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Over, Under, Around and Through

Posted by • August 3, 2015

For an artist well known for her exquisite book sculptures and wood carvings, Kylie Stillman’s latest exhibition marks a new development in her practice. Temporarily bound to work in the smallest spaces of her home – “a desk and a chair camped in the hallway”, Stillman has produced a series of over 50 thread ‘drawings’ described by the artist as her “thinnest” sculptures to date.

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Echoing the moves of the show’s title are thread on paper depictions of crochet actions, knitting stitches and instructions on their techniques. In other works, the artist has used a delicate combination of white thread and beads to create a dew-glistened spider web, rain beading on a window and the icy shadow of a tree. Leaf Remains, Pantograph Drawing and her Effervescent Sketch of air bubbles in liquid, continue an exploration of absence evident in Stillman’s past work while the labelled drawings of the parts of a typewriter, the lead type for the letter M and a sewing machine encourage the viewer to reflect closely on the architecture of these recently vintage objects as well as the space they occupy.

Until August 29
Utopia Art, Waterloo
Pic: Kylie Stillman, Text maker (detail) 2015, cotton thread on paper, 42 x 30cm. Courtesy the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.

 

Exploring Pattern

Posted by • December 9, 2011

Energy, space and colour – Sharne Wolff chats to Lionel Bawden about his latest exhibition Pattern Spill…

Sharne Wolff: I’d love to hear about the very first time you had the idea to use pencils to make a piece of art.

Lionel Bawden: I was standing in Woolworths in Dickson in the A.C.T. and packs of 24 coloured pencils were a dollar twenty-three each. I saw these packs and they looked so beautiful and so cheap, it occurred to me I had to do something with them other than draw, I needed to use the objects themselves. It was the late nineties and I was working on collaborations with a group of artists in Canberra, initiated by Vivienne Binns, along with Jacqueline Drinkall and Steven Holland amongst others. We were making a relief wall piece like a large map, each of us contributing an abstracted continent in the larger work. I first used coloured pencils in this context, creating a field of coloured stripes. It was then a swift evolution to gluing the pencils into a honeycomb block and carving them to start making river-stone forms.

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Lionel Bawden, Pattern Spill II, 2011, coloured Staedtler pencils, epoxy, incralac on perspex shelf, form: 24.0×32.0x25.5 cm, shelf: 7.5 x 30.0 x 60.0 cm. Photo: Craig Bender

SW: Andrew Frost once wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald where he said you’d unavoidably become known as the ‘pencil guy’. Some might feel trapped or cursed by the use of a particular medium while to others you’re one of a fortunate few artists who has received the ultimate gift – something that makes you totally original and unique and can be adapted to almost any subject. How do you feel about the term, and the pencils?

LB: I have always been proud that people recognised the work so accepted the title awkwardly, but tried to be graceful about it. Innumerable conversations involved the moment of vocalised realisation “Oh, you are the pencil guy!” Like any title bestowed upon you, it is all about the way it was delivered, so it has been said in homage and in insult. I kind of pigeon holed myself, as my Sydney exhibition career was focused for a long time, solely on the pencil works. The ‘pencil works’ are a vocabulary that I am very articulate with. I have a fascination with the ambiguity the medium provides, being deliberately non didactic, after early work grounded in sexuality and deeply personal subject matter. More recently I have re-diversified my exhibition practice, which makes for a broader conversation, but the pencils remain core to my thinking. I feel very fortunate to have discovered this material- ‘the pencil honeycomb’ and to have had this extended dialogue with it. The territory continues to expand and it is rewarding to step away from it and then re-engage.

 

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Lionel Bawden, Secretion II, 2011, coloured Staedtler pencils, epoxy, incralac on perspex shelf, form: 29.5 x 12.0×24.0 cm, Shelf: 7.5 x 30.0 x 45.0 cm. Photo: Craig Bender

SW: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the sculptures and drawings in your new show ‘pattern spill’?

LB: I am exploring pattern as a way to generate form and create visual stimuli. Pattern can be a gateway to a kind of meditative state and the works are focussed on creating a coloured pulse from core outward, radiating colour. The works again focus on repetition and pattern as a signifier of this repetition. Pattern is a very human thing, so I felt a desire to introduce a kind of organic frailty, playing with oozy human secretions. There is always a progression from one series to another, so the stalactites of my large ‘caverns of temporal suspension’ and ‘amorphous ones’ become the drips in ‘Pattern spill’. Repetition is a very sexual thing so reaching climax and releasing a secretion is a natural progression. The drawings are a kind of 2-Dimensional crochet. They operate to reinforce some of the concerns and structure of the pencil works, creating a kind of echo of the logic of the honeycomb that is so pervasive. The pattern, colour and process reference to crochet is an attempt to evoke the idea of ‘a labour of love’ and labour as a devotional gesture. I am also interested in making objects in which the duration of the work’s creation remains visible within the work just as a crochet rug holds the sense of time that it took to create within its soft woven pattern.

