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It is clear at first glance that Glen Skien, trained as a printmaker, brings the sensibilities of the collograph and the etching process to his assemblages—gestures of a wiped plate, incised marks, and emphasis on black and white with only accidental colour. Materials as diverse as piano keys, spines of old books and indeed whole altered books rest easily beside old photos, postcards, needles, knotted thread. There is a rich visual vocabulary in these works that engages the sense of touch above all others.
Glen Skien confesses to being an op-shop regular and a passionate collector and hoarder. Working with the detritus of studio and minute items that cannot be resisted, he celebrates that subliminal activity of dreaming, engaging both visual/sensory and narrative/conceptual content at the same time. If this could lead to chaos in the final product nothing could be further from the actual outcome. His work is superbly organised; minimal in places, rich in others, combined with a whimsical sense of humour and fine craftsmanship.
There is evidence of a philosophical stance here, fitting the browser/ collector of small things, because the sort of eye that chooses one thing over another is more engaged with their shape, colour and form, than what they are. In a sense this is a phenomenological approach to objects which clears the way to pure aesthetic manipulation, combination and invention.
There are a number of suites of works included in this show: some are variations on a theme, such as Miscellaneous figures, where torsos sit atop leaf shapes cut from etching plates, and Handheld which combines wads of postcards into cut-away spheres.
Recurring images of birds, figures and boats are investigated with an almost existential rigour in All the things I could have told you about birds, Trace, and The Europeans–Collected Histories. A newly introduced umbrella image appears in Biography, both in the positive and the negative—as a recess—with autobiographical references embedded in the surrounds. Skien seems to have the uncanny ability to penetrate the deepest folds of our unconscious, triggering memories of long forgotten moments, or flashes of images half-remembered.
It is tempting for a reviewer to start a discourse on symbols, signifiers or meanings. We can comment that the umbrella is a newly introduced motif, is autobiographical and that it is related to René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp and may symbolise the urban… but that is not what Glen Skien’s work is about. It is not about historical referencing although it is clear that he is very familiar with Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with Kurt Schwitters, and that the lessons of art history are taken on board. But these works are uniquely Skien, a vision nurtured by growing up in the north, messing about in boats, and through extended trips to Japan and Europe, where especially in the latter case, he experienced a sense of disconnectedness from Australia. The experience prompts him now to trace the undeniable connections with Europe in Australian culture. This is evident in all his work from the altered books, to the embedded histories and, strongly in the large prints titled The Europeans, in which etchings of botanical illustrations and hand-writing hang off the edge of handsome large prints of an archetypal boat shape.
Skien’s work creates a sense of mystery and visual intrigue, a state of suspended context. Edmund Husserl points out that there are occasions where intuition takes over, a process that enables us to grasp the essence of an object detached from its function or label. This detachment means objects can be used purely as form. Yet interpretation begs at every point. The viewer of Skien’s work is denied that explanatory ownership that we crave… but this is where a transition takes place. The viewer is introduced to a different kind of ownership… that of the experiential moment, slowed down vision, and quietness, while discovering the infinite possibilities and sensations that speak from found objects, much fingered surfaces, faded colour and the texture of age.
‘Alter’ does indeed alter the hasty mind in its rushed perception of the world, stills it to a pre-linguistic state where small objects became fascinating and worthy of investigation; it reconnects us with moments of touching, feeling, tasting, experiencing with every sense.