Helen Fuller: Bless this mesh

The idea of viewing the world through a mesh or patterns of relationships is ever-present in Helen Fuller’s work. It feeds the playful child within the artist. Or should that be daughter? Consider one of Fuller’s works Reconfigured BCF Shed, included in All this and Heaven too, the 1998 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. This installation featured a “dream barbecue”  constructed primarily from books accumulated by her father, the late BC Fuller, which in their various titles, testified to his impressive pursuit of DIY supremacy. This very public disclosure of a highly ordered mind struck an uneasy note as if family secrets were being revealed. Across 1995–98 Fuller continued to exhibit works constructed from objects and materials sourced from her father’s backyard shed and office.

Home, the double-fronted suburban house in Glengowrie, with primrose yellow, mushroom pink and bird’s egg blue drawers in the kitchen, constituted the site the artist grew up in, ran away from and later returned to in the early 1990s (“like the schoolgirl that got pregnant”) and to her old bedroom with the rusted flywire. Eyes pressed against the gauze. Buzz. But it was also a homecoming to a childhood of memories of playing in the backyard, mum’s linen press and nana’s aprons, the kitchen with its tea towels, crockery and anodised tableware.

Then there were special kinds of memories of making art: primary school drawing books and copying a teapot off the blackboard using a squared-up grid system modelled by the teacher. Fuller recalls these formative experiences, particularly drawing on sheets of graph paper that spilled from her father’s desk. The grid cast its net in other ways. Fuller learnt how to decorate gingham check aprons with cross-stitching to a paternal grandmother’s (Lily Viola Maud) CWA (Enfield Branch) gold bar standard and to keep the stitching continuous without any slackness or gather, as neat on the underside as the surface. Neat as a pin. There were many other drawings, on semi-translucent lunchwrap paper, using recycled carbon paper and brown paper salvaged from dry cleaners packaging, with the brown lick-down tape still attached.

Home in the early to mid 1990s became an ironically titled “Home Sweat Home” as the constant demands of parenthood drove Fuller into a cycle of self-perceived drudgery and crisis of identity. Clothing and domestic textiles began to assume a prominent role in Fuller’s work as her interest in making larger scale installations declined. Items of personal clothing were shredded or cut into strips and used to wrap objects or inserted into found objects such as plastic baskets. The combination of cut, shredded, buttoned and pinned rags wound tightly into bundles, inserted in crevices of tables or teased out through the cage-like grid of a laundry basket implied inner torment or emotional lockdown.

From this cycle of self-exploration emerged a concerted interest in the patterning on and within fabrics. The artist’s output of the early to mid-2000s was characterised by a morphing of ideas drawn from these textile-based interventions into a zone of comparative calmness and visual poetry. During this time the grid, line and patterning which had stalked her practice like faint lines on graph paper, became dominant organising elements. The origins of this emergence can be found partly in formative art pedagogies Fuller encountered when she first studied at art school in the late 1960s to early 1970s. The impression she formed from the colour- and shape-based (particularly hard edge) painting trends of this period was that art was about stylisation, best expressed as pattern making and design. The Bauhaus-inflected philosophy underlying the design course, as presented by one of her lecturers, Helen MacIntosh, reinforced this perception.

Fuller’s practice from around 2004 to the present coalesced around painting on paper and most recently ceramic vessels enhanced with grid-like and other patterning. Gingham checks and caravan curtain, dress fabrics, tablecloth and quilt designs were coopted into compositions which in their various overlays of grids and shapes suggested patches of textile oddments stitched together to create a makeshift garment or coverlet. The idiosyncratic character of this tacking, patching and layering implied impatience, sometimes a perverseness, and inevitably, a state of mind. Paintings produced around 2004–06 referenced childhood and adolescence. The 2006 Gingham Grid paintings, for example, wound the clock back to childhood memories of mended clothes hanging on domestic clotheslines, domestic knitting, weaving and sewing activities, and being taught art under sufferance. Fuller, in her exhibition catalogue statement comments, “I recall dialogue of past art/craft teachers who castigated students for crooked lines, ill-formed letters, smudges, accidental blobs, rubbings out, grubby finger marks, stains and poorly paced needlework stitches. As a visual art practitioner, I value these irregularities as positive inclusions and celebrate them as creative openings in my work.”[1]

The robust character of such expression eased as the colour palette was reduced to a few colours (principally red and blue). Designs were articulated as spidery lines stretched like gauze grids across fretting and fraying fields of patterning. From the mid to later 2000s this vocabulary of expression was extended by creating fields of mark-making by dripping and smudging pigment onto dampened handmade papers. Origins of this methodology (and an interest in Chinese brush painting and calligraphy) can be found in an Asialink Arts Residency at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, China, which Fuller undertook in 1992–93. Hand-made traditional paper brought back from China at this time was later used for the “wet into wet” paintings of the later 2000s.

