Archetypal strategies

Fay Poole, Josephine Starrs, Margaret Worth, Barbara Zerbini
Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide; The Tin Sheds, Sydney; Queensland College of Art Gallery, Brisbane; Tweed River Regional Gallery, Murwillumbah

If artists of the 1980s ever felt the need to frame strategies they rarely said as much. 'Strategy', implying a conscious application of stratagems to achieve desired ends may prove to be a word for the 1990s. It has a tough, no-nonsense ring to it which echoes realities facing most contemporary Australian artists in a period of fiscal recession.

When qualified as 'archetypal ', its sense is skewed towards a plumbing of depths in search of elemental bedrock on which to reconstruct realities.

While the exhibition's title was the outcome of negotiation and some compromise between the four artists, its capacity to encapsulate the common ground between a diversity of interests and methodologies is, in retrospect, consistently effective. Each artist presents a close -knit series of works incorporating, to varying degrees, symbolic, narrative structures.

There is a conscious returning to departure points, a clearing of the way for re-enactments or a retracing of individual or collective experience. Such are the stratagems associated with midcareer artists and it comes as no surprise to see these being employed by Barbara Zerbini and Margaret North . There is a twenty year gap between the art school experience of these two artists and that of Fay Poole and Josephine Starrs. Within this extended time-frame, perspectives on the urgency and nature of "archetypal strategies" vary considerably

Zerbini and Worth have travelled and worked extensively and in the process have come to know what it means to be an outsider, drawing on inner resources to maintain personal balance and momentum. Both talk at times of being on a constant journey, a perspective which contains its own imperative to mark and chart the trail. Zerbini 's artist-in-residence experience at Gladstone in 1988, brought it all home-no networks, allegiances or reputations to rely on. From her Gladstone studio the artist gazed on a sea of black, twisted forms-grass trees (Zanthorrhoea thorntonii) periodically burnt-off to stimulate new growth. This phenomena proved to be a readymade symbol for the artist of the necessity to sacrifice something in order to maintain momentum. The instinct to retain hard-won and well honed perceptions and skills while risking flight on her lino print carpets, adds tension to these works.

Worth's expatriate experience sharpened her perceptions of Australia and more particularly the desert-crowned, beach-rimmed topography of her home state, South Australia. Like a dreaming castaway, the artist, working in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalled the colours of home, surprised at their clarity and insistence. "It was as if", she remarks, "I had absorbed all those ochres into my blood". Her 1988 exhibition, Edge Watch, marked a self conscious reconciliation with this landscape and its cultural history through the imagery of figures on the shore-sentinels, guardians or watchers,- "edginess" personified. These monumental figures matched the landscape in form and texture. A metamorphosis was taking place. People turning to stone or becoming as grave as stones. Related elements and strategies are to be found in the artist's Archetypal Strategies works. In Complicity the figure inhabits a notional forest drawn from Worth's familiarity with and concerns for the forests of north-east America and Tasmania. The figure bound to the tree trunk is at once ancestral, a protester chained to a tree in the path of bulldozers and the artist herself, taking shelter within and drawing strength from her art.

Twenty years separate the working experience of Margaret Worth and Fay Poole. Yet, in terms of perceptions and strategies, the recent works of these two artists have much in common. Worth armed herself with knowledge of myths and folklore in order to draw on the strength of purpose and vision these traditions offered. Worth has spoken at other times of this sensed relationship; "A strong magic comes out of it. it feeds me like a religion. it gives me strength ."

Fay Poole has adopted a similar strategy-looking back in time to Celtic art as a source of spiritual and creative authority. But her search for context has a pragmatic edge. Rather than a vapid essay in Celtic twilight consciousness Poole offers three quite down-to-earth Objects - disarming in their rusticity. The materials and methods of fabrication used refer not only to the artist's interest in ancestral (English) rural craft traditions but a search for media and processes which best communicate a desire for domestic order and spiritual harmony. Straw Woman, a monumental earth-mother goddess reflects the dual nature of this desire. In the three works, Poole's strategy for assembling a coherent body of work is coalescing. There is a consistency now in the preference for low-tech materials and methods of fabrication which echoes a return to simplicity within the constructions of Worth and the lino-cut prints of Zerbini. Poole 's most recent ambition is to fashion a monumental table-setting which, like the outsized Vessel, will invoke the ritualized pleasures of fashioning and using _the simplest of domestic utensils. Coracle however is an alternative symbol. In a Celtic context, it denotes a casting off from familiar shores to let the forces of chance and circumstance chart a course.

Josephine Starrs, like Poole is engaged in assembling a body of work capable of setting the scene for future development. Appropriately Starrs ' imagery is drawn from the Biblical Creations and in seven large black and white photographs she introduces the key actors and events leading to the Expulsion. Starrs' subscription to archetypal sources has been signposted previously in a number of works, notably the Descent of lnnana series, exhibited in Dreams of the Middle Ages at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia in 1988. The commonality of the Descent and Creation series is the status and fate of the respective archetypal women, Innana and Eve. Starrs' work has matured rapidly to match the artist's ambitions to generate a critique of the exploitative dynamics of culture. In the Archetypal series, the artist in some works declares her hand more openly by surrounding replications of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Creation frescoes with borders composed of images of women bound and gagged. Her strategy and message are transparently clear. The overtly politicised nature of this work distances it from the work of Zerbini and Poole but moves it close to the understated comment within Worth's monuments. But from another viewpoint the relationship with Zerbini's lino-cut images slides into focus. Like Starrs, Zerbini is occupied with an epic theme-not the creation but the future of humanity. This intention was far from the artist's mind when commencing the lino-cut series. However as one work sponsored the next the original idea to document a personal Odyssey was amplified by the imagery and its constant references to seamless assemblies of people. In Ad Infinitum the veil was lifted to reveal humanity locked into a cheerless lambada. This stern image has its source in Zerbini's interest in pre-Renaissance religious iconography and so within the context of this exhibition there is an ambient relationship with Starrs' Creation series.

Such are the conscious and less conscious strategies employed by these four artists that the interrelationships between the works are continuous and flexible. This free exchange underlines a fundamental strategy employed by all four artists. it has something to do with survival as an individual and translates as pulling inspiration from archetypal wells without falling in.