We're All in this Together
In the course of my work I often ask artists why they make art. Some shrug, others try and put it into words. Listening to artists respond to the question is like watching someone trying to catch a cloud. When it comes down to it there is rarely one simple reason. Like most things in life it’s complicated.
Art making is not a way of life that makes much sense within the parameters of late capitalism. In dollar terms a cost benefit analysis weighs in at cost over benefit nine times out of ten. I don’t think I am speaking out of line when I say that artists’ often have a fragile sense of their economic self worth. For those without the cushioning effects of inherited wealth it’s a painful internal odyssey. Few worker bees think about value – the value of their work, how they are valued, what they value, where they belong – as much as artists. In some way it makes them particularly sensitive to the question of community.
Community and Context draws together artists working in the ‘expanded field’ of printmaking and the assembled objects in the gallery include sculpture, artist’s books, typography, poster art, etchings, wall drawing, and screen-based work. The exhibition attests to the broad boundaries of printmaking. Moving between the works feels like working a puzzle – there’s a strong sense of interconnectedness between artworks. Many of the works display an interest in history, from early printmaking traditions referenced by Ruth Johnstone in her wood engraving, photocopy and kinetic sculpture and eX de Medici and Rosalind Atkins Our Corporate Who Art in Heaven, an etching and engraving that combines botanical illustration and gas masks to subversive effect.
Echoes of war and the tensions of nationhood appear in other works. Study the digital prints of Neil Emmerson and the comical Abu Grahib-like figures lolling on the ground. Or Ruby Pilven’s installation Micro-boundaries that uses stamps to mimic the alienating procedures of institutional bureaucracies as they relate to asylum seekers. Or Stewart Russell’s silky national flags draped over a stand, like some kind of forlorn and forgotten relic from a United Nations meeting.
Failed colonial endevours pop up elsewhere. Check out Franck Gohier’s humorous screenprinted poster Big Boss, in which the Phantom, a popular comic book figure in indigenous and pacific communities finds himself knocked out by a boomerang. Gohier’s poster can be situated in a longstanding tradition of politically engaged posters from Australian poster workshops stretching from Earthworks Poster Collective to Redback Graphix and beyond that drew on the vernacular to draw attention to various social issues and causes from the 1970s through to the mid 1990s.
Caren Florence/Ampersand Duck’s Book of Michael Pageplay: WAR/RAW 1 & 2 pays tribute to Michael Callaghan (1952-2012), the founder of Redback Graphix. Callaghan’s work at the time of his death focussed on the Iraq war. It brought together a deep sense of compassion for the victims of war and violence and contempt for the doublespeak of its perpetrators. Caren Florence/Ampersand Duck and Callaghan had been in discussion about a collaborative project at the time of his death. War and history.
Australian political printmaking informs Emily Floyd’s series of prints, made as part of the Australian Print Workshop Collie Print Trust Printmaking Scholarship. Floyd devised the work after hearing a radio program about the Sydney-based collective Earthworks (1972–1979). Utilizing aquatint, an intaglio printmaking technique where texture is applied onto a plate (in this instance both copper and aluminium) Floyd's predominantly small works make bold proclamations such as 'It's Time' and 'The Problem Is the Solution' in display typefaces that recall William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Arranging the type into simple shapes, particularly circles, squares and diamonds, the prints bring to mind the principles behind alternative education philosophies. Floyd is clearly fascinated by the subject, she has exhibited an oversized Steiner rainbow in the past. Staring at Floyd's prints you feel poised on the cusp of a mystical revelation.
Trent Walter’s deadpan work, Cover Version #1 (Island) and Cover Version #2 (Expose), similarly appropriate graphic traditions from yesteryear. Walter draws on an existing archive of text and images to re-imagine historical magazines that fall somewhere between academic journal and National Geographic. His works display a strong awareness of the history of production processes. In this respect they are pitch perfect. There’s no doubt that Walter is making some kind of statement about imperialism but its difficult not to feel seduced by their seriousness and nostalgic optimism. Are they critique or celebration? A bit of both?
The history of printmaking is the history of the book and unsurprisingly books, and the associated field of typography, loom large in this show. Gene Bawden’s investigation into the “turnabouts” pattern devised by early Australian designer Florence Broadhurst pushes letterform from the legible to the decorative and abstract. Nicci Haynes, Thomas Coish and Jonas Ropponen take books as a point of departure but arrive at vastly different destinations. Haynes’ obsessional re-working of the Irish classic Finnegan’s Wake into an installation of shredded pages has a touch of the crazies. It’s a place that Jonas Ropponen and his paper mache bust also ventures. In each of these artworks paper has been shredded and pulped, folded over and overprinted.
To counter the drama, there are scenes of repose. Raymond Arnold’s lush and detailed representations of local landscapes, Bridget Hillebrand's monochromatic mountain climbing maps, John Loane’s abstract etchings and Marion Crawford’s sparkling, delicate disks that twirl and in space. They gesture towards a state of grace, remind us of our connectedness to the world around us, one another.
Catalogue essay for Community and Context.
6 February – 12 March 2013