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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


HERE&NOW19: Material Culture

27 October 2019
A response by Emma Buswell to HERE&NOW19: Material Culture
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

Ten days ago I arrived back in Perth having spent time with my grandparents in New Zealand. It was a trip unlike any I’d ever taken before, filled with quiet moments and long afternoons turning into evenings sitting with them, filling out crosswords in the daily paper and knitting. My grandmother and I would spend small parts of the days travelling to different wool stores across the still recovering hub of Christchurch and return, arms laden with bounty to check on my grandfather’s latest progress with the small painting he was working on.

This brief yet wondrously dawdling five days with them was perhaps the first time I had truly experienced the yawning connection with and recognition that I myself was the sum of many disparate parts, experiences and impressions, and not simply an object of arrogant and spontaneous origin. I felt the sense of being comfortable and comforted in this knowledge and understanding deeply that these people, usually separated from me by thousands of kilometres were my people in a way that registered much closer than the shallow relations of distant kin.

I learnt to knit from my mother, who in turn was taught by her own mother. During these five days in New Zealand, my grandmother taught me many untried knitting techniques. I was reacquainted with the joy found in mastering a new skill, and of the ingenuity and inventiveness of this process which involves grasping a single long stretch of fibre between fingers to shape a fabric.
Loop through loop, twining and switching stitches from left to right, cloth is read into the reality of the world.

As in previous iterations, this year’s HERE&NOW19: Material Culture held at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery invites an emerging curator to develop an exhibition examining a trend in Western Australian art practice. This year’s exhibition has been curated by multidisciplinary artist Joanna Sulkowski, and as its title suggests, focuses on artists whose practices are foremost driven by a close investigation into process and materiality.

My mind is one of interior images and associations. Images interred through my own two eyes run through a fairly limited and shambolic interior filing system and are matched with a correspondingly like memory or experience. I like to think of this as a ridiculous and giant game of cosmic psychic snap, to match and to make sense of things through cumulative previous understanding. It is a generative system and encourages me to spend more time thinking on things after the fact. It is armed with this strange internal device that I engage this exhibition.

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^^^   top & middle images by Ilkka K Photography, bottom image by Megan Hyde

I’m not really sure what to think, taking in this exhibition at first glance. The exhibition’s territory is overwhelmingly large, and the cavernous and empty spaces that wreath each of the works in fuzzy darkness takes over. I make a few circuits; try to take in works from different angles, seeking more information. And then, my internalised filing system creaks open, shingled metal and immaterial silicone wheels gliding over mental metal tracks.  In the distance, a pool of light, gaining rapidly in size and approaching with immense velocity from the general direction of Teelah George’s staggering work, from it approaches…Judy Garland?

Cosmic and psychic snap (!) has Shazamed™ my primary appraisal of this exhibition and produced in dizzyingly nostalgic clarity, the moment when Garland’s Dorothy, Toto in arm, hesitantly opens the door from her anodyne and sepia toned bedroom unto a world which explodes fantastically into technicolour. What transpires next is assuredly a most illogical and outrageous reading of an exhibition.

Teelah George’s Blue Biro, a stitch-drenched and rendered cloth-of-blue is brilliant and isolated in its warm pool of light. Suspended high on the wall like a Byzantine relic, its cobalt surface is a stitched-together visage, a colour field study in sky and water, air and shadow and of course blue biro. Loops of generously handled bronze rest above, as a gentle frame. She is Dorothy, separate to her surrounds, singular in her optical blue brilliance and navigating the treacherous environs of Oz.  

Occupying the centre of the room, in a recently calmed maelstrom of fabric and rebounded office wear appears the aforementioned house.
In its formal arrangements of shutter like walls, Marzena Topka’s Geometrisation of bodies (suspended animation), reconstructs disassembled corporate suiting in an orderly opposition to the utter and immense tornado of Susan Roux’s dark cloud like work (un) / fold.

Roux’s work, at first glance appears as layers of heavily manipulated fabric in tonal washes of interfacing grey. Upon closer inspection the materiality of surface is revealed as sheets upon sheets of densely wrought paper, pleated, folded, creased, stitched, torn, and mended to form a bodily and weighty field. This work has presence and its scale is put to brilliant effect by curator Joanna Sulkowski, emerging from behind other works like a massive and consuming storm front.

Ómra Caoimhe’s The Sum of the Parts, is a quieter turn in the exhibition and recalls early pre-industrial aspects of textile production. Parts from wooden looms and spools form a delicate framework which culminates in a humbly perfect piece of knitted fabric. This work speaks of a deeply singular process of making that is reflective and unobtrusive, and quietly contemplative. I imagine this work as Dorothy’s red shoes, as the key to returning home and of escape.

Holly Story’s The Embrace, is at once and paradoxically so, the green curtained nightmare menace of Oz’s inner sanctum as well as the gentle sepia tones of Dorothy’s homeland. ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs enunciates desperately as the folly and artifice behind his projection as the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is revealed. 
Similarly, Story’s gentle and mesmerising work with its obscuring and mysterious curtain and projected nature sounds is a heralding call back to the material origins of many of the processes that abound in craft technology. Here rendered in digital print on falls of cotton and silk are the sleek lines of banksia and gum, transporting me away from the gallery into a more timeless space. 

