Lateral spaces

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:59 -- damien
Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller and Madonna Staunton

Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller's and Madonna Staunton's work, which is often based on found objects and interpreted as domestic, feminine, or private, has had little place in the official histories which have characterised Queensland art as a tradition of painterly expressionism. Here, Beth Jackson analyses these artists' practices, alongside those of  Merv Muhling and Robert MacPherson, seeing them as offering an alternative history and a critique of totalising museum and historical structures.

The works of Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller and Madonna Staunton do not categorise easily into any style or “ism”. There is no hierarchy of media in their works, which include drawing, photography, painting, collage, assemblage and photocopy. There is a privileging of the found object and found materials. It is this very lack of hierarchy along with the dominating motif of the found in the oeuvres of these two artists, and their eclecticism, that engages in debate with the hierarchic history of modernism and the similarly hierarchic socio-political geography of core/periphery, centre/margin. From a contemporary postmodern view of history, modernism is recast as merely “one of the players”[1] and the core/periphery structure as a socio-cultural and political fiction.

It is not the aim of this article to compare and contrast the works of these women in the manner of modernist/formalist criticism, extracting the aesthetic and technical nuances of difference. The practices of these artists are mutually supportive—they are similar, to some extent co-operative, and they take a unified theoretical direction. It is the critical implications of their practices that I wish to explore in order to extract a political difference (the différance of Derrida).

Two immediate and lasting impressions of Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller's recent retrospective exhibition, A Visual Diary 1979-91, curated by Stephen Rainbird and held at the Queensland Art Gallery, were: firstly, how uncomfortably her work inhabits the Gallery/Museum environment; and secondly, how remarkably well her art has retained its impact. These impressions were to resurface and dominate once again in viewing the works of Madonna Staunton. Both of these aspects are directly attributable to the use of the found object. The privileging of found materials links art firmly to everyday life, while validating it with a literal historical significance.

The title, A Visual Diary, and the strong biographical emphasis in the catalogue essay, privatises Lillecrapp-Fuller's art. Her powerfully feminine works with their strong domestic emphasis, are disempowered by the labels “intuitive”, “subjective” and “private”. The distinctive and unsettling feature of Lillecrapp-Fuller's work is not that it is private per se but rather that it brings factors of privacy, subjectivity and personal history into an art historical and critical arena. There is nothing intrinsically private about pegs, plates, forks, horsehair. However, they are objects that have meaning beyond an aesthetic context or even an issue-based art. They are objects which have their own functions and histories outside the gallery. Lillecrapp-Fuller has always made her art at home, quite literally on the kitchen floor. The equation of living space with working space is the basic conceptual strategy in her practice.

Today, most of the political, economic and aesthetic investment in the art museum presupposes the separation of museum space from that of everyday life. This represents investment in the institutional coding which distinguishes between decorative painting and wallpaper, between ‘bad art’ as a style and plain bad art, between deliberately de-skilled techniques and technically incompetent art, between advertising styles as art and commercial advertising. The borderline between museum art and kitsch, ‘amateur’ art, designer decoration, mass media, etcetera has never been more tenuous or contentious.[2]

In exhibiting Lillecrapp-Fuller's work in the Art Museum all of these generic boundaries come under criticism. The museum is unable to validate her art as non-amateur, deliberately de-skilled, non-decorative. Her art defies these categories.

Art making occurs through simultaneous processes of the artist's individual investment of meaning in his/her chosen form(s) and a reification of institutional qualitative assessments. Nowhere does the slippage between these collusive processes become more apparent than collectively in the works of Lillecrapp-Fuller. The method of collage not only defies these institutional assessments, but also attenuates artistic intention. Lillecrapp-Fuller's use of series and repetition also works to counter notions of uniqueness and individuality and will be discussed later in relation to the works of Madonna Staunton.

