The beauty of being in the art game is that time never stands still. Past, present and future are always talking to each other. Ideas that have been around for a while never die or get dumped into the trash basket to be irretrievably deleted. They just back off, bide their time and come again.
One of the biggest of these comes in the form of a question, ‘What do we do with the past?’ The answer might be ‘we remember it, occasionally honour or cherish it and learn from it’, or, if you’re an artist, ‘pinch the bits you need for now and leave the rest behind’. It’s a selective process, often driven more by emotion than logic.
Consider Hand Over, curator Beverley Southcott’s creative response to her mother’s painted china objects and other porcelain items including some inherited from an earlier generation. We all have such things – items of chinaware, old furniture, hand tools and the like, which the next generation will probably consign to Vinnies or the skip.
Southcott’s tactic in giving such objects fresh significance has been to deny them their visual identity. This she did by photographing these ceramic items through a piece of dense, satin based glass. The result is a shimmering field that barely hints at figuration. For the artist these images from the Conduit series act as a ‘message board’ between one person and another – even one person’s love for these treasured items now transferred from mother to daughter – “a meeting place”, the artist states, “of remembrance for both”.
Some background. The exhibition was envisaged by Southcott as exploring aspects of memory and kinship and the idea that we learn from others. The vehicle for this project is the work and legacy of a number of art teachers and artists who taught art at the South Australian School of Art in the 1920s and 1930s, notably Jessie MacDonald, Maude Gum, Mary Packer Harris, Edwin Newsham, John MacAskill, Avis Smith and PH Williams. Recent research – particularly that undertaken by the Friends of the SA School of Art project, Through the Lens of Time, coordinated by Chief Researcher Dr Jenny Aland, the ongoing research of art historian Dr Adam Dutkiewicz and several Art Gallery of SA survey exhibitions – is beginning to build a rich narrative that details the particular contribution of these and other artist educators.
PH WIlliams, “The guests have departed”, 1926
Dutkiewicz, in his catalogue essay for Hand Over, traces a history of relationships and influences that functioned in this mid-war era. Avis Smith, for example, whose work is included in the exhibition, meticulously documented and collected examples of porcelain painting of artists working in this genre including Maude Gum and Jessie MacDonald, also in the show. Dutkiewicz goes on to draw links between Gum’s distinctive, geometric designs and the rise of hard-edge painting at the School of Art in the 1960s. It is this kind of dot-joining that enlivens Hand Over.
In this spirit, Southcott invited contemporary SA artists, Jenn Brazier, Simone Kennedy and Lee Salamone, to join her in presenting works that referenced in some way the idea of skills and practices being consigned to another generation. The results are intriguing in terms of how each artist has aligned investigations with the overall theme.
Brazier’s garden image photograph Secret Garden (Instinct and the Unconscious) and a period style chair with a silhouetted figure on the back rest are infused with an appreciation of Carl Jung’s theory of the unconscious mind using the symbolic representation of the shadow archetype. Dutkiewicz notes that Brazier’s “treatment of imagery suggests early photographic portraiture, the silhouettes of paper-cut, and older decorative art-forms such as the painted miniatures on ivory or in enamel, and the painted brooches of artists included (in Hand Over) like Jessie MacDonald and Gum”.
Jenn Brazier, Secret Garden (Structure of the Unconscious), 2017
Salomone has also used the chair as an open-ended catalyst for associations and memories. But unlike Brazier’s Rococoesque number, Salomone’s chair is a time-worn Depression era example, on which sits an item of bronze cast machinery painted, incongruously, Klein Blue. For the artist, there are resonances in this work with childhood memories of thrift, improvisation and consignment of cultural traditions and values.
Kennedy’s imagery has always had a surreal, wild-child edge, infused as Dutkiewicz has it, with Neo-Pop and Japanese anime. There is an ‘in the moment’ energy in the two linked paintings from the series of 26, entitled Failure to Thrive. While the artist offers possible readings include fragmentation of memory and an intensified ‘hand over’ moment as witnessed by a strange being, add to this some kinship with the dreamscape and free-flowing symbolist imagery of Mary P. Harris’ The Indian upon God Fire Screen.
Hand Over contains many such moments, nuanced to the point where creative journeys from the present and recent past seem only a heartbeat apart.
Murray Bridge Regional Gallery
Friday, February 3 to Sunday, March 26