Tales of the Unexpected
Aspects of contemporary Australian art
Family Tree House (Shadows and Symptoms) (detail) 1999–2002
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I imagine thinking about the meanings of the world; inevitably the discourse begins with the body, a forensic activity, an external and internal examination of the body environment: clothes, house, furniture, landscape. This becomes an anatomy lesson; where dissected parts are examined and reconstructions are made for explanations. Inevitably the conclusion is like a puzzle-picture: a maze of fugitive parts; landscape parts become human parts: but whether the lines, shapes and colours appear abstract or representational there is an assemblage of parts. However, the composition is unstable, a chimera: the picture is impaired.
Sally Smart has long been interested in the unstable, the illusory and the uncanny. As opposed to certainty or perfectibility, her interest is in the realms of shadows, symptoms, dreams, mutations, subconscious memories and spooks that haunt the mind’s equilibrium. This is revealed in fantastic images that trigger associations and partial recollections of things encountered in the course of life’s journey: entrancing phantoms from tales told to us in childhood (in which, perhaps, inanimate objects became magically alive); puppet-plays; the shadows of trees silhouetted on moonlit nights; medical diagrams or X-rays of the body; moths swooping in towards the light.
To attain her cumulative, fragmentary worlds of fantastic possibilities Smart has drawn inspiration from a wide range of sources including Surrealism and Dadaism. Working across different media such as painting, collage and multi-layered installations, her preoccupation with cutting and fabricating also alludes to a long-held commitment to feminism and the desire to take risks and transcend boundaries. This relates to Smart’s earlier study of women in 19th-century literature and to her work such as Spiderartist (Sew me) 1989, from her X-ray Vanitas series, investigating constructions of feminine identity (in this instance developing ideas about the poet Emily Dickinson who described herself as a ‘literary seamstress’).
Smart’s fascination with domestic spaces intertwined with the ways that women have been represented in history and literature, recurred in her exhibition The Unhomely Body in 1996 drawing upon Max Ernst’s collages, Une Semaine de Bonté 1933. Each of the canvases in this exhibition focused on the idea of a room such as The Sewing Room (Prosthetic) and The Anxiety Room (Stain) reflecting the fact that the ambiguous relationship between real and representational space extended to the blurring of architectural, psychological and bodily functions. In her lively engagement with psychoanalysis, Smart plays on the uncanny, making associations with the Freudian idea of the unhomely (unheimlich), of something familiar made unsettling and strange.
In two of Smart works on canvas, In Bed with H.H. (Femmage) and BedBugs(Femmage) 2001, she takes familiar motifs such as beds and parts of the human body, and unites and transforms them in ways that are surprising and unfamiliar. Here, the legs at the bed-ends have become women’s legs, animating the static forms into arenas in which dreams appear literally to take flight. Occupying both beds are collaged portraits of Dada artist Hannah Höch. In the instance of BedBugs(Femmage), delicately patterned elements of real and fake collage are played off against the witty inclusion of a giant ‘bed bug’ under the covers. In these transmutations of the bed – a place of sleep, love, sex and dreams – the grotesque, the beautiful and the marvellous are one.
In her installation of cut-outs, Conversation piece #1 2002, Smart adopts the tradition of silhouette and gives it a contemporary twist. Based on the profiles of friends and family, the painted felt silhouettes are accompanied by small numerals, suggesting diagrams in anatomical texts and 18th-century cabinets of curiosity. However, their random placement (at times back-to-front) and seemingly illogical sequencing, alludes to the unpredictability of imaginative discourse and human behaviour. This idea is amplified in the often weird appendages that emerge from the heads, recalling, in turn, Marina Warner’s comments in her book No Go the Bogeyman:
In several cases popular artefacts and writings adopt and cherish the metamorphoses of the insect world for the same purpose as the creatures themselves: to scare off predators . . . [The images] revealingly mix and shuffle elements from varying species, extrapolate from a stag beetle’s antlers and a fly’s feelers, a crab’s claw and a pig’s snout to create fantastic new hybrids, the modern chimerae of celluloid nightmares.1
The metamorphic, performative dimension in Smart’s large installation Family Tree House (Shadows and Symptoms) 1999–2002, is integral to the act of cutting, splicing, pinning and manipulating multiple fragments across spaces in unfolding free-form tales and ‘conversations’. In this work she suggests affiliations between the homely and unhomely, as the familiar becomes unfamiliar; as body parts, a giant moth, aspects of domestic life and architectural features are woven around and spin off the image of the tree. The recurring motif of the tree in Smart’s work over a number of years provides the axis for ongoing images of her theatre of mind and imagination. This feeling for nature is partly informed by her memories of growing up in the Australian countryside – on a farm near the rural town of Quorn in South Australia. The tree also alludes to ideas of the family tree, the tree house and the tree of life.
Conversation piece #1 2002
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Along with the strong visual impact of the imagery in Sally Smart’s work, it is the richness of implication, triggering an array of conscious and subconscious associations, that gives her work its poetic resonance, depth and potency. The element of risk-taking is ever-present – apparent in the scope of Family Tree House (Shadows and Symptoms) her recent quite magical installation of multiple overlapping parts, climbing a wall of dizzying height – invoking multiple unexpected permutations and impossibly fantastic tales.
Chapman, Christopher 'Four Scenes', in Parameters Head: A La Ronde (ex. cat.), Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 2000
Grishin, Sasha 'Sally Smart', in Australian Painting Now eds. Laura Murray Cree and Nevill Drury, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, pp.268–272
Kent, RachelFamily Tree House (ex. cat.), Arco 2000, Project Room, 2000
Kunda, MariaSally Smart: Shadow Farm (ex. cat.), Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, 2001
McDonald, HelenWhere I come from the birds sing a pretty song: an exhibition by Sally Smart, Geelong Art Gallery, Victoria, 1993