Brisbane River (Blue) 1982, consists of two panels, each of four photographs, overpainted with blue acrylic, with echidna quills sewn onto their surfaces, and the sewing needle left hanging. The photographs are snap-shots of the river banks around the Botanic Gardens where debris and mangrove roots and shoots lie half~submerged in the mud at low tide. The process of collage extends this submerging/veiling metaphor evoked in the photographs. While the process of sewing may be linked to the domestic environment, the echidna quills are severed from any obvious referent, present simply for their tactile and physical properties. Are they placed there merely for decoration? Is this work a sophisticated critique on the space of photography as constructed, where the collage process highlights the non-illusionist qualities of photography? Is the use of snapshot photographs and sewing a deliberate act of de-skilling, or is this the work of an unskilled artist? Is the work merely the sum of the childhood significance of sewing for the artist, the chance finding of echidna quills, and her intuitive associations of these with Brisbane River photos? It is really none of the above. It is a much more domestic and materialist critique of seeing. The echidna quills are defamiliarised—in fact, if the collage materials were not listed on the accompanying label then it would not be obvious what they were. Similarly, the objects half~submerged in the mud in the river bank photographs are obscure and yet their material reality is documented, snap shot style. The quills are referentially obscured by the art process just as the river has submerged the debris—the art world/river claiming objects for its own.

The works of Madonna Staunton experience a similar crisis when placed within the art institution. Staunton, as a collage artist privileging found material, links her practice with everyday life every bit as firmly as Lillecrapp-Fuller. However, the crisis is tempered by Staunton's strong formalist aesthetic and the iconic format of the majority of her works. This aspect of art making is one which the art museum whole-heartedly validates. However, the formalist emphasis does not empty Staunton's works of their critical potential. The critical target of collage and found material in this case is shifted from the art institution to the history of modernism, as will elaborated later.

In describing an artistic practice that is not compatible with the art institution I am describing a marginalised position. The museum is, and is becoming more so, the preferred site for a broad range of practices, including and even specialising in alternative or radical practices-it is in this light that Lillecrapp-Fuller's and Staunton's incompatibility appears as a conservatism. Their marginalised positions are fed by their experience of feminine identity and by their long term residency in Brisbane (both artists have travelled widely within Australia and overseas).

Both artists have worked in relative isolation; both initially exhibited with and eventually split from the Ray Hughes Gallery. Their break from this mainstream dealer can be seen, again, as an incompatibility in their “type” of art making. Their work is contemporaneous with and is marginalised by a modernist painterly tradition, (John Molvig, Lawrence Daws, Andrew Sibley, Gordon Shepherdson, Sam Fullbrook and others) which has been considered the dominating heritage characterising Queensland Art, “a kind of late flowering of figurative expressionism” to quote Bernard Smith.[3] Smith's description at once accredits Brisbane with a role in the mainstream art history while qualifying it as “provincial” and “Philistine”.[4] This relationship has an obvious parallel in the geopolitical periphery/core structure of Western capitalism.

In occupying a marginal position relative to a mainstream tradition, Staunton and Lillecrapp-Fuller have not adopted an avant-gardist stance. Due to their strong ties with everyday life, feminine and personal experience and domesticity, their position remains largely unassimilated. To better illustrate this point their work bears comparison to two other artists of their generation who have lived and worked in Brisbane and whose works have a strong dependence on found materials. These comparisons are intended to go some way towards mapping out an alternative tradition and to further explore the transgressive potential of the found object, found materials and the collage process.

Merv Muhling has worked predominantly in the area of jewellery. While rarely featuring a found object in his works, his jewellery is made using found materials such as galvanised iron, brush timber, rusting oil drums, etcetera. Quite often printed logos will be left apparent. These materials are combined with the traditional jewellery-making materials of gold, silver and other media such as wire netting and papier maché.

In using unrefined, found material in jewellery Muhling refers to indigenous cultures' use of shells, stones, grass, flowers, etcetera, in bodily adornments. Muhling's found materials consist of natural timber from the Australian bush as well as the rusting iron debris of Western culture. In combining these materials with the highly refined pure metals of silver and gold, Muhling criticises dominant notions of primitive/ sophisticated, raw/refined, common/precious. His work is a sophisticated critique of the conceptual function of jewellery within a culture, rather than presenting it as decorative objects of adornment. Nevertheless his work has largely been given the critical neutrality associated with the decorative/craft realm. His most recent work has been large-scale sculpture involving furniture forms from early colonial Australian history. Once again Muhling investigates Western forms of cultural primitivism (incorporating references to Modernist still-lifes) and the function/ nonfunctional boundary in art making.

Robert MacPherson has utilised the found object and found materials throughout his career. Living and working in Brisbane and also showing initially with Ray Hughes, MacPherson is now more strongly associated with art spaces such as The Institute of Modern Art and radical, conceptual, post-object art practice. MacPherson, unlike Lillecrapp-Fuller or Staunton, has adopted an avant-garde stance in his art making. He has situated his practice within an international context, and in his systematic progressions through the limitations of Greenbergian modernism MacPherson has harnessed the power of the found object as his critical tool. The inclusion of paint brushes within his works pursued the modernist logic of reduction to a point of exhaustion, and rooted “high art” concerns in the materiality of process.