SW: I seem to be repeating the word ‘repetition’ a lot when describing a lot of recent art making. Obviously the making of your work involves much of it – both in the process and the patterning. Do you do all the work yourself? Is it enough for you that the patterns and your subjects are constantly changing?

LB: I do all the construction and machine sanding myself with a small Dremel rotary tool. I sometimes have help doing the final stage of hand sanding, when the form has already been resolved. So it is like polishing jewels, but it can be laborious so I have appreciated the assistance from friends and lovers. Repetition is central to my work. Process has become increasingly important. The work was initially very grounded in material qualities of geometry, colour as well as metaphor and beauty. I am a believer in beauty as a transformative quality and respond to it as a viewer when I look at work, so am driven by it as a maker also. The process of construction is all about repetition, gluing one pencil to another, endlessly and the hand-sanding process has a certain, almost onanistic repetition about it. This making has increasingly influenced my thinking and my subject. Life is repetition and then variation amidst repetition. Repetition is not only human, it is very animal and universal- the seasons, the orbit of planets, the tides, lots of ‘back and forth’ and ‘in and out.’ The ‘in and out’ of fucking and eating & shitting are essential, necessary, repetitive qualities of sustaining human life, so once you start thinking about repetition and it becomes central to your making process, it is easy to get caught up in it. My process speaks deeply for me of what it is to be human, whilst remaining grounded in a thirst for finding new forms and seeking variation and the pleasure of new forms, patterns, new shifts and accidents.

 

SW: It seems to me that your work often seems to blur the distinction between landscape and figure, and also perhaps between real and imagined worlds. This means the viewer is required to spend time contemplating both the medium and the subject. Is that a deliberate intention on your part?

LB: I like to blur boundaries and the reading between figure, landscape and thing. I am satisfied when a form has multiple readings and refers strongly to specific form, gesture or phenomena whilst staying open, not closed in meaning. Our real and imagined worlds are a blur of experience and fantasy, which is increasingly blurred in real life, so I am definitely fascinated with exploring forms that occupy that murky territory between known and unknown. Within the pencil works, subject or concepts are essential to generate form. The level to which those concepts stay palpable within the finished work is highly variable and less important to me that using a set of ideas to reach that new form and then see what associations and sensations the form evokes.

LM: I find that last sentence particularly evocative… I sometimes struggle with the ambiguity, distortion and abstraction of concepts driving the work, and the unknown (or unconsidered) variables which warp aesthetics… however perception is powerful and to view the process as more of a journey with the unknown results being a point of curiosity seems a more productive way to view things. 

SW: One of the things I’ve noticed about your sculptures is that they are universally fascinating for all audiences across age and culture divides. Have there been any particularly interesting experiences when showing them overseas?

LB: From my experience the intimate, material response from the viewer, of some kind of tactile affinity to the pencils within the work, is the same across continents (at least in China and North America where I have observed it.) There is a certain satisfaction when recognition of the pencil occurs. Whilst it remains mysterious to some people they still seem to connect intimately with some familiarity or visual sensation taking place.

 

SW: There’s a lot of shape and geometry in your work in addition to scientific references in the aesthetic – such as the cell. Were you interested in science and maths at school?

LB: I have become more interested in maths since I was introduced to pure mathematics during art school by a maths major at ANU, who described maths as a kind of poetry, which I was never enlightened about during high school. Equally my post high school fascination for science has blossomed since reading about quantum physics. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention in class and missed the good bits. Professor Brian Cox in the BBC’s ‘Wonders of the Universe’ tells us that our bodies are made in the stars, that every element in our bodies originates in the death of stars. I love this idea, linking our bodies to infinite time and space. I see pattern and the honeycomb as a kind of doorway into this infinite expanse as our cells, our structure and our repetition links us into a dynamic relationship to the whole universe. I was always drawn to the idea of ‘fuzzy logic’. That name held the whole allure of science to me. The way I engage the world is with a kind of fuzzy logic and latching onto the poetics of ideas and the inquiry itself, rather than an interest in facts and figures, results and answers.

 

F*** Me Dead: Folk Modernism and the return of Grunge

Posted by • August 6, 2010

Regular Art Life contributor and cultural commentator Carrie Miller has been invited to present a paper at the inaugural Not Fair. In this sneak preview of the talk she’s giving on Saturday August 7 at 2 pm, Miller threads a line of yarn between the work of Jake Walker, Grunge of the early ’90s and radical knitting…

One starting point for thinking about Jake Walker’s strange little paintings can be found in the short story Pay for the Printer by the sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick (in The Preserving Machine, 1969). It’s a narrative some read as a left-wing critique of the failings of capitalism and of the culture of consumerism and mass production bound up with it. It’s set in a future where organic machines known as Biltongs produce copies or prints of all things that were originally man-made (knives, cars, cigarette lighters, music, everything). In the story these machines are dying and the copies they produce – imperfect prints, not of originals, but of prior copies – are breaking down. The humans are naturally freaked out that the world of simulacra on which they rely is self-destructing. In the end, people have to start building originals by hand as the machine-made duplicates turn to ash. Things are no longer printed by machines but made out of natural materials again – they are simple and crude, but they are “the real thing”.

