Passage Sara Maher Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart 10 23 December 2008
I was captivated by Sara Maher's exhibition 'Passage'. This focused collection of more than thirty images was developed over two years, initiated by a three month Arts Tasmania residency on Maria Island in 2006. The exhibition revealed an intense working period that drew directly from the solitary experience of living remotely and working as an artist.
While on the island, the combination of remnant buildings, isolation, and the island geography led Maher to explore the notion of 'walls as boundaries to be traversed'. She began by making rubbings of the worn brick surfaces of the convict ruins. At the same time, she stencilled or drew found items and natural forms integral to the location such as a ladder, a chair, an iron bed, a window frame, a table, a wallaby, bones, sticks, pebbles, the moon, the stars and the sea. An informal catalogue of images developed which informed her work for the following two years.
Returning to Hobart, she launched into an intense body of work. Unable to let go of Maria Island, Maher revisited numerous times, often developing the first layers of the work in her house and studio and then drew into them 'in situ', and vice versa. The underlayers of all works in 'Passage' are facsimiles of walls familiar to the artist (her house and studio, the shack she inhabited on the island, and brick ruins from Maria Island, the Tasman Peninsula, and around Hobart). While some walls have been captured as charcoal rubbings, many works were created by saturating sheets of paper in pigment, pressing or adhering them to the wall and peeling them away.
Maher then worked into these impressions. The fragile lines of the images drawn from the island and related experiences contrast dramatically with the layers beneath which were sometimes applied so heavily that the artist imagined she was 'rubbing her way through' or 'rubbing a porthole through the paper'. The works in 'Passage' stem from this contradictory process of creating a wall only to bring about its demise, a method likened by the artist to establishing a physical boundary (such as the island residency or studio) and then pushing that boundary to its conceptual limit.
When speaking about the time spent working towards 'Passage', Maher mentioned that there were moments when she felt imprisoned and overwhelmed by the intensity of engaging with a place for an extended period. This sense is embodied in 'Breathing holes' (2008) by the black rubbed vent of a convict solitary confinement cell, or in the small circle cut out at mouth-height in the subsequent work 'Breathing hole' (2008). Recurring references to ladders, windows, portholes and the tiny modelled raft in 'Adrift' also communicate thoughts of escape. As do the deliberate allusions to the vastness of sea and sky in 'Hum note', 'Adrift', 'Untitled', and 'Portholes', incongruously achieved by committing the texture of a wall to paper.
Collectively, the works in 'Passage' are a gritty personal record of the effect of isolation, expressed as a succinct orchestration of fact (evidence of a place as it is captured in a rubbing) and varying levels of imagination (the artist's drawn interpretations). The images are raw in honesty, and one senses their creation has been a compulsive, necessary process for the artist. As she occupied Maria Island, it is evident that Maher became completely absorbed, unable to untangle herself from the island at the end of the residency. The exhibition is testament to the artist's focus and ability to realise an uneasy, contemporary and compelling response to wilderness and history by bringing it into the personal realm of her present.
Jane Stewart is Coordinating Curator of Art at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.