatly enriched and extended by what Diana Wood Conroy describes as the strength of contemporary tapestry: "the contrast of unpredictable images... with the disciplined and historic language [of tapestry.]"
Kirsty Darlaston, Brenda Goggs, Lucia Pichler and Karen Russell met while studying at the South Australian School of Art. Their teacher was renowned Adelaide weaver Kay Lawrence who, as practitioner, advocate and teacher, has been at the forefront in the development of the artist weaver in this country. Artist weavers design and make their own tapestries. They are not part of a workshop interpreting the designs of others or translating paintings into tapestry, the latter is the traditional and accepted role of tapestry since the Renaissance.
In challenging this role of tapestry as handmaiden to painting, it is useful to realise that this form of contemporary tapestry is not universal. The USA, UK, Canada and Australia share similar preoccupations with imagery, narrative and flat tapestry. Countries such as Poland and Scandinavia are more interested in the tapestry as object, with exploration of spatial and formal qualities being the significant features. Confronting these differences can lead to some insightful experiences relating to context and interpretation. It also raises questions, relevant to the theme of The Promise of Fruit, about the colonial process and to what extent it is ongoing.
The title of the exhibition could refer to the fantasised promise of an antipodean utopia of plenty and prosperity. Out of such imaginings the colonists created their world, seeing not what was here, but what was not, imposing order and familiarity through the grafting of a European imagination onto the landscape, visually in paintings and maps and physically by clearing the land and planting species from home.
The image on the cover of the catalogue is a tantalising introduction to The Promise of Fruit. A detail of an early colonial watercolour shows an elegant hand emerging from a buttoned and cuffed sleeve, daintily holding two cherries by the tips of their stalks. Gravity appears suspended as the cherries float upwards like balloons rather than hanging down as we would expect them to do. King Parrot is the title of the watercolour. There is a choreographed playfulness in the arrangement of the cherries suggesting a confidence on the part of the giver that his offering will be accepted. This is the story we create from the minimal detail given to us. We assume the cherries are being offered to the parrot. Though it is charming and whimsical we also read this image in terms of ideas about taming the wild and all that it implies, in this case by the offering/promising of strange fruit which may in fact not be either appropriate or desired. Paul Carter's parallel catalogue text is an invocation of the rich language of weaving, reflecting poetically on the intentions and aspirations of the artists.
With wit and humour Brenda Goggs' group of jaunty pineapples balancing on top of a classic column reminds us of the decorative appropriation by Europe of the strange and the exotic, in this case through its traditional use of fruit and foliage as finials. This tapestry is more object than image, its shape that of its subject... the weight and power of tapestry equated with that of sculpture?
In her punning New Holland Blinds, three blinds, replete with cord and fringe, are woven images of coastline reminiscent of early maps. The image in effect is on the inside. What lies beyond the windowpane of our apprehension, says Magritte, needs a design before we can properly discern its form,....
Lucia Pichler speaks of memories, ideas and preconceptions brought to a new world with a direct quotation from the history of tapestry. In Landscape of Memory : Tree Stories she has woven strips, like memory shards, of the famous medieval Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in such a way that they appear to be behind a sketchy black and white weaving of a native cabbage tree palm. In this way she also directly challenges the traditional handmaiden role of tapestry, her individual and idiosyncratic tree standing independent and proud of the medieval work. Variations on this idea are played out in other pieces which make up her Landscape and Memory series.
There is a gentle irony in Kirsty Darlaston's use of the word descry as the title of a piece which examines the idea, that looking is only one way of discovering, perceiving or distinguishing an object. Darlaston creates a fantastical calligraphy from lilies grown in her garden. Braille text suggests another language, and strips of dense dark tapestry with no discernible image, suggest remnants which are all that remain of an only to be imagined, larger piece. Poetry and metaphor challenge measurement and categorisation as ways of seeing.
Myself in the Woods Botanising as usual has a Banks like figure measuring and recording. The outline of a square surrounding this figure links him with another method of categorisation, the square of the digitised ISBN number woven into the corner. This work was tipped out from the wall in a peculiar manner suggesting perhaps a turning page or the wind in a sail. Unfortunately it looked clumsy and intrusive and I wonder if the effect might have been better achieved as part of the woven image rather than as an introduced element.
Maps and roses are some of the images around which Karen Russell weaves her stories. In Nulla Rosa est-There Are No Roses Here an image of coastline based on colonial maps with the script Nulla Rosa est woven into the sky speaks of the antipodean land before the invasion of europeans and their domesticating horticulture. The meaning of the message in the sky however is accusatory rather than celebratory. The torn bed sheets and shirt labels woven into the fabric of this piece may suggest imminent change referring perhaps to Russell's migrating ancestors whose family name was Rose. The theme and clever play of word and image is continued in a companion piece, Maiden Landscape. This time pink Botticelli roses float close to shore in a wavy Botticelli sea reminiscent of The Birth of Venus and as they came with the wind in that painting so too did these Roses, their ship's navigator guided by the windroses on his maps...
Medium and message work well in most of the pieces in this exhibition. Those that fall down do so mainly because of weak or poorly designed images. However the historic and symbolic weight of tapestry combined with expressive images and a challenging contemporary theme makes for a show both engaging and provocative.