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Reinventions: sculpture + assemblage

Essay

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image: Colin Lanceley Pianist, pianist where are you? 1964-65 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1976

Colin Lanceley Pianist, pianist where are you? 1964-65
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1976
© Colin Lanceley
click for larger view

Artists continually reinvent the world we live in. Their works have the capacity to surprise us and enable us to see the world afresh. The exhibition Reinventions is about the surprising, inventive adaptation of materials and ideas, including the ways in which artists engage with subjects of ongoing fascination: portraiture and identity, nature and abstraction, poetry and music, childhood and mortality. A dialogue with the past in the process of transformation is inherent in the art of assemblage: the process of re-assembling and re-constructing discarded, found objects and materials in new contexts. In this exhibition, found machinery parts, fragments of a piano, sawn wooden crates, a wide-eyed doll’s head, recycled magazines, portable turntables and a punching bag are just some examples of used objects adapted by artists in intriguing assemblages. A similarly inventive approach also appears in the use of materials such as crystal, Easter egg foil wrappers, bamboo, sand, fabric and porcelain in a diverse range of sculptures.

The exhibition Reinventions includes contemporary treasures from the collection: works from the 1960s and 1970s by Robert Klippel, Rosalie Gascoigne and Colin Lanceley, with those of a younger generation including Neil Roberts, Ricky Swallow and Tim Horn. The works of Gascoigne, Klippel and Lanceley show them to be masters of assemblage. Their inventive approaches to sculpture have some striking parallels with artists in the present. The earliest work is Lanceley’s dynamic, intricate assemblage Pianist, pianist where are you? 1965, while the most recent is Ricky Swallow’s meditation on mortality and love, Tusk 2007. What the artists share in common are innovative approaches to materials and making, a desire to take risks and a capacity for ongoing reinvention in their own work.

image: Robert Kilppel No. 813 painted wood construction 1989 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Gift of Costain Resources Ltd 1992Robert Kilppel No. 813 painted wood construction 1989
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of Costain Resources Ltd 1992
click for larger view

Robert Klippel (1920–2001) was an artist who continually reinvented himself in his work over the years. In the process, he dramatically reinvigorated sculpture in this country. In Reinventions, his works No. 250 metal construction 1970 and No. 813 painted wood construction 1989 reveal connections as well as dramatic leaps across his own art practice. Although Klippel’s early work was made from carving stone and wood, he started to incorporate found materials in his works in the 1940s. By the 1960s and 1970s, Klippel’s passion for experimentation was matched only by his remarkable accumulation of materials of the machine age, such as typewriter parts and an array of found objects. He was interested in correlations between mechanical and organic forms, what he described as ‘machine-organic’ inter-relationships. In No. 250 metal construction, the framed construction of linear and curved forms is like a drawing in air. While the spikes suggest an element of danger, it is essentially the formal, non-representational aspects of the work that make it so striking and convincing. The suspension and lightness of this welded assemblage stands in dramatic contrast to the later monumental presence of No. 813 painted wood construction. Yet monumentality in Klippel’s art is never grandiose. It is connected with things of humble origins transformed to enable us to see them afresh. The impressive scale is enlivened by the dynamic freewheeling interactions of pattern-parts for machinery. The colour in Klippel’s construction connects with another striking work, Pianist, pianist where are you? by Colin Lanceley (born 1938).

Klippel and Lanceley were friends in the 1960s and shared many conversations about art and literature. Lanceley was inspired by the inventiveness of Klippel’s approach and interest in the relationships between collage and construction. Lanceley was, however, more overtly concerned with poetic metaphors for human experience, noting that the unexpected relationships between disparate objects formed a poetic thread of creative possibility. In the early 1960s, Lanceley, with Mike Brown and Ross Crothall, formed a group known as the Annandale Imitation Realists. Together they experimented with assemblage in the form of giant collages constructed out of an array of discarded materials from contemporary life. By the mid 1960s, the group had disbanded, but Lanceley continued to experiment with assemblage, resulting in impressive works like Pianist, pianist where are you?, exhibited at Gallery A soon after it was completed. The title evokes a sense of play, humour and poetic inference. In its fabrication, the work is both an imaginative reconstruction and deconstruction of musical associations. It simultaneously gathers and exposes the intricate parts of the whole, as though the very idea of music-making is encapsulated in the rhythms of the black and white keys, the exposed strings and sculpted objects moving organically around the whole. The artist recalls the excitement he felt at the time:

Pieces of a small organ and the innards of a Bluthner piano dumped in the bush could be, in themselves, the subject for a work, but at the time it was the excitement of finding the materials and of re-constructing them after an imagined model that interested me. The transformation of materials, the metamorphosis, informed by a poetic sensibility, is the key to creativity.1

A feeling for poetry is present in the work of one of Australia’s most persistent and significant assemblage artists, Rosalie Gascoigne (1917–1999).

