To Have or to Hold
Containment Debra Dawes, Zsolt Faludi, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Carlier Makigawa, Susan Norrie, Mary Scott. Curator: Clare Bond. Plimsoll Gallery, Hobart 12 April -2 May, 1997 University Gallery. Launceston 2 - 31 July, 1997 Reviewed by Mary Knights
When the interior of a work (either actual or conceptual) remains inaccessible; the object takes on an air of inexpressible remoteness.
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's tranquil objects epitomise the prevailing aesthetic of Containment, an exhibition which is perfused with a strangely enticing anaemic minimalism. Precisely balanced in a quiet composition, a small uneven bowl, three bottles and two beakers sit just out of reach on a high white shelf. Pale and aloof, the vessels in this group of Hanssen Pigottes vessels, titled Gentle Still Life, are glazed with an uneven, almost insipid, opaque turquoise glaze. The careful placement of these apparently functional and independent objects insists on each being considered formally in relationship to the others. The emphasis on placement resists the viewer's touch, and yet confusingly the familiarity of the domestic objects, the tactile qualities of stoneware surfaces and the slight irregularities of each hand-thrown form seduce and beckon. Frigid, on a plinth behind glass, another cluster of Pigott's ceramic vessels sits inaccessible and sanguine.
Although this exhibition is one of a series in the University of Tasmania's exhibition program Questioning the Practice which focuses on issues confronting contemporary craft practice, Bond has incorporated a wide range of work much of which would not usually be included in a survey of craft. Using a craft-based theoretical framework relating to the vessel, in this exhibition Bond breaks down the traditional boundaries between 'art' and 'craft', and explores the implications of containment.
The word "containment" suggests an inside space, something confined within certain limits and boundaries marked by form. Inferred are surfaces which conceal, hidden depths and things as yet unrevealed. In a silent and mostly empty room off the main gallery, two pallid flesh-pink objects stand aloof on their thin metal legs. Vaguely reminiscent of old fashioned meat safes stripped of nostalgia, the glossy metal skins of these manufactured rectangular objects are punctured. The patterns of tiny holes which pierce the pristine surfaces are the only access into the interior of these objects; however, denying more than they reveal, these perforations emphasise the viewer's thwarted desire to penetrate into the dark and unattainable interior. These conceited objects which make up Susan Norrie's installation titled Shudder entice the viewer with their enigmatic and gestaltic presence, yet defy interpretation and insist that both the physical and conceptual contents remain concealed.
Whereas Norrie's objects do not reveal meaning and perhaps exist only to engage in an unconsummated, flirtatious play with the viewer, Debra Dawes' coy paintings, when coaxed, reluctantly divulge their contents. At first glance Dawes' two very large canvases, which depict a grid painted in black and white, appear to refuse any reading beyond the shallow surface. Painstakingly painted by hand these almost identical minimalistic images, both titled Grey Spectra, seem to hover between being abstract, and almost realistic representations of gingham. The formal aspects of the familiar grid pattern, which emphasise the flat surfaces and are devoid of illusionistic space, seem to engage with modernist concerns. However, the undeniable reference to gingham, a visual signifier heavily laden with associations of 1950s domesticity, insist that these dazzling paintings deal with more than a purely painterly consideration of line, form and colour.
In an earlier exhibition Dawes juxtaposed these paintings of gingham with an old heart-shaped pendant made of Irish bog oak, and two evocative black and white photographs. One of these photographs, a family snapshot taken in Moree in 1963, depicted a little child in a gingham dress, surrounded by a small group of women, and the other depicted an isolated Irish woman, "Granny Rainbow", who died in 1966, in Goondiwindi, Queensland. The little girl dressed in gingham is the artist as a child, and the Irish woman the grandmother that she never knew. In Containment, without the poignant and explicit references, the viewer is confronted by a dazzling surface which barely hints at the memories and sense of loss that inspire the work.
Carlier Makigawa's jewellery, encased and displayed in cage-like structures which echo their delicate open wire-frame forms, have a cool serenity. Individually crafted from silver, monel and occasionally red coral, Makigawa's symbolic shapes, derived from architectural and organic forms, are stripped right back to minimal skeletal structures. Formal considerations are melded with aesthetic and symbolic concerns in these pendants from her The Flame and the Flower series.
Makigawa explores notions of containment, and attempts to reconcile oppositional dualities such as inside versus outside, natural versus crafted, the spiritual and material, and religious iconography of the East and the West in these pieces. Based on the shape of a lotus, the elegant linear form of Flame 1 stresses the sense of something precious contained inside. Protected and enclosed within the stylised outer frame is a piece of red coral. For Makigawa the red coral is suggestive of both a "flame and a tree, symbols of life and energy". Other pieces, based on the shape of ornamental trefoils evoke Christian icons and suggest reliquaries - small containers for precious objects of religious significance.
Subverting the transparent and elucidating qualities of her material, on the impervious and brittle surface of glass Mary Scott depicts opaque membranes which allude to, but do not reveal depths beyond. Crafted through an elaborate process of digitally manipulating scanned images which are then meticulously hand-painted in oil onto sand-blasted glass, Scott has realistically represented surfaces which seem to hover just below a very shallow illusionistic space.
Strangely disturbing, these carefully depicted surrealistic membranes are imbued with a passionless fecundity. Like a cheap quilted nylon bedspread, the slick surface of magenta fabric perforated by crossed lines of running stich is further disrupted by pustules which threaten to erupt through the surface in the diptych titled Bud. One nodule has burst open expelling a nascent fleshy lime-green vegetative form suggestive of genitalia of unspecified gender. In Untitled a shiny blue skin appears to be blistered with papule-like lesions which are too regular to be an organic disease state. In another image lacerated strips of jaundiced skin or gaudy yellow synthetic fabric seems to be studded with vaguely navel-like shapes which, like flaccid lips, appear to solicit some sort of perfunctory interaction or inanimate exchange.
The rupture of these skin-like surfaces hint that something organic is seething and barely contained behind, or is perhaps integrated with, the synthetic membrane. Torn, they might reveal a space packed with polyester wadding laced with a network of capillaries and threadlike neurones or another insidious barrier.
Faludi's angulated and segmented vase forms, with their precise crisp lines and sharply articulated curves, have an austere and arrogant beauty. Although Faludi's stark ceramic objects with their shapes derived from traditional urn shapes fit the criteria of the vessel, they are incapable of containment. Whereas Hanssen Pigott's vessels refuse function by their insistence on aesthetic appraisal of the complete composition, Zsolt Faludi's vessels deny function by their very form.
Not only are they unable to contain, Faludi's forms subvert many traditional ideas which relate to the vessel. Highly refined and carefully finished these wheel-thrown objects do not betray their individually hand-crafted origins but suggest processes more akin to the mass-produced object. Random imperfections, the unpredictable possibilities of firing and spontaneous marks of the artist are repressed.
Intrinsically fragile, many of these seductive geometric forms precariously stand on, and meld with, Brancusi like pedestals. Not only do Faludi's tall, sophisticated vase forms look like they might topple over if anything was placed inside, a thin ceramic meniscus literally closes off the openings of some, while in others the waisted joins of the segments form closures inside the hollow form. These vessels only flirt with the idea of containment.