Walker calls what he does ‘Folk Modernism’ and here’s his description of it: “Folk Modernism is more of an observation than a manifesto. It seems like there are a bunch of current artists using modernist aesthetics over post-modernist ideas. Art doesn’t need to be about the communication of ideas, we have the advertising industry, the media and the internet doing that job, visual art can’t compete. As a result, art has been increasingly prone to communicating ideas about itself – this is a closed circuit. It could go on forever but nobody outside the art world is the least bit interested.

“The conceptual set will argue that making art based on practice and aesthetic judgment can only result in decoration. Yet standing in front of a Diena Georgetti painting you are confronted with a cosmic power beyond the early 20th century abstract content. It’s as if somewhere in the process of applying acrylic paint to board the art gods got involved and turned the work into a pointer to another world.

“Aesthetically, society is in a crumby place. Most new buildings, cars, clothes, songs and websites are badly designed and constructed. It’s no wonder artists are looking back more and more, slowing down and reassessing things. Let’s move forward; let’s look back.”

For Walker, the “end-game of perfectionism” played by many of his contemporaries is “dry and soulless” – both as an artistic process and in terms of the cultural objects it produces. And if we believe Phillip K. Dick, it’s an end-game strategy that, pushed to its limit point, will implode on itself. This will be where artists like Jake Walker will come in handy.

 

Of course this is just one way of reading the end-game of late capitalism in relation to art: that there’s an irony inherent in the age of digital reproduction which is that the more reproducible images become, the more the original takes on the quality of ‘authenticity’, the more its ‘aura’ is amplified.

Now I want to try and situate Walker’s practice within a broader cultural movement or moment.

First, I think we can draw a line between what Walker likes to call ‘Folk Modernism’ and the ‘Grunge Art’ of the early 90s exemplified by Adam Cullen, Hany Armarnious, Mikala Dwyer, Nike Savvas and Destiny Deacon.

It was also a response to an earlier cultural moment – the slick conceptualism of 80s art and the over-produced, synthesized sounds of Stock, Aitken, Waterman. Suddenly, Kurt Cobain made Nanna’s hand-knitted cardigans and unplugging MTV cool and a DIY punk aesthetic and ethos took hold in a way not seen since the late 70s.

There was an overtly ‘hand-made’ quality to the work of Grunge artists. They were also interested in elevating the ephemeral. Works were attached to walls with masking tape or placed on the floor. There was a reification of ready-to-hand domestic materials in Grunge installations including biros, glad wrap, recycle bins, broken TV sets – even road kill.

But differently to Walker and his contemporaries, there was a nihilism to aspects of the Grunge movement which was cashed out in terms of hedonism and excess. Cullen, for example, painted to punk music, referenced Nirvana lyrics, drank like a bastard, and took the same drugs as Kurt.

I think a helpful analogy for understanding the similarities and differences that link these two points in Australian art history is in terms of the relationship between Hardcore Punk and the Straight Edge movement it spawned. Straight Edge is a subculture founded within Hardcore Punk in direct response to the hedonism and excess of it through the embracing of the ideology of abstinence (see Stuart Bailey’s work here which I think fits with the Folk Modern aesthetic and has explicitly dealt with the Straight Edge movement as subject matter)). In the same way, Folk Modernism, while remaining essentially Grunge in its aesthetic, rejects the nihilism of Grunge – getting things down “hard and fast” to cite Cullen’s catchphrase – in favour of a privileging of labour and technique.

So to recap, I think a line can be drawn from Grunge to Street Art to Folk Modernism both in terms of what they have in common – a DIY, hand-made, punk aesthetic and ethos – and what they reject in the movement or moment that came before them (I think the intersecting point of these three ‘movements’ can arguably be found in the work of Ricky Swallow).

Before I finish, I’d like one more roll of the dice. To bolster the speculation that Walker’s work is representative of something more general happening in visual culture I think we can situate it in terms of a ‘DIY’ subculture that’s emerged in recent times and is exemplified by, among other things, ‘guerilla knitting’ or ‘yarn bombing’ – a type of graffiti or street art that employs brightly coloured displays of knitted or crocheted material rather than spray paint. So let’s drop the ‘Folk Modernism’ tag here and take up the term that’s most often used to describe this new DIY, indie culture: ‘Hand-made’. It’s the subculture that’s been captured by the recent doco Handmade Nation and the Australian film Making it Handmade which premiered this week at the Melbourne Film Festival.

The artist, photographer, and filmmaker Faythe Levine first authored the book Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design in 2008 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), and then made a film with the same name which charts this new subculture that “weds DIY and craft techniques with a punk aesthetic”. The movie documents a “movement of artists, crafters and designers that recognize a marriage between historical techniques, punk and DIY ethos while being influenced by traditional handiwork, modern aesthetics, politics, feminism and art” (Amazon.com).

In other words, the Hand-made movement contains all the elements of Grunge but with a reverence for historical and traditional techniques that was lacking in that nihilistic aesthetic. Precisely what separates out Walker’s Folk Modernism from Grunge art.

 

 

 

 

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