 

image: Rosalie Gascoigne The colonel's lady 1976 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1976 Rosalie Gascoigne The colonel's lady 1976
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1976
© Rosalie Gascoigne
click for larger view
Her assemblages of the 1970s, often framed in boxes, reveal her sharp, clear vision for the placement of forms. Gascoigne’s feeling for the inter-relationship of text and image became increasingly present in her work but was already apparent in The colonel’s lady 1976. Close inspection of the objects, images and product labels, reveal her wry wit. For New Zealand-born Gascoigne, who grew up in the interwar years and came to Australia in 1943, the interplay of symbols is telling: tins of Kiwi boot polish, a boxing kangaroo, the repetition of ‘Waratah’ of her adopted country, references to Britain in the flag and ‘the Queen of Brooms’. The combined labels and objects, including a doll’s head and dismembered torso beneath colourful shotgun cartridges, make The colonel’s lady an intriguing contemporary diorama; a wry, intimate cross-cultural dialogue with the past.

This work contrasts dramatically with Gascoigne’s later expansive assemblage Wheat belt 1989, with its more obvious landscape associations. Comprising diagonal shards from soft-drink crates across four separate panels, the work is at once screen-like and evocative of the environment—of the warmth of the sun, the rustle of dry grasses in the wind and the weathered pale grey landscape affected by searing elements. Gascoigne, who lived and worked in Canberra for many years, noted that her country was the eastern seaboard of Lake George and the Highlands, scoured by the sun and frost. Rather than tell a literal story, she wanted to find the truth of her experience in material that had a previous life within it:

Beware of nice things that you find that say nothing: they are like new wood from a hardware shop. I look for things that have been somewhere, done something. Second hand materials aren’t deliberate; they have had sun and wind on them. Simple things. From simplicity you get to profundity.2

Neil Roberts (1954–2002) was fascinated in his art by the material memory of objects—the idea that they could in some ways transmit their histories through their very materiality. He often used glass as a sculptural component in his works and liked the idea of rehabilitating discarded objects. He was interested in ideas around masculinity and activities such as rural labour and sport, including football and boxing. The brilliance of his work Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat 2000 resides in the way that he retains the integrity of the original object of the punching bag while simultaneously transforming it within a glistening lead-light casing, opening up multiple associations in the process. Roberts wanted to capture something of the inherent history of the punching bag; the imperceptible substances and energies gathered over years and years. As he noted:

I wondered about the metaphysical visibility of all the force that had been applied to this punching bag in its time, and how such a trace might appear. The bag is an absorbent object, a kind of filter or pad that stands in for the body it resembles, and it required some form of extraction or distillation to make visible the substances imbedded within it.3

 

image: Neil Roberts Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat 2000 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2002 Neil Roberts Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat  2000
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2002
click for larger view

Roberts found an answer in a line from a poem by the American artist Raymond Pettibon: ‘half ether, half dew mixed with sweat’. Then, as he noted, ‘Like the gradual planetary transformation in J.G. Ballard’s book The Crystal World, a crystalline carapace in copper-foil glasswork overtook the punching bag’.4 To draw that structure, Roberts looked to a tradition of glass-making in the work of the famous early twentieth-century American glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany. For Roberts, Tiffany’s signature imagery of Arcadian wisteria and grapevines seemed to also be an evocation of crystalline growth. Suspended in mid-air the punching bag conflates the tough sport of boxing with the lyrical refinement of Tiffany’s design. The contrast between the solidity of the bag and the mutability and fragility of the glass can also be seen as a metaphor for male strength and vulnerability.

Over the past 10 years, Ricky Swallow (born 1974) has become one of Australia’s most highly regarded contemporary artists. His series Even the odd orbit 1998–99, shown in the Melbourne International Biennial, created a stir. Six works from the series were gifted by Peter Fay to the National Gallery of Australia. One of them, Rooftop shootout with chimpanzee 1999, comprised a model of the Melbourne building where the works were shown in the Biennial. Swallow made a cardboard model of this 10-storey building as a theatrical stage-set for a shootout. On the rooftop small-scale figures including a chimpanzee wielding a gun, recalls big hits of cinema, such as Star wars, and innumerable B-grade movies. With a miniaturist’s eye for detail and a remarkable capacity for reinvention, Swallow linked this ‘happening’ with a turntable base mechanism which allows the chimpanzee to rotate at the press of a button. In our current high-tech world, the portable record players as bases for these works are like relics of the past invested with new life.

