Views and references 2.92: Shelagh Morgan

Selling off the herd: John Smith
Legge Gallery, Sydney

Shelagh Morgan and John Smith live at Eureka, New South Wales, which is relevant to the different positions they take towards 'the landscape' in their recent concurrent exhibitions at Legge Gallery.

Upstairs at the gallery, Shelagh Morgan installed two series of seven works, one in book form, the other, wall assemblages. The assemblage paintings are constructed with multi-layered Shelagh Morgan, site #4.92, 1992. Multi-media on layered perspex. sheets of perspex (usually three) bound in wooden frames. Each layer represents a facet of Morgan's style of 'archeological' sifting through the memories and histories not only of the geographical siting of the work but of her own 'collection' and recollection of it. These works classify and quantify. On the topmost layer of each work we see a grid, an imposed systemic structure through which we can move visually only when we ascertain our own position: once we see one layer above the next, we are given a choice of focusses. Next, we observe Morgan's own subjectivity- this is the second level, where she includes herself/her shadow as an active, if detached, participant of her surrounds. Under grid, over evidence, Morgan ambiguously casts a shadow of doubt over her own place in this schema. Represented as shadow, Morgan both realises her existence and negates any emotive presence within it. Her conspicuous absence-ofpresence/ presence-of-absence denoted via the incidental fall of the shadow, finds a dispassionate link to her own origins. The background panel in these assemblages is a synthesis of the artist's previous investigations: photographic documentation, site specific artifacts, random notes, layered with the residual images of the other panels, all of which come crashing down as near information saturation (being on perspex all of this imagery eventually 'lands' on the final backing panel).

Slowly we become aware of the greater narrative unfolding. From Site #1 :92 through to Site #7:92 we subliminally drift between the subtle references connecting each work. We experience what Morgan asserts is the more complete view of her evidence of passage. She suggests that looking at these works is not unlike looking through a wire windscreen stone-guard, with the option of focuses, including the road ahead. This is effectively illustrated in the books which allow for a more complex cross referencing and for a broader range of conceptual leaps. Each of the seven boxes contains subtexts that act a metanarrative.

They are scopic (yet less focused} via the device of a view finder placed over each box.

Ironically the view finder also helps to blur the boundaries of its find, its attention distorting the frame of the whole.

Ultimately Morgan finds herself not "having an essential connection with anyplace". The works are indices and classifications of the landscape, not of "life on the land". They reflect a removed and disconnected nature that montages information into, "discontinuous transition, where the 'spaces between' are most complete".

Unlike Morgan, John Smith's direct politic with the land, and especially cattle, bring him much closer to it. He is embedded in its produce (having a small herd of cattle) and also its by-products, the content and form of his art. This land often imposes on his studio practice and we are left with physical traces of this overlapping. The cattle whose portraits hang in the downstairs section of the gallery graze just outside his studio, whilst inside they are transformed as metaphor into a matrix of drifting meaning.

The notion of "selling off the herd" is crucial in accessing the micro/macroscopic contexts within which meaning can be found to operate in these works. Whilst each of the mixed-media pieces in the series entitled Selling Off the Herd, grows from an anecdotal incident on the property, the set as a whole operates as an extended metaphorical allusion to resource and land man agement issues. This becomes more apparent as one notices that each of the bovine beasts actually consists of two grotesque faces in profile, "negotiating the selling of the herd ", to quote Smith. At this level the works are indeed about the interconnections between the history of cattle culture and the nature of, amongst other things, economic aggression ; the word 'capital' actually devices from 'cattle', 'chattel'.

The other two series of works in this exhibition,

Loss of Meaning and Extending the Metaphor, indicate Smith's broader conceptual preoccupation- that is, explicitly, the question of how meaning is generated. How are shifts from the metaphorical rhetoric of 'selling off the herd' to the extended metaphorical position, from the micro to the macro or from the personal anecdote to the broader theme generated? The structural or syntagmatic connections between the three series are important here. For example, Smith has created the imagery in Extending the Metaphor by projecting slides of the cattle in the earliest set of works onto a panel at a severe angle, thus making a quasi-anamorphic image. Literally extending the metaphor. In addition to this (and other strategies of texturing and the use of photography) there are metonymic associations and contextual overlappings that occur in the whole notion of 'selling off the herd' in an art gallery. lt is of some interest to note that in Smith 's first major exhibition in Sydney in 1983 artworks were literally auctioned like cattle (like Artworks) at the opening . In Richard Dunn's catalogue essay Alias Smith and Morgan, that accompanied the Legge exhibitions, he refers to Smith's work as fractal, in the sense that it literally and metaphorically re-presents concepts based in chaos theory.

Smith's interest in the patterning of error is concretised in the second series, Loss of Meaning, where he continues a preoccupation with children 's drawings and with the power of the eschewed juxtapositioning of titbits of information from the adult world. Here we find a mixture of distortion and extension that echoes the mechanism of metaphor in the other two sets, inverting the whole notion of loss into gain. This inversion is no accident as Smith has been interested in the carnivalesque function of inversion (and its poetic inversion in children's 'play') in previous work.

In these works Smith maintains a very painterly approach to collage and to the use of mixed media. This painterly fluency creates an ambivalent integration between figure and ground that echoes the distortion and extension which occurs when one moves from the personal anecdote to the broader theme or issue. These three sets of work finally amount to a serious engagement with the 'play' of meaning itself, whilst consistently remaining committed to the 'home grown' subject.