The adoption of a vanguardist position by MacPherson makes the art institution the preferred venue for his practice. In this way, MacPherson’s works become mediated by the art museum and trapped within parasitic critiques of the institution. This is the fate of most contemporary alternative practices.

Modernism not only redefined the relation between viewer and art object, but also the architectural environment for art. During the inter-war period, internationally, modernism began to dictate to museum design, lifting it out of nineteenth century trappings and into a presumed ‘universal’ space. This produced the familiarly austere white walls, linear hanging and fetishised spaces for discrete objects. The ‘autonomy’ of the work of art was translated into a spatial reading. The architecture of modernism interposed specific conditions on how art might be encountered, viewed, experienced and judged. These contemplative spaces were mostly unsympathetic to pre-modern and non-modernist approaches... One could be forgiven for thinking, after visiting the museum spaces for contemporary art in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, that large scale is a prerequisite for good art.[5]

Equally so for Brisbane. And, with privileged, isolated spaces, such as the Queensland Art Gallery's Gallery 14, installation art practice can be seen as a furthering of this autonomy of the work of art, a further space of specialisation and even a furthered interest in the “bigger is better” mentality. In this process, alternative spaces such as the Institute of Modern Art lose the ability to fundamentally differentiate themselves from the larger institutions.

An early four-part work of MacPherson's, entitled Secular Red, 1978, now hanging in the Queensland Art Gallery as part of the permanent collection, uses red found objects such as red plastic combs, and tourist postcards (of the Australian “great red” kangaroo). MacPherson explores how these 'secular' objects from the Philistine world of kitsch are endowed with the iconic status of the art object, comparing the process with the mysticism of religious rites.

It is this ability of the found object to both retain and transcend its referent that empowers its critical potential and is explored time and again in the work of Madonna Staunton. Most of Staunton's work is untitled but a work such as Secular Icon 1985, (exhibited in the 1985 Australian Perspecta) is a concrete example of this intention. The strategy of working in series, integral to her working method (and that of Lillecrapp-Fuller), is a way of refuting this iconic status. Playing out the various permutations of one single artwork debunks the notion of ‘an original’ and sets up a form of play which makes the viewer part of the creative process. It is also an act of obsessiveness—that supposedly traditional feminine mentality which folds the clothes a certain way, hangs the washing on the line in a certain order, cooks certain meals on certain nights of the week.

Staunton’s reverence for tactility reaches beyond the realms of language into the compensatory ‘other’ realm of the feminine. Her’s is a vision far from the heroic notion, far from the notion of the artist struggling to make concrete a completely formed idea. Of her artworks she states: “To a certain extent I like to be indulgent. I enjoy the playful, but it has to be ultimately under control. That's the difference between art and anarchy.” [6]

Her's is, literally, a conservative practice which recycles waste, finds and makes precious the discarded, reuses that which is no longer useful; an art longing for a lateral space in which to pay homage and respect to objects before they disintegrate. Her art is an attempt to interrupt the cycle of decay and replacement. In this sense her use of lateral continuity, and her use of the concepts of originality and serial repetition, are the antithesis of modernism’s usage.

The canvas surface and the grid that scores it do not fuse into that absolute unity necessary to the notion of an origin. For the grid follows the canvas surface, doubles it. It is a representation of the surface, mapped, it is true, onto the same surface it represents, but even so, the grid remains a figure, picturing various aspects of the ‘originary’ object: through its mesh it creates an image of the woven infrastructure of the canvas; through its network of coordinates it organises a metaphor for the plane geometry of the field; through its repetition it configures the spread of lateral continuity. The grid thus does not reveal the surface, laying it bare at last; rather it veils it through a repetition.[7]

Staunton's work Intervals 1982, is a four-part work each consisting of eight collaged horizontal strips of old cardboard from piano roll cases. These strips are mounted on harmoniously coloured sheets of paper. Intervals is an intense work in its formalist impact, hierarchically ordered and centred, its blank repetitive format broken only by the slightest variation in arrangement. Some of the strips have a semi-circle in the centre; in one case Staunton has aligned them so that they form a circle and in another case she has placed the strip so that the semi-circle is along the upper edge. In observing these small details of artistic intervention, one notices the minutiae of the found objects. The work is certainly the mapping out of surface, an image of the woven infrastructure of paper. It pivots upon the centrist formula which ultimately refers only to the frame. The originary object, veiled, pictured in its various aspects and framed, is the found object—the piano roll cases. This object makes no claims to be original, to be a product of authorship or to be the transcendent signifier of an authentic signature gesture, to signify a conscious imagination or a subconscious archetype.

