As part of the ANU (Australian National University) School of Art’s 2013 season of graduate exhibitions, Julie Brooke and Al Munro exhibited their final body of works from their doctoral degrees. In an exhibition that appeared to be exceptionally well curated, but in reality was a result of the artists fortuitously finishing their doctorates at the same time, their artworks exhibited strong correspondences in themes, approaches and aesthetics, with both artists exploring ideas around artistic and scientific systems. The exhibition was visually spectacular, with Brooke’s highly detailed paintings and Munro’s optical crochet circles. I was seduced, first by the spectacle, and then drawn further into the haptic space of crocheted surfaces, pigment markers and the soft washes of gouache.
Julie Brooke’s approach to her painting is strongly informed by her background in science: she views the processes of painting as analogous to an experimental process in science, the labour and time spent testing an hypothesis. For her doctoral research Brooke explored the conventions and ‘tricks’ of painting by paring back the layers of representation and isolating techniques that are used to create artifice: light and shadow, hard and soft, line and wash. Her spiral and tessellated paintings, while linear and stark, are also surprisingly soft when viewed up close: inside the segments of the spiral formations the gouache bleeds in soft washes, a human touch to the diagrammatic, which serves to highlight the very tensions of painting that Brooke calls upon to create her illusions.
By setting strict limits on the way that she undertook each painting, Brooke called into question the relationship of the artist to their materials and methods. Brooke imposed systems of working upon her paintings and then became subject to these rules herself. In the series Lines of Thought, undulating landscapes are created from red and grey tessellated triangles. To create this painting Brooke became subject to the laws of tessellation: if she changed the size of one triangle, the next would need changing in response. Brooke found herself mentally and physically wrestling with her paintings, negotiating with the systems that she herself had set.
Brooke’s paintings are skilfully executed and exquisitely detailed, but their real beauty lies in their formulation, in the processes that she used to construct them. By stripping away the pictorial qualities, Brooke has managed to create works that play between optical illusion and haptic sensuality. I am not left cold by her spare aesthetic of line and plane, but instead am somehow touched by the humanness of her diagrams. Operating from a distance as purely visual, the close range washes of the paintings seduce the viewer to come closer, to peer into the shapes and segments, to find the body in the diagrammatic. By taking the conventions of painting back to bare elements, Brooke also reduces the process of viewing to the embodied dance back and forth, peering in and out between the sensuous and the graphic.
Al Munro’s research started with the parallels between mathematical systems of measurement used in science and methods used to construct textiles. Using crochet, stitching and drawing, Munro was inspired by scientific diagrams of crystals and she began to investigate representations of their atomic structures. During her PhD journey this focus shifted to a fascination with the spatial qualities of diagrams and the spatiality of textile forms.
Relating a single stitch of crochet to a geometric point, Munro uses drawing and crochet to evoke atoms and microscopic crystalline formations. In Diffraction Drawing Series: Patterns from an Invisible World, brightly coloured texta dots map out some type of grid or underlying structure; there is a sense that this is a diagram of something, an elsewhere or else-what. There is a mass, a body somewhere, just beyond my comprehension.
In her Atomic Crochet series Munro’s crocheted concentric circles also conjure a sense of endlessness. The softness of the crochet speaks of the fuzzy logic of the universe, intimating hidden pockets and multiple folds. The large crocheted, Measurement for an Atomic Crochet, in black, white and metallic thread draws the eye in and out from a tunnel, the luxurious surface of the crochet adding depth and mystery. The textile surface, usually associated with tactile qualities, becomes something else in Munro’s crisply delineated circles; there is a tension between surface and line that plays out in an oscillation of figure and ground.
A sparse aesthetic is exhibited in Munro’s Museum of Standard Textile Measures, strips of paper of varying widths and lengths that are marked with black texta ‘measurements’. Obliquely referring to various scientific theories and terms (string theory, infinity), these paper tape-measures curl in on themselves, tangle or ball up like string. Measuring something or nothing, this work points to the arbitrary nature of measurement systems, as well as implying the presence of something else, something that is quantifiable, but unidentified.
Al Munro stresses that scientific diagrams of the natural world are not reductive, but can instead provide another way of reading the world around us.1 Both Munro and Brooke worked closely with qualities and concepts that are inherent in their media, but not in a manner that is inwardly gazing (art-for-art’s sake), rather they create dialogue around wider issues of art-making and, conversely, viewing. Both artists approach scientific data and methodologies using old media, paint, pencil, paper, thread, texta: simple technologies. The ordinariness of these techniques and use of units to construct imagery affords insight into complex systems. Far from being reductive, these diagrammatic works hint at opulent unknown quantities that lie at the outer limits of logic.
Julie Brooke, Lines of thought 2, 2013. Gouache and acrylic on paper, 90 x 120cm.
Julie Brooke, Strange object 26, 2012. Gouache and pencil on paper, 27 x 27cm.
Al Munro, Patterns from an invisible world, 2013. Detail. Pigment marker on paper, dimensions variable.
Al Munro, Atomic Crochet, 2013. Detail. Crocheted thread, dimensions variable.
1. Al Munro, From particular to pattern: visualising space in scientific texts and textiles, Doctoral thesis, 2013, p.3.