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Kath Kerswell, Barbara Poulson, Raquel Redmond
The exhibition of the works of Raquel Redmond, Barbara Poulsen and Kath Kerswell was the third in a series of pilot programs leading up to the official opening of the new Arts Council Gallery in Brisbane. The concern of these three artists is the socio-spatial. Three working mothers have addressed, in different ways, the issue of female spaces-the problematic overlays of private and public, of emotional interiority and physical organisation and expression.
Raquel Redmond began producing her linoblock prints when at home with her two small children. The works alternately display the exterior and interior of old Brisbane houses in vibrant expressionist colour. The homes are old 'Queenslanders' and their intense laborious rendition in an almost exotic naïvety binds the scenes with a sense of lived-in ordinariness and a factual recording of everyday detail. Yet the almost iconic repetition of certain objects—the empty chairs, opened suitcases, lattice work, verandahs, reveal a deep concern for domestic space: the ambiguous space of the verandah which is neither inside nor out; the 'travelling', 'essential' space of the suitcase; the comfortable, inviting space of the chair.
The works constantly allude to a human presence and human usage without succumbing to a negativity of absence. The arrangement of colour, attention to detail and the material dominance of the linoblock process create a strangely positivist feminine aesthetic which claims 'I notice', 'I am constantly aware of my environment', 'I organise and I am organised by my space and my possessions.'
The three dimensional ceramic works of Barbara Poulsen address a similar concern on a more symbolic and theoretical level. Poulsen's work is informed by her growing awareness of feminist theory. Poulsen finds in the clay medium and the ceramic vessel a metaphor of femininity. Malleable, durable and plastic, pivoting on the duality of surface and volume, it is reflective of the partriarchally defined feminine with her sensitive surface of skin, her innumerable personas and nameless multitudinous desires.
Poulsen's theme of duality is inspired by lrigaray's description of the female sex as 'composed of two lips which embrace continually. Thus within herself she is already two ... who stimulate each other'. Two patterned surfaces on one of her vessels are arranged at angles such that they eclipse each other as the viewer moves. Two vessels are printed with black and white text which, unreadable, symbolises the repression of the feminine in language and binary logic. Though relying on an understanding of the French feminist theorists, Poulsen's work, on another level, is very accessible. The vessels refer to centuries of women's working with handcrafts and the decorative arts within the domestic realm.
Poulsen 's works range from vessels painted with hand-coloured slips to glazed tea sets, jewellery boxes and architectural clay constructions. Thus she explores the tension between the functional and the aesthetic where rituals of the tea ceremony and jewellery adornment hover in the boundaries.
The works of Kath Kerswell are also representative of the past few years of her work. They show a clear dividing line between black and white figurative etchings and abstract coloured collages, drawings and constructions. It is an unusual combination to be found concurrently within an artist's oeuvre. Kerswell states that she has always produced the two forms of representation in conjunction-patterns of colour partnering black and white figures. Historically the realms of abstraction and figuration, colour and black and white, have been defined in terms of opposition and continue to be used as the most basic of distinctions when discussing artists and art movements. Recent criticism, however, increasingly reveals close links between the two apparently disparate spheres (links between minimalism and conceptualism for example). Kerswell produces two radically different art forms and exhibits them side-by-side, inviting the viewer to forge the linkages. The success of her dialogue of representation resides in the intimate scale of her work and an emphasis upon its handcraftedness.
The coloured abstractions Twelve small lost emotions, Pieces of shattered hopes, Relics (constructions incorporating pieces of demolished houses), involve a conscious process of veiling an explicit emotional content, of tracing the private and the intimate. These works are a far cry from the large-scale abstractions of the American male artists of the '50s whose canvasses desperately fought for their universalist unconscious content. The intimate scale of Kerswell's work allows the abstract art object to become the emotional fragment or relic of which she speaks. The collages and constructions frame and contain the human experiences depicted in the figurative works. They speak of the inadequate social structures that organise and regulate our lives.
The figurative images are dominated by the theme of motherhood-images of children, young mothers, two women calming a child. As well as single images framed and hung, Kerswell also presents these works in four folios, pictorial sequences on chosen themes. These are displayed in such a way that they can be opened and perused. Her etching plates are also displayed. The print drawings have been made quickly, as with an almost single continuous line, concerned to capture the intensity of a moment. The works are intimate and accessible, generated from the less-than-hand-size 'preciousness' of the pieces combined with an informal attitude to her art making process.
Just as the formal elements of her work pivot on the juxtaposition of abstraction/figuration, colour/black and white, Kerswell's thematic concern of social fragmentation is created through a dialogue of exterior/interior, social/emotional, public/private. The abstract coloured works are both representations of exterior social structures which label, organise and regulate the human person and interior fragments of human emotion and memory. So too the figurative works are both interior incidents of personal history and exterior symbols of social alienation and nurturance. Their implied narratives invite the viewer to reconstruct the substance of fragmented female experience. Kerswell's work is an intimate critique of human bonding and in its positive feminist vision calls for a matrilocal society—a central location of the primary human bond, that of mother and child.
In the group exhibition of these three Brisbane women artists, each artist's work complements the others' creatively. Collectively, their artworks explore and redefine traditional generic boundaries (the functional and nonfunctional, the abstract and the figurative, the decorative and the elite). Valuing a tactile intimacy, their works seek to demystify the gallery space and transfer an emphasis on the art object to process and thematic development. The new gallery space, though small, successfully caters to displaying a variety of media. The Arts Council Gallery is a promising new space for Brisbane.