Jane Skeer’s art has always been about the sum of its parts. Her works of sculptural assemblage and installation defer to the serial arrangement of mass-manufactured commodities. These found and repurposed waste materials are often derived from packaging or remaindered print stock—bits of old rope, plastic containers, previous year’s festival flyers, newspapers and magazines (including remaindered back issues of Artlink). As a comment on the excesses of production, framed through the repetition and amplification of subtle details, there is beauty in obsolescence.
Ideas of local colour are intrinsic to Skeer’s way of working, supporting her interest in the idiosyncrasies of place, based on her experience of growing up on the Limestone Coast in South Australia. An early work that introduced this strong biographical element is Ode to the Fisherman (2016), conceived as a form of homage to Skeer’s grandfather, a crayfisherman, who often took her out on his boat off the shores around Cape Douglas. This installation created from the contents of Grandfather Skeer’s shed is full of reassembled, re-cut and rewoven lines of fishnets and standing woven traps as vessels that take on a life of their own.
This body of work and a subsequent extension of the focus based on the long country drives, travelling back and forth from Adelaide, led Skeer to the determination of her next major project inspired by the trucks she passed in all weathers on the road, noting the care with which drivers tied down their loads. Her first works using ratchet straps to tie down truck loads were exhibited as part of Anew at Gallery 1855, Tea Tree Gully, South Australia. Registering a landscape of urban and rural development, as towns, cities, fields, farmlands, and open country, captured in shades of green, brown, blue and yellow, their tones further modulated by a fine coating of permanent dust, these straps forever bear the trace of the road. Some are faded, and others surprisingly bright.
To create these works, Skeer stretched and wrapped the straps over a hidden frame to create abstract lines of colour across an internal warp and weft. Carefully positioned edge to edge, these colour fields are occasionally disrupted by identifying numbers, letters and logos, stamped or sewn onto the fabric, creating a pattern like Morse code, for those who know how to read them.
Sitting somewhere between an object and a painting, and conceived as a form of readymade abstraction, Skeer’s practice responds to a long legacy of regionally-based Australian artists who work with found materials from the landscape to create forms of assemblage, as epitomised in the works of the late Rosalie Gascoigne, who commonly raided the roadside and the local waste dump for her source material. As Gascoigne has said, “I look for things that have been somewhere, done something. Second hand materials aren’t deliberate; they have had sun and wind on them. Simple things. From simplicity you get to profundity.”
Skeer’s installations are driven by a similar sense of agency to Gascoigne’s resonant fields constructed from road signs, wooden crates and old corrugated iron that has fallen into disuse. This source material, as Gascoigne also commented in her later years, has increasingly become more difficult to purchase and collect, as these once-ubiquitous materials so readily discarded, are now at a premium. Skeer has at times had to bargain ferociously (over eBay) and has struck up good relations with many of the truck drivers and companies that she now communicates with directly, more fully absorbing the details of their transport routes into her narrative.
Towards the end of 2018, two major commissions enabled Skeer to expand the dimensions of her ratchet works. True Blue installed at the Eureka Stockade, as part of the Ballarat Biennial of Australian Art (BoAA) and Afresh, featuring the work Bunbury, Albany, Perth, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Freeling, Adelaide, Millicent, Mount Gambier, Melbourne, Sydney and Alice Springs in her exhibition at the Riddoch Art Gallery in Mount Gambier, expand the field of vision to create physically overpowering works that hang from floor to ceiling.
In Skeer’s own words, “Rachet straps are strong and robust, industrially sewn to secure their prized cargo, while being vulnerable, susceptible to the harsh elements. Embedded with red dirt and grease, worn down exposing their histories. My aim is to monumentalise these straps, retire them from their duties, to recognise their efforts. The work highlights the vitality I see in them, rendering visible the mechanisms of trade which define the country’s economy. True Blue mimics the essence of what it is to be truly Australian.”
True Blue feels like a monument to the everyday blue-collar worker, the truckie that drives for days on end, criss-crossing the country, to the farmer who is quietly going about the daily tasks required to manage a working property. Over three meters tall and gently curved in an arc, True Blue features 120 straps hanging over a hidden frame, with the end of each strap carefully coiled and placed at the base. In the muted colours particular to a long life on the road in the wind, rain and mud, interspersed with the occasional bold orange, yellow or bright blue, these formal qualities communicate reverie and reverence, honouring working life and labour.
Bunbury, Albany, Perth, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Freeling, Adelaide, Millicent, Mount Gambier, Melbourne, Sydney and Alice Springs (2018), most recently exhibited at the Riddoch Art Gallery, brought Skeer’s work even closer to home. Instead of reverie, it channels tension, emanating from a black, three-dimensional trapezoid frame that encompassed half the gallery, constructed in the form of a grid from over 130 interwoven straps suspended in space. Difficult and expensive to source (though second‑hand), these straps were covered with the dirt, grease and grime from years on the road. The strong horizontal lines and colour blocking evoke a certain kind of landscape, like a psychological space, as if we are in the cab with the truck driver watching the colours pass by in a blur day after day.
In these extraordinary works, Skeer taps into the visceral experience of driving alongside several-ton freight trucks that join vast networks of towns and cities across thousands of kilometres. It is an experience that relates to a distance and depth of field, as well as the sometimes harrowing experience of journeying through rugged country, as framed in a Mad Max movie. This familiar, yet raw landscape dominated by endless sun-drenched kilometres of sand, dirt and rocks is a very real and at-times unforgiving terrain.
Serena Wong is Arts, Culture and Development Officer at Riddoch Art Gallery, Mount Gambier.
Eve Sullivan is Executive Editor of Artlink.
A forthcoming solo exhibition, Jane Skeer: Twine, is on exhibition at Walkway Gallery, Bordertown, 29 March – 31 May 2019.