Cleveland House Stables Gallery Cleveland, Tasmania 31 March 28 April 2002
There are dangers in certain processes of exhibition development. Lisa Roberts started the curatorial process by calling for expressions of interest, and together with gallery director, Judi Asimus, deliberately let the project grow organically. One result was arguably too many artists (25), or too many works for the space. Also the standard of the work such an open process attracted was variable. A range of life and death-related themes evolved, from death in custody, the Port Arthur massacre, and September 11th through to death of the natural environment. The strongest works, however, were mainly occasioned by personal loss in which often the precise cause of the loss is unspecific.
Several well-established Tasmanian artists were represented eg. Gay Hawkes, with a typically quirky but strangely moving altar complete with crucified Christ. Especially pleasing was the inclusion of long-time women practitioners from the north of the state (including Katy Woodroffe and Helene Weeding). Importantly, there were also artists who have only come to public attention in the last five or six years – and using unusual processes and media, giving the exhibition its sense of daring.
The strength of Trudy Humphries' work is its suggestive power. It deals with the unplumbed depths that lie below ordinary surfaces and everyday materials such as cloth. The process of perishing fabric – deliberately destroying its surface beauty and structure - is a metaphor for decay. The Release series suggests loss in the simple transmutation of large fabric pieces. Roughly stitched and highly visible sutures bind together fabric that has been torn. However, the work (three large pieces and two small installations) needs to be hung together for the collective power of the work to make its full impact.
Less unhappily displayed were the smaller scaled works of Bron Fionnachd-Fin (Power). Her new works continue to examine the crisis of migrant life in a cultural limbo, but in a far subtler and more personal way. The four small cocoons, from the Self Portraits series, suggest a withdrawal, but at the same time, the moment before the constraining webs of stitched spun hair come asunder to reveal what is hidden is an ever threatening possibility. Still more portentous are Skip – a skipping rope knitted from the artist's hair – and Shell. They are the vestiges of remembered girlhood (in a different land?), adolescence (the hairbrush-handles of the rope), and of motherhood (hair the universal symbol of vitality – also, in some traditions, grief, mourning and penitence).
The gallery, with its stables origins still evident, posed some special challenges. Sharon Pittaway's installation in a covered outside area, creating a teenage single mother's space caught between school and the nursery, had visual appeal. However the cautionary messages against teenage pregnancy of the older-but-sadder-and-wiser variety in the sound part of the work, seemed heavy-handed – or had one missed some meaningful irony?
Perhaps the only artist to successfully exploit the specifics of the space was Jo Anglesey, convincingly pressing the cobblestone floor into conceptual service. In White Shadow I a heavy meat-grinder from yesteryear is placed with self-conscious intent on a white talc square (made with a lace stencil). The incongruity of the non-permanence of the delicate lacy patterns with the solidity of the metal objects and ruggedness of the stones evoked a past domestic sphere that prized a feminine ideal of gentility. Did the powder, behind which both scent and true appearance normally hide, suggest that that ideal is now long gone, or was it never appropriate even in the lives of Australia's early settlers?
Other installations, such as Vicki Lee West's kelp sculptures referring to artefacts and other aspects of Aboriginal culture, and Melissa Smith's unusual giant lotus, consisting of folded Chinese ritual ghost paper money, were compromised by the lack of space around them, as was Lisa Roberts' large painting installation, which juxtaposed a moment of intense personal grief against the catastrophe of September 11th, which was happening at the same time as her mother's death in a nursing home in Victoria.
In an exhibition which mainly derives its power from three-dimensional and particularly installation and textile and fibre work, the paintings of E. M. Christensen stand out as an exception. Transfiguration is a work that attracts the eye with its beautiful and luminous painted surfaces. An appropriation of Giovanni Bellini's work on the same subject, the work says much politically. The Christ figure is transfigured in more than one way. He is a woman. It is then that the rose and the two children at the bottom of the painting start to suggest an unknowable and possibly deeper mystery.
There were several other individual works which startled - Trish Newham's pillow decorated with thorns suggests the knowing hand of someone who can take craft out of its cosy cupboard for relocation. Sadly there is no space here to discuss the literary aspect to this exhibition with the work of some half a dozen poets on the wall. Perhaps, next time, there might a lot less to see but more to enjoy.