If modernism's domain of pleasure is the space of auto-referentiality, this pleasure dome is erected on the semiological possibility of the pictorial sign as nonrepresentational and nontransparent, so that the signified becomes the redundant condition of a reified signifier.[8]

Staunton’s work is presentational rather than representational. In representation, the sign is a substitute for the thing itself; here, the found object is the thing itself, subsuming the collapsed sign/signified. In Staunton’s work it is not the aesthetic process which makes redundant the “originary” object but rather the found object (originary in the sense that it is a source material) which makes redundant the aesthetic process. Aesthetic considerations are processes, casting the artist as collector, arranger, mediator (Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller’s bower bird persona) and not the archetypal genius.

Staunton’s and Lillecrapp-Fuller’s dialectical cntlque of modernism both in its institutional and rhetorical manifestations is characteristic of women's relationship to modernism throughout its history, speaking as they have though a marginalised, qualified voice. With the recognition and analysis of their strategies modernism is denied its monolithic dominance as art history and can be recast as merely “one of the players”. It is the recovery and reconstruction of such alternative practices and traditions and not just the deconstruction of modernist history which is the postmodernist challenge to criticism and art history.

Both Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller and Madonna Staunton have made strong use of language and language metaphors in their use of found material. This includes both a use of found language (that which appears as handwritten or printed traces on found objects) as well as a larger structural language-like approach to the organisation of found materials. (The didactic relationship of the title to the work has never played a significant role.) Staunton's works made extensive use of a calligraphic line, evident in her use of string and textile fibres (Untitled 1986, a four-part work, Museum of Contemporary Art Collection, Brisbane).

Lillecrapp-Fuller’s exhibition, A Visual Diary, included a case of found material which had been sorted, ordered and arranged into different groupings. This process has multiple meanings: the traditionally feminine domestic obsessive mentality which cleans and tidies, organising personal living space; a collecting of historical paraphernalia of both personal and social significance with the aim of preservation; the invoking of the systematic structuring and classifying of language. Collectively, these processes break down the sociopolitical divide between the public and private spheres, epitomised in Lillecrapp-Fuller's Pegged Out, 1990.

These artists' privileging of tactility and material reality over the realm of ideas and the central relationship of their works to language prevents the projection of these works as 'other'—decorative, feminine, domestic, intuitive. Their most recent works are strong in this intent. In 1991 Staunton held an entire exhibition of works which consisted of two sheets of painted lines of “writing”. The writing in these works is gestural and not legible. Lillecrapp-Fuller's 1991 series, Untitled (Erratum), consists of photocopies of type-writer ribbon forming a ground for collaged objects.

Lillecrapp-Fuller and Staunton do not see language as ‘other’ to their work. They make the transition from object as sign to sign as object smoothly. Language, however, posits the feminine as other to itself—pre-existent and primitive. The role of the feminine within language can be analogised to the role of the art of Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller and Madonna Staunton within language and structures of art history and art institutions. In making the analogy I am centring their marginalised concerns in the core of these structures, while allowing them to remain in a position of deferral not only to these forces but also, and most importantly, to the found objects which they privilege, which in turn speak of other histories.

notes: 

[1] Ian Burn, “The art museum, more or less”, Dialogue: writings in Art History, Alien & Unwin, 1991, p. 173.

[2] Ian Burn, as cited previously, p. 174.

[3] Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1970, Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 407.

[4] Bernard Smith, as cited previously, pp. 407 & 410. I am not suggesting that Smith is remiss in failing to include Staunton in his survey—the title of his work precludes her and is evidence enough of the Art History hierarchy.

[5] Ian Burn, as cited previously, pp. 170-171.

[6] Statement made during a recent interview with the artist.

[7] Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MJT Press, 1985, p. 161.

[8] Krauss, as cited previously, p. 161.

Beth Jackson is a critic and is part-time Curator/Cataloguer of the Griffith University Art Collection, Brisbane. Madonna Staunton is a Brisbane-based artist.

Helen Lillecrapp-Fuller is an artist and lecturer who bas recently moved from Brisbane to Adelaide.