Mytho-poetic: Print and assemblage works by Glen Skien

Redcliffe City Art Gallery, Queensland
4 September - 18 October 2014

Well known for his low key, resonant imagery investigating aspects of the human condition and social history through the prism of personal experience, Glen Skien utilises etching and drypoint with collage, extending at times into the three-dimensional. This grouping of works from 2012–2013 displays the artist’s considerable technical skill and the innovation that underpins his cross-referencing of motifs and ideas within a given space. The entire show pulses rhythmically through serial groupings that play with the basic premise of printmaking’s ability to replicate itself, yet without the necessity of creating an edition.

Instead Skien offers one-off sculptural assemblages and artist books, as well as wall-based works, to evoke a narrative of the self and a navigation of memory and past events, in a quietly insistent manner, while also raising questions about Australian identity. He follows the observation that ‘The past is foreign and historical understanding is not so much a recovery of the past as a mediation between our sense of ourselves and our sense of the past’.1

Skien’s bricolage technique and richly layered mark-making serve images that are evocative rather than descriptive. They obscure the familiar to invite reverie and speculation. Take, for instance, the free-standing object in the exhibition, with its attendant prints, based on an incident in Mackay’s history, that of the crash of a Fokker-Friendship F-27 passenger aircraft in mid-1962, vividly recalled by the artist’s mother. The accident happened at night not far from the family home and there were no survivors. For this object, Skien took the image of a suspended wing severed from the aircraft and hand built a scaled down structure combining strawboard and etching plates. His fabricated wing is a memorial remnant that also endures as a metaphor for human endeavor and vulnerability. In reciprocation, each of the four prints on the wall beyond it are titled Resemblance (2012) and have a panoramic presence, as though elaborating on the cartography of lives lost in this Central Queensland disaster. They have an archival flavour to them, with each wing shape containing chambers marked with vestiges of activity. Soft ground etching has enabled scraps of muslin and lace to be replicated through the biting of acid into the metal plates, and the resultant prints have the effect of architectural blueprints on an intimate and domestic scale. For while the event loomed large in the collective memory of those living in Mackay at the time, Skien characteristically imbues his imagery with an intricate delicacy of touch and nuance that suggests the unraveling of individual stories. Furthermore, the rich patina and texture in both the wing object and etchings, the deliberate gaps and fissures in their forms, engender a sense of decay and the passing of time and, to the viewer, it is as though we are witnessing artifacts in a museum. 

Poetic associations abound in this artist’s work, with the autobiographical closely aligned with social commentary. The solitary figure frequently appears, as do groupings of birds, cursive script and symbolic markings. His foraging of ephemera includes old postcards, books and maps which have been transformed into tableaux that are often stitched or sutured together. Skien’s world has been knocked about, scuffed and frayed. There is little room for nostalgia, with colour kept to a minimum and the overall register tending towards the melancholic. Many of the images have been treated with encaustic or beeswax as though embalmed, as, for instance, the altered postcard series Archive of the Unfamiliar (2013). Here a selection of the humble hand-written messages with their stamped addresses and pictures are overlaid with markings that intentionally erase. The souvenirs themselves are of Australian, British and European origin and stand for a colonising enterprise, while the process of cancellation points to eradication of Indigenous culture, reinforced by the shadowy portrait of the artist’s partner who was born on Manus Island. Her features are presented in tandem with the reproduction of a southern hemisphere astrological map.

The black shapes of birds (crows perhaps) run through MYTHO-POETIC as part of etchings, or formed as sculptures from muslin impregnated with ink. They are like sentinels or harbingers of portent. There is uneasiness to the works which feature them, such as Biography 1-7 (2012), where the birds are submerged in resin; or in Object-poem 1: All of the things I could have told you about birds (2012), where the sculptures are matched with wooden collection boxes, stepping procession-like across the wall. A sense of estrangement and loss is paramount in this installation. So too with the two constellations of envelopes in the exhibition. One of these, titled Letters from America 1 (2013), alluding to the demise of a long running program broadcast by ABC Radio National, is comprised of hand-made muslin envelopes, whose interiors and surfaces have been embedded with cut out illustrations, encyclopedia-like, and etched forms, including the solitary figure. Seemingly random, the ensemble suggests a filmic sequence of ambiguous encounters and poetic conjunctions. In Archive of Country (2013) the envelopes are similarly arranged in a grid, with their reverse side facing the viewer. Made from discarded metal sheeting for etching and paper soaked in pigment, the flaps are sealed or partially open and hint at a possible narrative within.

Rendering their contents inaccessible, Skien’s Miscellaneous Altered Books (2012) are made from collage fragments of covers displaying portraits (ranging from Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan to Jean Baudrillard) with text similarly extracted from history and biography, fiction and poetry. The collage pieces have been cobbled together with thread, and become structures that blur distinctions between fact and fiction and offer a non-linear flow in the recording of experience. Similarly, the artist reconfigured covers from copies of the Readers Digest Atlas of Australia to suggest disjunctive arenas of the self. Here the figure is featured as an animated cipher set against an indeterminate and rough-hewn ground, featuring pieces of recycled etching plates cut up to allow glimpses of text. Striding, pulling and twisting, the figure here conveys the inability of the individual to escape history or fully recover from wounds of the past. 

Ultimately we are presented with the space of the home, where the mapping of personal stories and myth takes place and, as if to emphasise this fact, the final exhibit of MYTHO-POETIC comprises a row of slender poles each supporting the rudimentary form of a house. Rather than the conceptual and formal framework of the book and postcard, it is here with the work’s domestic reference that Skien provides an intimate yet uneasy memorial. ‘Self-narratives often run counter to the “bigger” stories of history’, he states, ‘In turn, they also influence and inform alternative meanings of identity and place. …such narratives often challenge rational inquiry, yet they are capable of conveying an intrinsic understanding of everyday existence.’2

Glen Skien, Object-poem I: Trace, 2012. Strawboard and drypoint etching plates, variable size. Courtesy the artist. 

Glen Skien, Letter from America I, 2013. Detail. Etching on muslin envelopes, collage and encaustic, 10 x 13cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Glen Skien, Object-Poem II, all the things I could have told you about birds, 2012. Strawboard, etching, muslin and pins, 250 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. Hans-Georg Gadamer quoted in H.G. Gadamer and H. Silverman (eds), Gadamer and Hermeneutics, Routledge, New York, 1999, p.167.

2. Glen Skien, ‘Mytho-Poetic: Foreign Correspondence’, catalogue essay in MYTHO-POETIC: Print and Assemblage Works by Glen Skien, Redcliffe City Art Gallery, p.12.

MYTHO-POETIC: Print and Assemblage Works by Glen Skien is a travelling exhibition developed by the Gympie Regional Gallery and toured by Museum and Gallery Services Queensland. It opened at Gympie Regional Gallery, 30 April – 15 June 2013touring to Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum, 14 September – 26 October 2013; Logan Art Gallery, 13 November – 20 December 2013; Artspace Mackay,
31 January – 29 March 2014; Caloundra Regional Gallery,
2 April – 25 May 2014; Redcliffe City Art Gallery, 4 September – 18 October 2014; Bunbury Regional Art Galleries,
12 December – 15 February 2014; Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery, 27 February – 6 April 2015; Port Augusta Cultural Centre, 13 April – 16 May 2015; Civic Hall Galleries, Port Lincoln, 1 June – 16 July 2015; Arts Space Wodonga, 31 July –
29 August 2015; Burnie Regional Art Gallery, 11 December – 31 January 2016.