Mandy Ridley’s Public/ Private: A Small Token brought together work four years in the making, work which began as a public art project for Brisbane’s Melbourne Street Southbank and became a cross cultural exchange in India. This exhibition is a homecoming for the artist and allows the visitor a meditation on the process of art making.
The exhibition consists of fifteen translucent polypropylene panels hanging suspended from the gallery ceiling; a large blue line drawing of Croton leaves crayoned directly to the gallery wall; and a collage of photographs depicting plants, project participants, Indian friends and street scenes filled with the flowers of offering.
For over a decade, Mandy Ridley has explored Folk Art from around the world, focusing on re-forming the original process into one familiar to her own environment. Public/Private: A Small Token draws on the traditional art of paper-cutting common to many cultures—China, Switzerland, Mexico and Hawaii, for example—as an inspiration for both process and intent. Its forms are commonly flora, fauna and the characters of legend, intricately and lovingly cut from a single sheet of paper to display ‘naturalistic’ scenes or interlacing decorative motifs based on local flowers and leaves. Their purpose is to decorate the home or community at various seasonal or festival times. Moved by the beauty of this delicate art, Ridley began by exploring the plants and flowers found near her home in Brisbane: the Bougainvillea flower; the fiery leaves of the Croton; and exotic frangipani.
Initially the designs shown in the exhibition were worked into paper using the decorative motif style. Photographs show them transformed by (computer-driven) laser cut into aluminium plates prepared for further development as public art. When the public art project was discontinued, undaunted, Ridley selected this series of work to accompany her to India where she returned as an Asialink resident. Indian culture is suffused with flowers in ritual and thanksgiving. The flowers common to her were common also to her new friends and she was quickly accepted. Indeed, many of the photographs in the exhibition show examples of festival garlands and roadside stands selling brilliant orange marigolds for public and private worship.
Liberated by her experiences in India, Ridley began to work quickly and lightly, sourcing materials immediate to her. The familiar translucent plastic of school folders and the white thread of dental tape became the paper and thread in the next stage in the transformation of the traditional folk art forms. In this exhibition, large coloured panels of polypropylene formed the background for layers of cut-out motifs made of the same material in complementary colours: red on orange; green on blue; cool, clear white on purple, reminiscent of the flower’s natural hues. Some panels have single or double, large stand-alone motifs, others layer small motif pieces into large snowflakes that, on close inspection, dissolve into a confusion of lines. A number relate to the decorative motif as a framing device and to lattice work. While others subtly contrast the stylised plant motif with a perspectival line rendering of plants and flowers, stitched in the Indian manner called Chickankari—a type of white cotton backstitch embroidered on light voile fabric, only here Ridley substitutes the contemporary ‘thread’ of dental tape for the cotton.
To understand the spirit of the art Ridley employs not only the subject but the medium to fit in with our cultural environment as distinct from those of the traditional practitioners. Her object, not to copy, but to instil within the form and herself a new practice and an understanding of the art itself. Though some of the flowers and plants used are not typically what one would associate with ‘Australian Natives’ they are to us suburbanites our native gardens—planted out from nurseries to our curb-side and feature walls, familiar to us from childhood. Similarly, the materials of plastic and tape are equally common to us from the schoolroom and daily routine.
These screens are a public manifestation of a private journey through layers of community interaction and the artist’s deepening understanding of her process. The panels’ cool plastic exteriors belie emotional human experiences tied together through a form of art that resonates in the heartland of the everyday.