John Neylon is an award-winning art critic and the author of several books on South Australian artists including Hans Heysen: Into The Light (2004), Aldo Iacobelli: I love painting (2006), and Robert Hannaford: Natural Eye (2007).
The colourful, subversive world of Annabelle Collett
A book recounting the career of the late Annabelle Collett reveals all is not what it seems in her sometimes subversive art.
Parallel to this, Ya Ya knitwear, introduced by 1979, had become a major business and, by the mid 80s, her colourful jumpers, cardigans and skirts had established strong national and international markets. A research trip to Paris in 1981 inspired Collett to commit to designing complete environments. Ambitious interior design commissions, notably Limbo nightclub, off Hindley Street, in the early 80s, realised an ambition to create an immersive experience for patrons.
So far, Collett emerges from this narrative, comprehensively and elegantly told by Kathie Muir, with the support of tributes from fellow artists, designers and curators, as a force of nature who would let nothing get in the way of her dream to share a passion for fabric and pattern with the world.
But there are two other chapters to the story. The first is the artist’s significant contribution to the art community. Collett had a talent for collaborating, organising and curating exhibitions, while working in Adelaide and, from around 2012, at Clayton Bay on the Fleurieu. A capacity to bring people together and her extensive networks within the art community injected the local arts and wider community with a mood of excitement about the way art can transform lives.
The second chapter is the heartland of the artist’s practice. Camouflaged within the Ya Ya razzle dazzle is a deeper subtext which Kathie Muir (and other contributors) articulate. Writer and curator Julie Ewington’s tribute says, “Annabelle Collett loves fabrics and pattern and the personal thrill of beautiful clothing and accoutrements, but she is unsparing in her insider’s critique of the ways women’s lives have been shaped by them.” Ewington is referring to an evolution in Collett’s practice in the mid 90s characterised by a more conceptual approach, inflected by political and social concerns.
From the late 90s Collett produced works that addressed gender constructions from a feminist agenda. Seen through the prism of Collett’s practice, this exploration is slightly chaotic, often humorous and never boring. In the book, Muir gives ballast to an appreciation of Collett’s subversive tactics by locating her practice within broader contexts of feminist discourse. It is an important component of the book because it establishes a platform for an ongoing analysis of not only Collett’s work but other artists who, for the greater part of their lives, have had their work trivialised or written about as design or craft – but not as art.
The book, with its extensive gallery of images, does justice to the multifarious nature of Collett’s practice, including her bitter- sweet evocations of the female form through the apparatus of commodified desire (body modifications and ornamentation), and the garment as analogy of marketing and male gaze predation. Collett’s love affair with plastic was never going to die.
Her plastic assemblages have all the fun of the fair but, typically, often reference the problematic nature of our relationship with the stuff. Collett is one of those ‘totality’ artists whose combined practice keeps breaking on the imagination like her outsized Plastic Wave (2014). But in some larger, stand alone works, notably Gitmo Gear: The Worst of the Worst (2008), Art Mad (2017) and Abandoned Dress (2011), this sense is broken by the visual authority of the form and gives notice of another kind of self-awareness and a harnessing of talents to greater purpose. Perhaps at some future time such works will be relocated from the overarching Collett narrative and looked at afresh in the company of others.
Michael Snelling says that there was nothing like Ya Ya designs (“Memphis Group meets Keith Haring”) in Australia or New York when he went there in the late 70s. He believes Collett could have shot out the lights there. But South Australia, then the most progressive state in Australia, provided Collett with the goldilocks space in which to play with serious intent.
Annabelle Collett: Creator and Catalyst, Kathie Muir is out now via Wakefield Press