russell craig: mana

jo d'hage: gaea dreaming
Brisbane Powerhouse
6 - 25 October 2009

In Maori culture ‘mana’ is the word given to someone or something resonating with a sacred or noble power. It is widely used across Melanesia but such is its potency as a word for an object or person commanding great respect that it has entered the popular imagination. Russell Craig titled his exhibition of recent drawings with this word and links it to imagery inspired by residences he has undertaken in Japan, Thailand and France. Coincidentally, these countries all have strong traditions in printmaking, a field that the artist has, along with his drawing, been most closely linked. In fact, Craig is a product of the venerable Tamarind Lithography workshop in the United States, although he has for many years taught in the Queensland College of Art’s print department.

Craig’s eighteen large-scale conté crayon drawings displayed at the Powerhouse take advantage of the original concrete walls (some with graffiti) and are not confined to one floor level or display space. Black markings on a white base, Craig’s meticulously worked images show the presence of weathered stone monuments, shrines, simple ceramic pots, remote dwellings and river craft. There is a sense of ancient Greece in conversation with South East Asia, and a personal and respectful engagement with the natural environment. Several of the works are torn into shapes of a male torso (referring to the artist himself) but rather than being a literal representation they are divided into two realms that equate with earth and sky within which an accumulation of fragmented shapes are randomly deployed. Others are given the shape of a stone tablet, Close to Water for instance, where a white and black jar are featured below with stones above. The same is true of Black Currents although here the rectangle of the textured European paper provides the perimeter of the composition and shows how almost indecipherable these chiaroscuro drawings are from the art of lithography.

The symbolic weight of these images extends from the two scrolls that carry shapes reminiscent of tribal Aboriginal shields to the torn paper edges of other drawings that evoke lithographic limestones. Throughout this exhibition, content is inextricably bound to formal means. The conté crayon, so close to charcoal, is unavoidably linked to fire and rejuvenation. The depiction of a simple canoe from a hill tribe of Chiang Mai and the close-woven palm leaves for shelter also speak about survival. Tree Protection is shaped to resemble an enlarged neck amulet with a taut rope fraying below as though on the edge of breaking, while delicate winged seeds are airborne above.

For some this exhibition might be perceived as too traditionalist in its technique, but I see it as a welcome reminder of the efficacy of classical draftsmanship and the way in which it can continue to be relevant for our times. Hung against the backdrop of a revamped industrial site, Russell Craig’s authoritative drawings speak vocally of co-existence and mutual dependency in both physical and metaphysical terms.

Jo D’Hage explores a determinedly female ambit in reverie-like images for her ‘Gaea Dreaming’ exhibition, also at the Powerhouse. She is meticulously detailed in her approach to painting (as well as drawing) and the twelve panels and canvases shown here focus upon an iconic emblem, the swan, a much-loved symbol of mythology. In D’Hage’s hands it comes via the form of a domestic ornament from a 1950s dressing table or sideboard. White or pastel coloured, these china swans graced many suburban homes in Australia and have become part of the memory-bank of popular culture. However, no nostalgia is intended in these oval or full-length mirror-shaped images in oil pigment. They are strictly parables or implied narratives conveyed through a type of feminine collective memory or imagination. ‘Gaea’, or Mother Earth to the early Greeks, is portrayed as a vast desert by this artist, red-hued and populated by either one or several swans. Some bear interlocking braids of hair, others, like The Empty Well poignantly draw attention to drought conditions in Queensland. The surreal tenor of these works, their mythological overtones and the way that they have been painted (perhaps with a sable brush) conjures up the Renaissance and even the images of Salvador Dali, yet the male painters who envisaged Leda and the Swan were far from concerned with protecting the environment and identifying with her. D’Hage titles one of her oils The Scent of Pastness and here a single swan is portrayed looking up towards an open seedpod from the Lotus flower, a motif which reoccurs, along with bleached tree branches, circles of stones and the sensuous rhythms of hair plaits. In this image, the lotus pod sends down its fruit as well as drops of rain through a dispersed black wash.

Another image, Secret Melancholy, has a smooth river stone, or possibly an emu’s egg, placed in the china ornament where cut flowers would normally be. Above, the bleached interlacing web of a dead tree also serves as a lightening strike in the landscape. The verisimilitude of these paintings is remarkable and their puzzling riddles attract a broad range of interested viewers, both male and female. (During my Powerhouse visit, two young men from Caboolture took a break from their Creative Workshop to view the show, remarking ‘cool’). Through these works Jo D’Hage carries on a tradition of a number of Australian women artists (including Anneke Silver) who remain committed to nature mysticism and an iconography that is also attentive to memory and the domestic. It is of interest to contemplate whether the artist would be prepared to intensify the jewel-like and fantastic nature of her symbolism by reducing the size of her oil on metal panels so that some could be read as miniatures of portent?