wendy teakel

cultural spaces
Wendy Teakel
Canberra Museum and Gallery
8th February - 12th March 2002

Wendy Teakel's recent exhibition, Cultural Spaces, at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, is the impressive result of a consistent evolution of theme and working process. Hovering delicately between the physical and the numinous, it fuses a richly seductive aesthetic with a subtle play of meanings, revealing itself slowly. The material evidence of the artist's environment is a constant presence, as trace, as tool, as artefact, as symbol. The corrugated iron, chicken wire and star pickets are the artefacts of rural life. The structural devices of tensioned wire and crossed pickets are the sound but provisional methods of making do with what is to hand. The pokerwork inscriptions in the paintings are made with the scraps of wire and metal detritus of a farming environment. Teakel's sculptural works are always more than they seem, creating an inferred space within the gallery walls. They are sites which invoke other sites, journeys which extend beyond the boundaries of the work itself. In Hills and Valleys the corrugated iron presents a profile of range and valley, suggests an archetype of shelter, hints at the transcendence of the arch. lt has both the intimacy of a child's cubby house and the long view of a much-loved landscape. Respite consists of a line of chicken-wire tree-guards, voluptuously and playfully feminine, supporting a trough of tea and sugar in a gesture which implies the insertion of a domestic sensibility into the rural landscape. There is a quietly subversive humour in this piece, a chorus line of rural maidens bringing a ceremony of tea across the paddock. But they are transparent too, occupying their space lightly, the paddock visible through the filigree of wire. In Daily Traces, a pair of corrugated iron troughs are, at first glance, deceptively makeshift, supported by crossed steel fence pickets. But this is highly crafted makeshift, the fluted edges suggesting the gathered flow of fabric, the lacy edge of a skirt. Their contents of oats are inscribed with patterns of salt and sunflower seed, stock fodder that suggests nurture, seasons, the chores of farming. These works are deceptively simple, at once poetic, intimate and formal. The humble materials are crafted by a sensibility which acknowledges their origins and allows the symbolism to sit naturally within the forms. They engage the viewer first on a level which is tactile and familiar, then invite a deeper and more intuitive response.