I know in truth that this exhibition is not a re-enactment of Dorothy’s navigation of a mystical realm found behind the dark, other-side of a rainbow and will myself down from the high of my brief mental associative game. There is a sobering note to my experience of this show. I appreciate immensely the dexterity and deftness of each artist’s approach and use of material; however I find myself recalling recent conversations with my grandfather.

In the daily, afternoon review of my Grandfather’s newest painting, my Grandmother and I were oh-so-casually tasked with the obligatory offering up of minimal yet constructive criticisms. I became aware that despite the excellence of his composition and the deftness of his application of the paint, there was something in the small work that jarred. My grandfather is colour-blind.

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^^^ images by Lyle Branson

The complexities and interrelationships between tone and hue that to the normative eye appear plain to see, for him are construed as an entirely different rendering of reality. How to explain to him that the shocking luminescence of the lime green he has painted into the veiny branch of a palm tree appears in fact alien, when that colour registers in his mind’s eye as perfectly symbiotic.

Similarly, this exhibition jars. Despite the excellence of the singular aspects of each work, I’m yearning for a clearer way to navigate and to understand the curator’s intention behind this exhibition. Where’s my yellow brick road? Like Caoimhe’s work I feel as though in this instance this exhibition is not equal to, nor greater than the sum of the parts. It almost feels as though this gallery has been trapped between moments, halted indefinitely in the brief few hours before an expected opening. This exhibition appears as drafted muslin on a dress form, the shape of it is there, in the discernible shadow and light over seamed and fashioned cloth, but it is still in its precipitate and nascent form. There is something in the lighting, in the significance of the vacant spaces between works that leaves me wanting more.

There is a notable departure from usual exhibition design convention as well. Where in the galleries opposite, there is an abundance of perfectly placed poetic and didactic wall text. However in this stark grey twilight space there is none, only the briefest acknowledgement of each artist’s name and work’s title. This may well be intentional, a foil with which to encourage viewers to spend more time with works, and in this gleaning, discover for themselves the intricacies of the artists intent. However, this lack of language only serves to make me feel intrusive of this space. As though, like my grandfather, I am not allowed the ability to understand and discern between shadow and form and between content and curatorial intent.

HERE&NOW, for the most part has been presented as an opportunity for an emerging curator to produce an exhibition supported by Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. It is one of the only such opportunities afforded to curators at this level in this city, indeed the state. I find however that this year there is a notable lack of the curator’s voice.
There is hardly any acknowledgement of Joanna Sulkowski’s labour, apart from a brief essay in an even briefer catalogue that can be found at the front desk. There is nothing apparent of her expression or intent to be found in the exhibition itself, no title vinyl, no discerning conversation surrounding the relationship between works, the weft and warp of disparate voices in the production of this exhibition’s cloth.

This year’s iteration of HERE&NOW feels somehow smaller in scope and limited in reach to previous exhibitions. In this light, I consider how this opportunity for an emerging curator to advance their career through professional development is facilitated? To what extent is the incumbent curator guided and coached through the complex and often fraught processes behind curatorial practice? It is a significant responsibility and an invaluable experience to curate toward such an institution, so early in a curatorial career, and I can only hope that for each curator in this lineage of projects, that the experience is a helpful and encouraging one.

As I leave the gallery, attendants are preparing for an approaching event, and amongst the activity, the works themselves fade slowly into the obscure darkness of their surrounds. Like the face of a long departed loved one, their lingering and slippery image is vanquished from my mind by the harsh and oppressive sunlight of the world outside. There remain questions, and ghosts of stitched spectral forms, a remembered feeling of discomfort and not quite being able to place why. I liken it to the feeling of wearing an ill shaped sweater, whose make and material you admire but the shape of which makes you regret wearing it. Still, despite the shortfalls in this exhibition, there is something here that makes me look forward in anticipation to the future projects both by the artists involved and HERE&NOW19’s curator.

HERE&NOW19: Material Culture
— curated by Joanna Sulkowski & featuring work by Ómra Caoimhe, Teelah George, Susan Roux, Holly Story and Marzena Topka

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery
31 August - 7 December 2019

Image credits (from top):

Ómra Caoimhe, The Sum of the Parts, 2019, hand-spun tussah silk thread and wool thread, wool cloth, wooden beads, nails, bees wax and oil on curved wooden panel, loom parts and wooden spool, dimensions variable. image by Ilkka K Photography.

Marzena Topka, Geometrisation of bodies (suspended animation), 2014-29, deconstructed office clothing, dimensions variable. image by Ilkka K Photography.

Holly Story, The Embrace (installation view), 2019, Inkjet print on silk and cotton, steel rod, looped soundtrack, dimensions variable. image by Megan Hyde.

Susan Roux, (un) / fold, 2019, Canson paper, ink, thread and polish, dimensions variable. image by Lyle Branson.

Teelah George, Blue Biro, 2018-2019, thread, linen and bronze, 220 x 190 cm. image by Lyle Branson.

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.