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Art Knits is an exhuberant and unashamedly colourful tribute to the quality of contemporary Australian dress design. Jane de Teliga must be congratulated on a presentation that does much to remove the sour aftertaste of the cynical Yves St Laurent show last year, with its aura of self-congratulation and couture worship. The ravishing colours of the knitwear, the frank acknowledgement of the Australian motifs and at times the witty comments (like Amy Hamilton's lugubrious "Sheep" jumper part of an outfit "An Historic Yarn" which is definitely more amusing than the Tom Roberts to which it vaguely alludes are optimistic signs for the future of this kind of creative art practice. As the designer Ruby Brilliant confesses, "Knitting is a journey through tactile and visual probabilities". This journey takes the viewer through a welter of images, imaginatively culled from bush and forest, from wildlife, the sea, from Australian popular culture and even medieval sources.
Yet the exhibition does raise some significant theoretical issues. Its stated aim (and that of Wearable Art in general) is to explore dress as an art form, or to legitimize fashion/dress by somehow attempting to move it nearer to art. But to conflate fashion with art is a false oversimplification. There is an important sense in which the art system and the fashion system are separately located within the cultural economy, although each refers back to the other for meaning. To attempt to move fashion to a position outside the pernicious consumer cycle is laudable but ends up as an impossibility within a gallery context. The objects still remain, in some ways, as rarefied as couture or high art. Even the attempt to distance the knitted and embroidered garments from the tradition of women's work should be acknowledged as problematic. Most of the designers are women and the garments themselves created for women. Although the technology of machine knitting is readily accepted by designers like Jennifer Layther, the dark shadow of unacknowledged "sweatshop" knitters still lingers on.
Nevertheless the uncomplicated charm and verve of the exhibition overrides such issues. Even the potential which fashion has for subversion was brilliantly handled by "Vain Extremities". The outfit produced by the Sydney team of Rose Borg and Peter Bainbridge, conceived around the latter's "love for French Revolutionary Chickens (pre-Gaultier)" is the most interesting item of the show. Witty and daring, it maintains a subtle balance between the theatrical and the hard edged style of contemporary fashion. The "bower" boots are a perfect foil for the "caterpillar" ballet tutu.
The display is unfortunately not as accommodating to the garments as it might have been. Clothes need to be worn and the video works better, in this respect, than the cosy "shopping arcade" display construct. The Inspiration boxes (would that we could all hand such items constantly near to hand) unhappily reflected the image of the viewer and not the assembled drawings and objects inside. Yet the exhibition and video are without question a fine celebration of local design effort. The charming vivacity of Artknits marks it out quite distinctively from the freakish Wool Board extravaganza at the Opera House in February which had all the banality of imported "stars" and the tedium of the international jet set.