Jacky Redgate by Helen Ennis

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Even at a glance one can tell that Jacky Redgate’s WORK-TO-RULE VI belongs to the 1980s. The giveaway signs are very apparent—it’s in colour, large in scale and, most importantly, the imagery was fabricated in the studio. By these means alone Redgate broke with prevailing conventions in 1970s art photography, when small black‑and‑white prints of ‘real world’ subject matter were predominant and the emphasis was on the photographer’s subjectivity. Fashioned from constructions of objects that included playing cards, ice‑cream cones and cotton reels, the photographs in the WORK-TO-RULE VI series have no autobiographical intent. Their purpose was more analytical than expressive, and they can be read as a postmodern investigation into photography as a representational system and the effects of translating three‑dimensional structures (made only to be photographed) into two‑dimensional images.

Redgate herself has ensured that the reading of her photographs has not been through the lens of autobiography, publishing few artist statements and little personal biographical information over the last four decades. One of the few declared but tantalising details is that she worked as a window dresser in Adelaide, which seems relevant to her mastery of the conventions of advertising photography and the marketing of commodities.(1) The photographs in WORK-TO-RULE were derived from a 1960s international publication on innovative forms of window display.(2)

WORK-TO-RULE came early in the artist’s career, three years after she first attracted widespread critical attention with the 1983 exhibition of her series photographer unknown at Images Gallery, Sydney.(3) WORK-TO-RULE introduced what would become some of Redgate’s enduring preoccupations, including the creation of ‘spatial conundrums’ that ‘test the parameters of what photography can be and do’.(4) The relationship between sculpture and photography became even more important in subsequent work.

The series title also underlines Redgate’s fascination with systems, with science, mathematics, geometry and logic. The rules she formulates are, however, not universal. They are provisional and idiosyncratic, invented by her solely for her art practice. The title WORK-TO-RULE, spelt out in upper case, also puns on her way of working and the repetitive labour associated with modern capitalism without venturing into an overt form of social critique.

Like its counterparts in the series, WORK-TO-RULE VI is admirably assertive, made with the art museum in mind and determined to command the viewer’s attention in a highly competitive visual environment. The authority Redgate achieved resulted from an amalgam of seemingly contradictory sources in the worlds of art and commerce: early twentieth century modernism, minimalist and conceptual art and studio‑based advertising photography. Redgate employed a medium format camera (to produce high‑definition imagery), controlled studio lighting, and chose the Cibachrome process with its saturated colours and glossy print surface(5) to heighten the visual appeal of her objects. The excessive artifice of WORK-TO-RULE VI reminds us not only that the house of cards pictured is a pictorial construction, but also that photography itself is an unnatural process.

(1) Michael Desmond, ‘Imagining space’, Jacky Redgate 1980–2003, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, 2005, p18.

(2) Desmond (p18) notes that the publication was Karl Kaspar (ed), International window display, Frederick A Praeger, New York and Washington, 1966.

(3) Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

(4) Ann Stephen, ‘A mask of mirrors’, Jacky Redgate: Mirrors, Power Publications, University of Sydney, 2016, p23.

(5) Cibachrome was widely used by photographic artists in Australia in the 1980s who wanted to work in colour. Developed by the Ilford company, it was a relatively stable colour process in which colour prints were made from film transparencies (rather than film negatives).

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Ennis, Helen. "Jacky Redgate" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 309–311.

HELEN ENNIS is Emeritus Professor, ANU School of Art & Design, Canberra.