The impression of our arteries

Caitlin Franzmann, Sonya G. Peters, Robyn Daw, Ali Bezer, Jay Younger, Julie-Anne Milinski, Debra Porch, Mona Ryder, Sophie Bottomley, Elizabeth Shaw, Kat Sawyer, Chantal Fraser, Leena Riethmuller, Carol McGregor, Victoria (Tor) Maclean
Woolloongabba Art Gallery, Brisbane
10 March – 1 April 2017

Some exhibitions are more than the sum of their parts, reaching into specific communities of artists to open discussion over a broad spectrum of pertinent issues. The impression of our arteries is one such exhibition, bringing together sixteen women who focus on an extended metaphor that represents the complex relationship between the physical and the metaphysical. This has long been an area of interest for coordinator Debra Porch who says in her introduction this ‘…is an exhibition that questions how the heart and the mind convey significant and revealing impressions and intentions through objects, images and the senses. It reflects the circulatory patterns between those one loves, and the feelings, senses, intuition, perception, influence and the impressions that are formed from these bonds’. While this content is not solely the domain of women, the elusive zone of emotion and corporality is explored with an, at times, uncomfortable intensity that reaches into every aspect of our lives regardless of gender.

Importantly, the impression of our arteries is not the work of a curator who maintains a distance from the artists and selected works in order to provide an ‘objective’ overview. On the contrary, Porch notes that she ‘instigated’ the exhibition and as a catalyst enables the realisation of an idea in which she is very much involved. Porch has drawn upon a community of women who are friends, colleagues and students who have become friends, assembling a group that has long-term connections. The impression of our arteries can be seen as a discussion amongst contemporaries that searches for a flow of common concerns that, like the body’s circulatory system, sustain the life of the whole. Comprising both existing and new works this exhibition involves the artists in the decision-making process and as a result they enter on their own terms rather than those of a ‘curator’. Common threads begin to emerge in the use of natural fibres, skins, ornamentation, treasured objects and the place of making in a family broadly defined.

While I see Porch’s work as central to this exhibition, it is unlikely she would agree. To some extent I am influenced by her role as coordinator and also by the fact of knowing her practice since the early 1990s. Aware of her concerns over a period of time gravitas (2017) provides a convenient entry point to the exhibition. While this is in many respects a minimal piece consisting of a taxidermy budgerigar, gold chain, needle and basalt, it is also a profound reflection upon an ancestry fractured by the Armenian Genocide (1915-17); a dark shadow hanging over Porch’s work since she first began to explore that element of her troubled heritage. Inspired by her grandmother, this elegant and evocative work leaves the viewer with a melancholy sense of the ways past filters into present.

Matriarchal lineage is also central to Chantal Fraser’s video Memory in memory (‘Ava Ceremony) (2016) that focuses on the hands of mother and daughter at work. The mapping of veins highlights blood ties, her reverence for  her mother’s life of hard physical labour set against an acknowledgement of the delicate hand movements of the siva, a traditional Samoan dance.

The symbolic properties of skin and hair across history and culture are given a contemporary makeover in works by Carol McGregor and Caitlin Franzmann.

McGregor’s works link her Wathaurung/Scottish ancestry through her great grandmother with the use of possum fur and her own hair. The ancestral crafts provide the media through which McGregor makes sense of her contemporary existence, in particular the possum skin cloak worn by Aboriginal people not only for warmth but also as a statement of lineage and identity. Significantly her work creates new stories from the silenced histories of Indigenous Australia. Similarly resonant is Caitlin Franzmann’s The way through all things (2017), a shed snakeskin found by chance on her studio desk. Mounted to complete a full circle, the snake has obvious implications in respect of the injustice of Eve’s ‘original sin’, haute couture and a special role in the Australian natural environment. Beyond the discourse of fashion and poisonous temptation, however, Franzmann’s ‘snake ring’ has a potent symbolic function across societies in approaching an understanding of the cycle of life and regeneration.

Elizabeth Shaw adapts her formidable skills as a jeweller for a work of significant poignancy with rescued animals. The animals are also rescued ornaments that Shaw has found and given new preciousness with tiny metal prosthetics and through their presentation in Perspex vitrines. Her work touches something very primal in her audience, the ability to show empathy. Despite their changed context and faintly dark humour, Shaw’s objects maintain ornamental value. Ornamentation and body adornment are given extreme (and amusing treatment) in Julie-Anne Milinski’s oversized non-functional jewellery that tenders the suggestion that the body might actually adorn the ornament. Her use of inappropriate materials in Love beads and meditation (Candy and Edgar) (2016-17), with felted Ragdoll cat fur beads and metallic embroidery thread, makes light of a serious issue for women (and men) who require such personal decoration, while imaginatively demystifying processes of production.

In an exhibition that claims significant ground in the exploration of connectivity and the complexity of personal relationships (including people and objects) the participating artists have tacked the issues with great conceptual and technical diversity. The impression of our arteries could easily have become undone by the gravity of its subject matter. If there is such a thing as a women’s touch it can be found in the ‘unbearable lightness’ with which artists have freely engaged in the conversation. Exemplary is Jay Younger’s L’Amour Fou: un tableau domestique (2017) in which performer and choreographer Lisa O’Neill becomes enamoured of a table that will eventually dominate her. Younger acknowledges that relationships are never static, that friends might become enemies and vice versa—that the objects we make and possess come to possess us. This is a theme that weaves its way around the participating artists and draws their work into a quasi-anthropological pattern of kinship that emphasises relationships and the things people create and hold dear.

Artists: Caitlin Franzmann, Sonya G. Peters, Robyn Daw, Ali Bezer, Jay Younger, Julie-Anne Milinski, Debra Porch, Mona Ryder, Sophie Bottomley, Elizabeth Shaw, Kat Sawyer, Chantal Fraser, Leena Riethmuller, Carol McGregor, Victoria (Tor) Maclean Writer: Ellie Buttrose.

Debra Porch, gravitas, 2017. Installation view, Woolloongabba Art Gallery, 2017. Gold chain, gold-plated needle, taxidermy parakeet, gold-leaf basalt rock & silk thread, dimensions variable;

Jay Younger, L’Amour Fou un tableau domestique, 2016. Still, single channel video, 3.34minutes. Courtesy the artists.