The idea of the past being part of the present is a recurrent theme in Swallow’s work. He recalls that, while he was coming up with ideas for Tusk, he was playing Fleetwood Mac’s song of the same title in his studio. There is an interplay of life-like or death-like qualities in this intriguing sculpture. At first sight, the bones appear uncannily real as a result of the patination of the bronze. Part of the process of making, for Swallow, is to continually challenge himself, technically and philosophically—to be open to reinvention. As he noted:

I told myself in the studio this year that I’d ‘stop making sense,’ meaning I’d try to make works that were harder to discuss and hopefully more successful as a result. Tusk came about in a very improvised fashion through playing around with these bones in the studio, and when by chance they formed this heart, it seemed perfect. It’s important how fused the hands are in the sculpture, how they make one object together, and perhaps in this way it’s a symbol for the security and proposed endurance of love or union … The work in person has a tactility which is more ambiguous than my other bronze finishes (due to its white patina), the surface complicates the material seeming more brittle than metal.5

Reinventing the past in the present through diverse materials recurs in the engaging works Glass slipper (ugly blister) 2001 and Stheno 2006 by Tim Horn (born 1964). His audacious glass slipper gives the Cinderella story a contemporary twist. It is simultaneously a play on aspects of his own identity and his fascination with eighteenth-century culture. Living in Paris in the late 1990s, Horn studied Baroque art and eighteenth-century jewellery and fashion design. The shape of the glass slipper originates from an eighteenth-century engraving and the pattern from eighteenth-century jewellery. Horn also adapted the eighteenth-century idea of foiling non-precious stones in his use of Easter egg foil and lead crystal. The sculpture appears to be glowing with shimmering rosy light, as if lit from within. The dramatically enlarged scale of the shoe creates a tension between dark humour and seductive beauty, constriction and desire. Horn recalls that the impetus for reworking the Cinderella theme came about when his mother was reading a feminist deconstruction of fairytales. It struck him that there were parallels in the behaviour of his mother, sister and himself in wanting to find ‘the perfect prince’ of the Cinderella myth to make life complete.

So making this work was a way of examining what I perceive to be that behaviour and constricting objects to illustrate that dynamic … [to] rewrite that Cinderella story from a queer perspective informed by my experience. I wanted to take the story, tear it up and cut and paste it back together so that the characters weren’t squeaky clean and predictable … The image is opulent and seductive but I really wanted the title to suggest a counter-quality … I’m interested in the polarities and finding the point at where the beautiful becomes the grotesque and vice versa … I was concerned with making an object of visual complexity … [with] that element of visual excitement.6

 

image: David Watt Knowledge 1991�95 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2000 David Watt Knowledge 1991�95
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2000

A sense of play and revisiting the past is also apparent in Knowledge 1999 by David Watt (1952–1998). In this layered, imaginatively configured installation, we discover images of childhood learning. Constructed with care and deadpan humour, Watt carved and painted objects pertaining to all manner of topics: geography, history, science, anatomy, nutrition, animals, transport and mythology. Set along a shelf, the experience of the work is an incremental journey on which we discover overlapping images, bold disparities of scale and surreal, absurd juxtapositions of fact and fiction. It is a world that engages with the artist’s childhood of the 1950s and, specifically, the magazine Knowledge that was filled with these kinds of images. As Gordon Bull wrote:

David had been seriously ill as a child in the ’50s and early ’60s. He was bedridden for extended periods and his loving parents gave the little boy books and lots of magazines. One of those magazines was ‘Knowledge: the new colour magazine which grows into an encyclopaedia’. Produced for children and marketed in the format of weekly pamphlets sold at the newsagent or corner shop, ‘Knowledge’ was a commodity which promised growth and development through accumulation. It was a boy’s own world of information.7

Watt had migrated with his family from Scotland to Australia and the magazine Knowledge reflects in part the closeness he felt to his parents (particularly his father). It is the memory of another time and place, real and imagined, brought into our present. The humour in relation to stereotypic 1950s images and approaches is quirky and gentle rather than acerbic. In line with the encyclopedic aspect of Knowledge, the multiplicity of objects suggests the sheer impossibility of ever knowing it all. No matter when or where we find ourselves in the world, the knowledge pool just keeps on growing, unstoppably and ultimately unknowably.

