In increasingly difficult economic times - not only for the arts - it is refreshing to see the on-going project that has funded the two exhibitions, Ecologies of Place and Memory and Time & Tide, along with the curatorship-residency, remunerated at a realistic, professional level, that has brought them into existence.
The "Questioning the Practice" program was devised to stimulate a greater awareness of contemporary craft practice in Australia and is funded by the Australia Council's three-year Contemporary Craft Curators' Program in association with the University's Hobart and Launceston Schools of Art and their respective galleries, the Plimsoll Gallery and the University Gallery.
The program has enabled the University to appoint three guest curators - one per year - to investigate and highlight "significant and topical aspects" of contemporary craft practice and to present two exhibitions each, as the culmination of this research. The program reflects the shifts in perceived distinctions between craft and other areas of design and fine arts. The inaugural recipient of the curatorship was the formerly Hobart-based writer and ceramic artist Clare Bond.
The current curator, Bridget Sullivan, is a Sydney-based freelancer with experience in galleries in Australia and abroad. I viewed her shows during their Hobart seasons. The first, Ecologies of Place and Memory, features seven craft practitioners, some Tasmanian-based and several from interstate.
The exhibition examines human interconnection, across time and place, with the natural world. It ponders the degree to which objects mirror the environment in which they are created and speculates on the nature of craft discourses - in this country, often urban in origin but drawing on elements of the landscape. Ecologies is the larger of the two shows - and for many reasons, the more satisfying.
Primarily, there was greater coherency and visual stimulus in this exhibition and more challenging engagement with and reworking and extension of craft traditions and practices.
Lauren Berkowitz's suspended loops of recycled rubber have an architectural monumentality and reference ideas of "waste, decay [and] regeneration", along with the craft processes of collection and transformation of materials. Torquil Canning, the only male participant in the shows, has created a seductive, circular, mixed-media schematic drawing, based on the traditional dry stone wall design - 'art about craft', celebrating natural textures and forms.
Circles and loops are echoed in Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Lola Greeno's My Story, a necklace form made up of hundreds of tiny shells arranged into densely coiled rows; and in Sieglinde Karl's Longing for Belonging, an installation of miniature woven baskets incorporating natural and found materials. These works make certain connections with Louise Weaver's quirky, hand-crocheted small sculptures which are, however, harder to "pin down", suggesting a narrative and hinting at connections between the natural and the artificial.
While many of the works in this show 'speak to' each other in some way - inviting comparison or contrast in terms of visual or thematic elements - the individual pieces, up to five works per artist, are also sufficiently distinctive, original and even unexpected to add up to an engaging and satisfying exhibition.
The second of the two shows, Time & Tide, seemed, however, something of an afterthought. The show features five craft artists, but a total of - in effect - only eight works, presented as the smallest show this viewer has encountered in over ten years of visiting University exhibitions. Time & Tide aims to consider why, in vernacular design, certain traditions are retained and others abandoned.
Whilst the premise of the exhibition is interesting and the individual works are of merit, it is difficult to trace many strong links between them or the theme of the show. Generally, as I saw them, the works were unimaginatively installed and unsympathetically lit. Gay Hawkes' rustic thrones of found wood, feathers and shells, a mix of neutrals and bright colours, beg to be - and would surely withstand being - 'tried out', but are mounted on daises - a kind of unwritten "Do Not Touch" sign.
Catherine Truman's three carved sculpturesque pieces float vertically on a blank wall, so that inevitably they read as one work. They were lit so that their shadow was - unintentionally? - larger than the carvings themselves and some subtle metaphor seemed, thereby, to be being implied, but only fortuitously.
From beads, buttons and plastic, Pilar Rojas has created twenty-five small crystal-like pieces (described in the catalogue as "intimate objects", which suggests something else again ...) Their presentation in a serried grid, however, renders them uniform and discourages discovery of their individual appeal, which is unfortunate, even though this does hark back to their origins in the often overlooked realm of 'women's work'.
The messages of all the works in the show might have resonated more effectively and poignantly in a more challenging and absorbing exhibition. Time & Tide is a show that really only hinted at its potential. When many good shows are mounted on virtually non-existent budgets and when so many promising artists are struggling financially, it is difficult to concede that Time & Tide justified the resources no doubt expended on its research, development and implementation. It did not even function as a 'bijou' exhibition. Quite simply, a salaried curator working almost full-time for a year could have been expected to come up with something more extensive and better resolved. The show ran concurrently with a display of new work by Hobart School of Art staff and senior post-graduate students, a show which far outshone it and without which visitors to the gallery may barely have registered having had an exhibition experience.