Wendy Teakel's practice moves seamlessly between two and three dimensions. The installation/sculptures are threaded with pattern and hieroglyph. The surfaces of paintings bend and ripple, the brushmarks wrapping themselves around the contours and declivities of hidden forms. The presence of the body is implicit, whether in the scale and construction of the three dimensional works or in the repetitions and rhythms of the paintings and drawings. The latter, made largely on the floor, evolved out of earlier processes of laying down sand and pigments as the ground of the installation pieces. They are as much about being as about seeing. The mark is a pulse, like a breath or a footprint, a virtual inhabitation and animation of place. lt is a mark that does not require a particular dexterity, but is simply the body's trace moving tlhrough the work. lt becomes a strategy, a kind of meditation, for reaching the place from which the work is generated. The paintings are palimpsests, built up in multiple layers. Much of what goes into their making is ultimately hidden. They begin with burning, a patterned pokerwork which underpins the structure of the painting. Found objects become the tools used to represent themselves. The charred traces hint at the recurrences of bushfire and controlled burning. Textures are built and eroded, washed back and re-applied. The processes by which the work is made mirror the processes which made the landscape. In this way Teakel suggests the patterns of animal movements, the slow inscriptions of climate and time, the residues of human activity. These are luminous, vibrant works. Across the room one is struck by their power. Up close they surprise you with their subtlety of detail. The monumental work Fallow, a huge ochre cruciform in a darker surround, is a potent image, reading simultaneously as symbol and landscape. lt is both crossroads and cross, ploughed paddocks and the emptiness before regeneration. The surface is ridged and scored, a secret calligraphy of habitation concealed beneath layers of paint. Massed forms push and pull in the dynamic Summer Air, the tensions of its internal geography drawing the viewer into a psychological space. In First Light the burned imprint of fencing wire creates an asymmetric grid, bending the surface of the painted board as a fenceline bends the sightline of a landscape. Across it a scatter of golden brushmarks rises like an exhalation of night air into morning light. The Rainbow paintings occupy sky and earth simultaneously, reading as track or creek-bend as readily as arch or bridge. The small works on stretched paper, Paddock 1- 10, are a dialogue of images which converse with one another, a series of discrete moments which create a rhythm of interlocking perceptions. The chords and harmonies of these works play in multiple combinations across the gallery space, cruciform, grid, arch and circle surfacing and retreating within a syncopated rhythm of marks. An overview of Teakel's practice since the early 1980s reveals a consistency of theme and process which has distilled and matured. She has always paid attention to the meanings implicit in the materials themselves, of earth, stone, water, wood. The early installations strive more explicitly towards the archetypal, the mythic rather than the particular. They carry overtones of ritual and a faint menace, invoking nomadic encampments, stockades and shelters. The three-dimensional structures and glyphic symbols strive for a visual language which is both universal and personal, with overt reference to tribal and ancient culture. In tracing the artist's development there are consistent motifs, of shelter, bridge, barrier, journey, the feminine, the play between the personal and the universal, the inference of the physical presence within the ritualised, archetypal space. The highly coded pictograms of the early work have become progressively simpler, or have transformed into an almost invisible calligraphy. What one sees evolving is both a process which engages more specifically with place and an intelligence which monitors the responses to that place, which discovers and rediscovers the transcendent inherent in the ordinary. The work has become quieter, lighter, at times even playful. Yet a work such as Hills and Valleys embodies all the components of the earlier installations. The materials, (corrugated iron, oats, salt), invoke both the symbolic and the particular. The curved shapes of the iron reflect the recurring motif of shelter, hill and bridge/arch, the woven double track of salt the personal calligraphy of a journey that is both shared and separate. But it carries too the suggestion of a domestic, inhabited landscape, of grazing and farming, of sheds and paddocks. The finely observed iconography of the artist's own environment shimmers through the archetype. Teakel's work invites one to see through. The spaces between marks and structures punctuate and reveal what is otherwise only glimpsed peripherally. Origins and departures, 1994, with its shifting visual play between the thicket of inscribed poplar poles and the sooty ovals which appear to be suspended in the intervals between the poles, evolves through the tomato stake palisade of Meeting, 1995, to the quieter refractions of Hill Fenceline, 2000. This last work is delicate, formal , deceptive. Horizon or transection, depending on one's point of view, it suggests the summit of a grassy hill, the convergence of paddocks, the point at which one sees beyond rather than through. This instability of visual readings surprises the viewer into an unpremeditated and visceral response, and is one of the definitive qualities of Teakel's work. Teakel has at times been challenged for her use of 'mark' in a way which appears to replicate Aboriginal mark-making. While the parallel is legitimate, the criticism in my view is not. This is a personalised language, the means by which a non-Aboriginal artist must create a symbolic language of place and presence where no formal shared language exists. Aboriginal painting is a representation of a world in which the sacred and the quotidian are not separate, where ancestral activity is re-invoked through mimesis, where the country is continually re-created through the attention of its custodians. Teakel's art carries something of the same intention. lt cannot re-invoke the ancestral acts of creation which underpin traditional Aboriginal painting, nor does it attempt to. Instead it fuses a different psychological legacy with the physical and emotional experience of a place whose geography reflects her sense of self, of family, of the sacred. This is not an art of appropriation. lt is an art created from the attentiveness to place, the slow formulation of mark and structure which the artist has unearthed from her own ground. 'Regional' in the best sense of the word, the vocabulary of place is drawn from a lifetime's familiarity with its particulars and informed by a sophisticated grasp of contemporary artistic practice. lt is deeply grounded in the details of rural life, its materials, its practices, its detritus, both natural and cultural , its light, its moods, its seasons. lt does not offer a critique of farming practices, nor an ironic distance. Instead it offers the subtlety of form and the vibration of light on a patch of earth, the glimpse of an horizon through the folded mesh of discarded bird wire. lt is an art of the ordinary, transfigured through the artist's attention into an act of homage.