Far Beyond First Impressions

Order Australis Dick Bett Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania August 1993.

'Seen, hung and heard' is a weekly ABC radio programme about the current Hobart arts scene of theatre/performing arts, music and visual arts. It has a wide audience. Gallery director Dick Bett, the panel member concentrating on visual arts, exhibited Irene Briant's 'Order Australis' in August 1993, and commented on air that 'Women seem to like it.'
Because I had felt so personally nourished by the exhibition, returning to it many times, Dick's comment raised questions that I really didn't want to follow up!
Like the art/craft debate, the question of difference in men's and women's art-making and viewing needs surfaces regularly, never really resolved or concluded. Questioning dominant modes of representation becomes political. I believe the difference is real. Often, as Virginia Woolf has written, "Only the dominant modes of the relevant group will be 'heard' or 'listened to' .. the 'muted' groups in any context, if they wish to communicate, must express themselves in terms of the model. ... the 'mutedness' of one group may be regarded as the inverse of the 'deafness' of the dominant group, since the 'invisibility' of the former's achievement is an expression of the 'blindness' of the latter ... Words which continuously fall on deaf ears may in the end become unspoken or even unthought.".
One man, most at ease with paintings in gold frames, confided to me at Briant's opening, 'I don't know how to deal with this.' I was so excited by the work around me and wanted to encourage him into the work, and the mental and physical spaces between the pieces, balanced finely between installation and object-making.
The 5-part group Antipodean Landscape :Quincumx seemed a great place to start. This group of large mesh trees, each in its fine grided carrier bag, had been standing out in Briant's farm paddock, and spiders had spun fine webs which still remained - one per tree, with resident spider! These creatures provided an approachable kinetic aspect he could (just) cope with, and begin his search into the work and the physical fantasy of it. By actually looking for and at these live elements, he was able to step outside his normal focus of art as rectangular (uninhabited!) precious-framed-object-on-wall.The webs provided an unexpected linkage! Here was artwork made of totally un-precious materials, ubiquitous fly-wire. No conventional working here of the welded steel used in some pieces. It is crucial however to note that the perfection of technique itself transforms the material and the viewer's perception.
Dr Jennifer Livett writes, 'These sculptures make exciting conjunctions between the familiar and the utterly strange, they have wit and complex allusiveness ... Made visible here are many of the contradictions and paradoxes of contemporary Australian attitudes to nature ...'
This exhibition goes some way to filling the real emotional hunger for this kind of artwork that many women feel, often only becoming really aware of it when it is finally being satisfied. Because the gallery staff talk to everyone who enters the gallery, regular clients and visitors, they knew that women were responding very positively to the work, finding a sensibility that appealed to them - finding humour, whimsy, and laughing aloud with pleasure.
I have referred to the group Antipodean Landscape : Quincumx' which formed Briant's point of continuation for making this exhibition. This was shown first at Perspecta 1991. During this visit to Sydney, Briant found three important things that slotted into place and acted as sources for developing the work. One was the large poster for the major Bicentennial exhibition First Impressions : The British Discovery of Australia. organised by the British Museum (Natural History). The poster used the strangely-perceived kangaroo painted by First Fleet midshipman George Raper (uncredited). Briant has recreated this animal, so familiar to us as both fundamentally Australian, familiar as an historic image, and an example of its total foreignness to Raper. Its scale is realistic, and surprising to stand next to. This poster switched and shifted everything Briant was thinking, and she began to understand that it was actually impossible for those people to visually comprehend what they were seeing.
The kangaroo now lives at Artbank!
Briant's second important discovery was Lord Alistair McAlpine's catalogue of his collection of Australian Depression furniture, in which he looked behind the product to the person who produced the item, making his collection an 'absolute reflection of life.' Her third, and related 'find' was seeing an original Coolguardie meat safe.
This exhibition merges many aspects of Briant's intense interest - landscape, formal gardens and topiary throughout many cultures, early Australian furniture, and the transporting of European culture to this alien setting with incongrous results. Since 1991 she has worked between these themes. Early settlers endured harsh conditions, hard times, improvising, adapting, and 'making do'. Her recognition of their deep longing and nostalgia for that green European 'home' led her to deeper reading about European settlement, always aware of the women's position in that landscape and 'new world', and the gardens they created with longing. While intrigued by the 'exotic', for their peace of mind they tried to familiarize, 'Europeanize'. As Briant says, both in that colonial time and even now, we may love the beauty of our country and yet be homesick for things we may never have personally experienced.
Crucially importance in this whole sculptural experience is seeing the precision, delicacy, intensity of the artwork, and the growing feeling that the time it took the sculptor was uncounted - the time taken to get it perfect became 'im-material'!
Photographs are inadequate - the structures have to be experienced 'in the mesh'! They are strangely visible and transparent, strong and ephemeral, blending and standing alone. You see each piece as outline and form. You see into it, and through it. It has both delicacy and strong presence. The work is dense, operating on at least three layers of experience, constantly merging and alternating. We slip in and out of personal and read-about references and experiences of gardens, combining of an old culture with a new land, and our own personal identity in that land.
This yearning, this homesickness and the need to recreate the familiar is particularly strong in Woman dreaming of a green hedge, with its reference back to the peacock design element in topiary, used in grand formal gardens and domestic cottage gardens. The peacock element is thought to have even older references to the rare birds of Byzantium, seen by the Crusaders. Parterres are alluded to, and the elaborate and heraldic forms of knot gardens of clipped low Box and Rosemary hedges which give the impression of being woven together. The topiary form is turned into a semi-transparent thread of consciousness.
It is strangely appropriate to visualise these works being fabricated in Briant's studio, with its vast uninterrupted vistas of paddocks and distant eucalypt-wooded hills. There is still much rich and deeply satisfying material for Irene Briant to explore in her multiple themes.

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