 

image: Hossein Valamanesh Falling 1990 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2002 Hossein Valamanesh Falling  1990
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2002
click for larger view

In contrast with the accumulation of objects and images in Knowledge, Hossein Valamanesh’s Falling 1990 is about distillation. The silhouette of the figure flying and falling is a kind of portrait, as though the essence of self, of body and spirit, has been transmuted into the substances of earth and air. Valamanesh (born 1949) came to Australia from Iran in 1970 and his experience of the desert landscape that he encountered on an early visit to Central Australia represented common ground with similar landscapes of his original homeland. The swooping lines of Falling are made from bamboo, which appears seamlessly joined with the torso and head of the figure carved out of wood and encrusted with red earth. The idea of a minimal silhouette as a portrait was also apparent in a related work, Falling breeze 1991, in which Valamanesh adapted the outline of his son, Nassiem, whose name in Farsi means ‘breeze’. For years Valamanesh has been inspired by the poetry of the Sufi poet and mystic Rumi and his capacity to convey an inner life. In relation to Falling, the artist also refers to another literary source, as he explains:

In his book The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie describes the mid-air explosion of a passenger airliner on its way from India to England. He describes vividly bodies and debris falling towards the ocean beneath. Gibreel Farishta happens to be on this flight and, as everything around him falls apart, he gracefully falls, lands on the surface of the ocean and walks to the beach. Falling was my reading of this soft landing. Leaving behind the narrative of the book, it stands for itself and it is more like falling with grace.8

The head of the falling figure rests on a circle of polished black granite that has a reflective surface, like water. The precise choices of materials that Valamanesh makes in his work is a concern shared by Ah Xian (born 1960) who also explores relationships between portraiture and nature in his intriguing, often exquisite, portrait busts. In his work he again makes connections with his personal, familial, cultural past reinvented in the present. Ah Xian arrived in Australia from Beijing in 1989 and experienced both a sense of liberation and loss in relation to China. His way of overcoming his feeling of disconnection was to reconnect with the culture in a meaningful way. He regularly travels back to China to make work, drawing on traditional skills. In his porcelain busts, the idea of reinvention is as much to do with ideas as it is to do with materials; with keeping traditions alive and transforming them in personal ways that would have been unimaginable in the past.

 

image: Ah Xian China China  bust 15 1999 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2000Ah Xian China China bust 15  1999
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2000
click for larger view

In China China bust 15 1999 the hand-painted decoration of a traditional design is like a second skin or tattoo. As well as being a physical layer, it suggests an imprint on the psyche—as though a former culture travels with us and is heightened by the perspectives of a new and different culture. Respecting nature is another central tenet of Ah Xian’s thinking that also comes to the fore in the meditative, calm aura of China China bust 80 2004 in which lotus blooms and leaves float on the body. The aspect of reverie is important to Ah Xian, who writes: ‘It is about a beautiful dream, it is about fancy and fantasy, and it is about human beings, the natural environment surrounding us and the civilisation we have evolved’.9 He is concerned that the technologies we have been advancing are not respectful of nature. His work reminds us that we are the ancestors of the future, laying the groundwork for what will follow in hundreds of years time. As he recently wrote, reinvention can be both about union and creating something new:

When I think about human history and civilization, it always appears to be like a string: one extreme is old time and tradition, current and contemporary is the other. Interestingly, when we turn and join the two extremes together, it forms a perfect circle and creates a new language of art.10

What the varied works in the Reinventions exhibition reveal is that sculptures and assemblages from the 1960s to the present continue to have a vital presence in Australian art. The exhibition is being held as part of a season of sculpture at the Gallery, overlapping for a time with Soft sculpture and coinciding with a program of talks about sculptures on display throughout the galleries.

Deborah Hart
Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture post 1920

Download essay (297KB pdf)

 

1 Colin Lanceley, in Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia,
ed Anne Gray, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p 262.

2 Rosalie Gascoigne, quoted in James Mollison and Steven Heath, ‘Rosalie Gascoigne in her own words’, Rosalie Gascoigne: material as landscape, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997, p 7.

3 Neil Roberts, in Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, p 426.

4 Roberts, p 426.

5 Ricky Swallow, interview in Goth: reality of the departed world, exhibition catalogue, Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, 2007, p 169.

6 Tim Horn, in conversation with Beatrice Gralton, in National Sculpture Prize and exhibition 2001, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001, p 48.

7 Gordon Bull, in David Watt: a tribute, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Düsseldorf and Stephanie Jones,
Perth, 2000, p 3.

8 Hossein Valamanesh, in Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, p 377.

9 Ah Xian, in Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, p 420.

10 Ah Xian, correspondence with Deborah Hart, 3 April 2009.