Artist JANET LAURENCE discusses works from the national collection that inspire, move or intrigue her.
These hanging, golden‑yellow, irregular rectangular forms have been my favourite work by Eva Hesse for a long time. Contingent is such a strange sculpture. I love how its evocation of organic sheets of honeycomb or shellac is confounded by the artist’s use of toxic latex and cheesecloth. As a student in New York in the early 1980s, I became intensely interested in Hesse’s work, in the curious and experimental nature of her materials, and in the inventive, minimalist‑derived forms that she imbued with such emotional content.
We know much about Hesse’s short and anguished career thanks to her correspondence with the American artist Sol LeWitt. I have great empathy and association with her anguish. The fact that her tragic death at such a young age was likely caused by the very materials she worked with was mythologised; yet, I find it impossible to view her art independently of this. When I see Contingent I feel an overwhelming admiration for both the work and the artist.
United States of America, 1938–1973
Rocks and mirror square II 1971
I gravitated towards Robert Smithson’s ideas and philosophies on art and life when I lived in New York City, and I have continued to admire the breadth of his practice, particularly its embodiment of the natural world becoming art. I feel that his work is now even more relevant, as we watch our planet undergoing the entropy which he predicted — a theory that foretells the exhaustion and collapse of systems and societies.
Rocks and mirror square II is typical of Smithson’s site/non site works. Playing with scale, the work could be an immense landscape or a miniature; it shifts according to where you view it from but is attached to the earth by the rocks. There is also a play of materiality with the basalt rocks and the immateriality of the mirror. I’m excited when I see this work; it opens a portal to Smithson’s ideas, which were so advanced at the time, and which I believe to be more powerful and relevant now than Land Art. What a tragedy it is to have lost him so young.
New Zealand, 1917–1999
Feathered fence 1979
As a master’s student in Sydney in the early 1990s, I was shown someworks by Rosalie Gascoigne which really inspired and fascinated me. I sought to find out more about her practice and had some wonderful meetings with her in her studio, which was full of collected materials. She ordered these (usually recycled) materials in such a way as to create repetition, pattern, rhythm, and a harmonious order that connected me directly to the Monaro landscape of New South Wales. Feathered fence is a linear sculpture made from swan feathers that appear to be floating. This gently tactile piece takes me to Lake George, where Gascoigne found the feathers. It’s such an inventive and poetic work and speaks so strongly of place.
The humble and makeshift way she assembled the sculpture is reminiscent of wabi‑sabi — the Japanese concept of the acceptance of transience and imperfection — a quality she learnt to value while studying ikebana in Japan. This Japanese art of flower arrangement requires harmony, peace and beauty, which I see in all of Gascoigne’s work. Without a doubt, she influenced my desire to create art that expresses a connection to the landscape — that embodies its materiality — without being a painting of it.
In the National Gallery’s recent exhibition Know My Name, Feathered fence was installed adjacent to my own work, Requiem 2021, comprising fragments from the natural world. This was not only a privilege and a thrill for me; it amplified the connections between our work.
MRS N YUNUPINGU
Gumatj people, born 1943
White painting #2 2010
I find it hard to speak about this work. Like Mrs N Yunupingu’s other bark paintings, White painting #2 makes me breathe deeply as I experience its silence. The extraordinary rough materiality of the bark combined with the white brush marks creates a rhythm, beauty and tactility that is both painterly and sculptural. As with all the artist’s works, White painting #2 is sacred and deeply personal.
Mrs N — who passed away in 2021 at the age of 76 —created such powerful works that I feel she was in touch with some cosmic order, yet was also profoundly connected to the Earth’s materiality.