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Julia Robinson’s solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre continued her hallucinatory work that often uses animal forms to stand as metaphors for humans, while simultaneously possessing their own strange lives. Robinson’s work is intense and engaged with labour, experimentation and the exploration of liminal areas of human experience.
In this ambitious exhibition, laid out as a narrative over the three rooms of the gallery, there was a shift in her making, in that often her crippled and tormented beasts are almost impossibly firmly sewn into their fabric coverings, while this time they were wrinkled and looser-fitting. Thus the work was somehow less crafted and more activated, though still very finely made, referencing women’s highly skilled but faceless and nameless work with textiles over the centuries. There is an echo, too, of the work of Yinka Shonibare, whose headless nineteenth century figures, clad in the archetypal European costumes of their time made up in African wax fabrics, spin and twist with a writhing energy.
Unlike many examples of the taxidermy turn in contemporary art, Robinson does not buy her creatures online or even use blank foam bodies, but has always made them from scratch. This involves drawing from life, modelling in flywire and ultimately, painstakingly covering them in fabric, not fur.
Thus her beasts are never merely imitating life but tapping it like poltergeists, or even children’s toys, which always keep some kind of talismanic quality linking them to talking animals and substitutions that happen in the dark. Often Robinson’s works evoke beings from a still forming nightmare—a half-goat is strapped to a prosthetic chair, two disembodied arms reach out from a bedhead, a giant tooth straddles a chair. These are just a few examples of the weird worlds she has brought into being.
One to rot and one to grow are words from a proverb about planting seeds and the need to plant four for each one needed: ‘one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow’. Robinson has often stated that all her work is about death, but in this exhibition it is the return from death, resurrection and its methods and rituals that concern her.
In the interview with Logan Macdonald in the exhibition catalogue she mentions being influenced by the epic poem of Finland, The Kalevala, and in particular the section on the hero Lemminkäinen’s restoration, which describes the painstaking ritual undertaken by his mother in piecing him back together.
The first work that you see in the exhibition space, Folk Death, is a deer with its head covered in a black cloth, its wrinkled white velvet skin has been dyed grey with swabbings of black ink. It stands on thin wooden dowel stilts which pierce its body, and it draws a strange useless plough-like form. The blindfold suggests sacrifice as, indeed, does its title. The adjacent work The loud wound involves grain pouring out of a large white wall-hung costume, pierced by giant metal knitting needles. I recognise it as a mystery. The mystery cults of ancient Greece showed an ear of wheat to initiates. Yet this work seems somehow to be from a different story than the other works in the show that strongly connect with each other.
In the second gallery The Middle Place was hunched, a Neolithic black smokehouse igloo-bunker, made of blackened cedar shingles with a felt chimney and entrance, suggesting a grave where incineration might occur and the soft exit of spirit, or smoke, seems assured. The back gallery held Rutting Creature I and II, two sets of two deer poised in dance positions imitating sex. Like the Folk Death deer they were masked, both their anonymity and ecstasy were hidden by yellow and orange upholstery-like quasi-lampshades. A giant golden phallic gourd decorated with ribbons and bells presided over the fertility rites.
The film highly recommended to me by Robinson as an inspiration for her work is The Wicker Man (1973), a British cult horror film involving a village that has become pagan. Watching a little of it online I get the picture and am reminded of the shamanic turn in the work of local Adelaide artists Madison Bycroft and Celeste Aldahn. There must be something in the water.
The special quirk that I appreciate in Robinson’s art is the evidence of intense labour and care, as well as lots of research and backgrounding, but there is something more that keeps you watching in anticipation and that is the tapping of life forces that are unpredictable and mysterious.
Julia Robinson, Folk death, 2014-15. Flywire, fibreglass, fabric (white velvet, linen, muslin), ink, thread, timber, gesso, cotton cord, approx 170 x 280 x 110cm.
Julia Robinson, The Middle Place, 2015. Blackened cedar shingles, nails, woollen felt, ink, timber, MDF, wire, approx 150 x 340 x 100cm.
Julia Robinson, One to rot and one to grow. Installation view, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia.
Julie Robinson, The loud wound, 2015. Woollen felt, thread, stainless steel, half a bushel of wheat, approx 230 x 150 x 50cm.
Julia Robinson is represented by GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide.