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Alchemy. I started to think about alchemy and the magicking of base metals into gold, and somehow it seemed too eighties, too crass for Rosemary Laing - too much like Julian Schnabel turning broken plates and scumbled pigment into the sort of money the big end of town would drool over. Rosemary Laing's work is more poetic, more intelligently feminine, more lasting in terms of the way it changes you forever, and for the better. Her work is about the poetics of transformation rather than the get-rich-quick greed of alchemy.
I have admired Laing's work for a long time. When I heard the title of her latest exhibition, Groundspeed, I at first thought about aeroplanes - perhaps catapulted into take-off and rising for the skies. I also thought of another series in which brides in starched wedding dresses hovered like clouds in the blue distance.
Then I saw the new work in the gallery and realised the title referred to the computer generated floral carpets she had rather prettily cut-and-pasted into an overgrown woodland landscape. Then Gitte Weise rushed past, remarking as she went - and as she has probably had to do throughout the run of the show: 'They are real carpets, you know'.
'Of course', I lied. 'Very well done. I'm sure some people think they are computer generated.'
Now it was time for a good hard look. What Laing has so painstakingly done is to give us the reverse of trompe l'oeil - she has fooled our eyes into thinking that what we are looking at is fabricated rather than real. Not only has she laid the carpet in the forest and sprinkled it with leaves and branches, but prior to this she put down a layer of felt underlay and used that as a template for the final covering. lt was as if an eighteenth century court painter had hung a real cape on the back of a door and then painted onto the cloth to make it look like a standard example of trompe l'oeil.
And I must confess that while throughout this whole period of confusion the beautiful photographic prints remained at all times the same - it was my psyche that was doing the back-flips - I did enjoy the images far more when I realised exactly how they had been made. Perhaps my initial reaction relates to the general ho-hum-tiredness I feel for most computer imagery these days. How many air-brushed paintings, graphic designs, and album covers did we have to see before we decided we never wanted to see another example of air-brush technology ever again? But this new work of Laing's is more about experimentation than trickery. lt made me think of Jan Dibbet's classic 'Perspective Corrections' and of Callum Colvin's figurative paintings made on top of three dimensional objects. These are photographed from one perspective point and form a bridge between a Renaissance view of the world and a cut-up and collaged mid-century take on popular culture.
By the end of the 20th century, if you wanted to be an artist you had to be skilled in many different ways - and this at a time when others were critical of artists losing their traditional hand skills. You had to be able to work up an idea from concept to reality, and on the way negotiate a whole raft of situations. A small apartment with a copy of the Yellow Pages often took the place of a studio, and when an industrial space was needed for fabrication, or a dark room for processing, they could be hired, by the hour, as required.
Rosemary Laing is skilled at all these things and especially at raising sponsorship for her work - in this case Feltex carpets with their floral motifs harking back to the artist's adolescence. And these negotiations - as with Christo and his mammoth projects – are rightly difficult to separate from the final aesthetic outcome of the investigation.
Without the carpets these images would still be amongst the finest, most atmospheric, Australian landscape photographs in existence. With them, we are additionally invited, through Laing's own memory, in to the domestic and in to the suburban. We imagine the carpets rolled out on the shop floor, then selected, laid, and lived with.
In his excellent catalogue essay, George Alexander draws upon the writings of Don de Lillo and his 'avian eye for the strange new forms of social antimatter that arise in today's world: the themed restaurants and multiplex cinemas, the megastores and interactive arcades'. But it is when Alexander turns to the description of landscape and the different location shots that Laing chooses for her installations that her work inspires great writing in him - as in this passage about the bluestone quarry in Kiama where the photographs 'provoke images of Romantic castle ruins, but run headlong into the gutted memories of rotting convict hulks or decamped indigenous sites. The sea plashing against some Precambrian brute, the sky smeared by crippled cumuli, generate some of the pineal funk that descends as winter days grow short; and then in the middle, this lens-like carpet, like an alien pod or parasitical form. The carpet turns its back on nature's domineering advances, even though its patterns have been inspired by it'.
And finally, that brings us to the titles of the works themselves - Red Piazza, Harrowgate Flower, and Rose Petal. Domestic flowers find their home in the wilderness having been translated into carpeting and then transformed by Laing through a mix of hard graft and genius.