In Fuller’s 2008 exhibition Vapour (Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney) complementary series of work, Breath and Altitude, explored the idea of intricate repetitive textures and patterns that exist as vapour around and within the world. The meditative nature of these subtly inflected images revealed an out-of-body aesthetic at odds with Fuller’s predominantly tactile language of expression. In the ceramics-based work which follows, this sense of tension between the ethereal and corporeal intensified.

Three years ago Fuller began working with clay. The ceramics connection had some history. The artist has long been a collector of op shop domestic crockery and artware ceramics and occasionally plays “happy families” with such items, grouping them on the basis of colour, pattern or form. The humble “pinch”, “knee” and “elbow” pots she initially made in pottery classes in 2009 were replaced by coil-built constructions. The 2011 Winding Threads exhibition at Adelaide Central Gallery showcased outcomes. One group of works; plain, vessel-like objects, had been inspired by a recent visit to Koonalda Caves on the Nullabor Plains. Impressions running around the sides referenced Indigenous hand-patterning located deep within the cave system. The hand-built pots which accompanied this body of work resembled utilitarian vases, jugs and pots. They were decorated with bands of colour and checked designs applied by brush as oxides and under-glaze over low-fired body surfaces, with the result that these decorated objects shared the flat colour aesthetic of the artist’s gouache paintings.

These were uncertain objects, tremulous in form, undulating in surface and makeshift in decoration. Irregular and scissor-cut extremities and improvised handles spoke of impatience, even parody. A number of the forms were derived from cardboard profile templates of items from the artist’s kitchen pantry including soy and tomato sauce bottles and jam jars. The idiosyncratic character of the forms, the parodic distortions of utilitarian features such as over-flared spouts and outsized handles and loosely handled decorative features belied a knowing sense of design informel and a recognition of everyday objects, events and memories as shaping a sense of personal identity.

Celebration of the everyday also underlay parallel explorations using found objects such as leaves and seeds to create seals for stamping repeat designs into clay surfaces. Paper, and more particularly, paper bags, inspired by memories of a “paper bag/wrapping era” childhood, were the inspiration for another set of hand-built vessels. In Fuller’s hands, and imagination, the folding and creasing became pretexts for visual hoaxes, allusions to traditional painting on bark and modernist obsessions with shape and pattern. The palimpsests of mark-making left by various hand-building techniques gave each object its own patterned skin. The resemblance of the coil-built inner surfaces to knitted garments was enhanced by irregular extrusions of coil lengths (as if ends of wool) and Fullerian trademark “mistakes” of gaps left in the wall.

It is impossible to consider patterning within Fuller’s practice as a discrete entity or as something applied in the final stages to enhance appearances. Responding to patterns of connection based on colour, shape, functionality, memory or caprice is the hallmark of Fuller’s behaviour as an artist. The pas de deux of pattern-based painting and patterning embedded within objects is a constant reminder of the role which patterning, particularly grid and checkered, continues to play in expressing an inner state of mind which simultaneously celebrates and defies a call to order. The metaphoric dimension of the grid imagery in Fuller’s work has been described as “a close focus on resilient weaves that will bear our weight, like trampolines ... trusting the web, to tear holes in it and patch them up again, believing we won’t fall through the gaps in the mesh.”[2] Nicholas Jose has drawn attention to the gaps and irregularities in Fuller’s grid paintings which “suggest a broken lattice, a threadbare cloth” and thus “a tough persistence that underlies survival.”[3] From Fuller’s perspective “My journey has a pattern to it – a spiral – a pathway between two worlds.” Things cannot get any simpler or more complex than that.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Hazy Days Helen Fuller and Christine McCormack, Discovery Centre Mezzanine Gallery, Glenelg, 4 August – 1 October 2006.
  2. ^ Cath Kenneally, “Helen Fuller: Domestic Forensics", Artlink 28: 3, p. 35:
  3. ^ Nicholas Jose, “Citizens of the world, Writing a Painting”, catalogue essay, South Australian School of Art Gallery, 2–31 March 2006, p. 15. 

John Neylon is an independent Adelaide-based art writer and curator

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