Look Both Ways 2012
Look both Ways
Shown at Turner Galleries, Perth, Western Australia, 2012.
This is the artist’s sixth exhibition based on several decades of research at her site on the Deep River, on the south coast of WA. As the title suggests this is a watershed body of work that draws on a history of observation over many years, whilst at the same time beginning to speculate about the nature of that (empirical) knowledge, trusting in the intuited as well as the observed world.
Look both Ways is an important body of work for me. During its development I rediscovered the importance of drawing as a way of understanding and exploring form. There are new directions implicit in the constructed sculptures, beginning as flat pieces cut from dress patterns I joined them in ways that could be construed as pertinent to botanical or biological bodies, shapeshifters, caught mid transformation. I want these sculptures to have a quality of openness, both literally as open ended structures and figuratively as shapes that cannot be categorised. The viewer must engage imaginatively with them, let them suggest possibilities, arouse emotions.
The Banksia works in this exhibition are based on the plant’s sexual parts, the seed cone and flower. They contain both male and female elements. The Banksia continues to intrigue me as one of the oldest denizens of the South West botanical region of Western Australia, far older than the Palaeolithic figures these covered forms suggest.
Spin is a commitment to video as a crucial part of my practice. It brings to life Red Canopy, a full circle skirt shape constructed from radiating panels dyed with wind blown Karri leaves. The stilled work on the wall has another life- a working life- animating the wearer and the wind that spins the leaves in the canopy above. I see it as a kind of ritual garment enacting a kind of “sympathetic magic” between the wearer, the wind and the trees.
From the Catalogue
Dr Ric Spencer
Holly Story has, for over thirty years, divided her time between South Fremantle and Deep River, which runs through to the Nornalup inlet in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park in the South West of Western Australia. This split shift brings to mind visions of rejuvenating the self through long walks in the forest, retreating to the studio to re-examine finds, searching through connections and integrations. It also represents a unique and sustained body of research over a period of ecological and climatic change in a biodiversity hotspot from a Western Australian artist.
The significance of such a long period of research in the South West coupled with family life in Fremantle and bringing up three children is central to Holly’s oeuvre. This non-separation of life and work has seemingly come naturally. Not distinctly relational or easily labelled immersive, domestic or handi-work, the relationship between life and art, place and studio in Holly’s work simply ‘is’. What seems inherent in this life-work is the interrelationship built up between the observation of a ‘natural’ world and the way this extends back into home life, particularly in terms of domestic production. There is a sense of the history of domestic frugality in the making and use of the materials in her work and this combines beautifully with a generous giving in the warmth and tenderness in the tones from the home-made dyes extracted from plant materials. Equally, flipping over this point, the language of domesticity in these materials instigates a discussion on how the construction we call ‘home-life’ manipulates the wants and desires we have of what we label ‘nature’, disseminating a needed physical, mental and spiritual idealism outwith the home.
Holly’s work brings together, or rather lies at the nexus of the two key aspects of the natural world for us: namely its utilitarian and its aesthetic qualities. That which is outside of us, which stimulates the space we exist in, is derived as either of use or of pleasure. How the two co-exist is a matter of individual taste but historically they combine to manifest a paradigm that continues to exert much influence on the political and economic frameworks of our lives. As a measurement of scale we have domesticated nature for its pleasure and industrialised it for its use. Through the purposeful yet poetic frugality of her work, Holly reminds us that when we bring these scales back to a personal level, the use of natural materials can become both economic and aesthetic at the same time and, again flipping this discussion over, that in its raw state, nature is already economic and valuable in its worth as it offers us our own sense of place and tactile engagement within it.
This tactility, this phenomenological engagement with the processes of art, has fuelled Holly’s art for decades. Through Holly’s ‘Aletheiac’ (in the Heideggerian sense) attitude to materials her work brings forth a disclosure of that which is never hidden to us but rather not seen. This sensual act of ‘unconcealing’ (ibid), of bringing things out of concealment and into evidence and of revealing that which was always there, is enveloped in the subtle processes of Holly’s work and reveals a developed understanding for the quietude of ‘slow art’ processes. This understanding of bringing into an ‘already being’ is relevant for all things within Holly’s artistic paradigm, also significantly locating itself within the relationship between artist and viewer – there is an emergence that occurs from within Holly’s work over quiet time spent in contemplative conversation.
Holly’s work ‘begins’ with just this type of conversation – in an act of convertere, an occasion which frequents a turning around, a second look, a collecting of moments through found objects – recognised for their particular state and form. These points of convertere occur on her walks, conversations formed whilst moving along tracks, initiating a type of circular discussion (moving…is between a beginning and end, a circular form in which the point of departure is as influential as the destination.1) This circular process is beautifully personified in Red Canopy (both in its static state and in video form) made by…steam printing onto collected blankets, the plant material is Karri leaves and buds that blow off from the canopy, collected over various walks up and down the track at Deep River, over 12 months.2
The circularity apparent in this piece works well as an analogy to Holly’s artistic processes – of collecting, collating and producing textiles and dyes from local materials, each stage feeding the other. In other works in Look Both Ways another tension emerges through new sculptural pieces that engage with the structure of inside/outside, framework and skin. Although holistic in its resonance the interplay between object and surface in these pieces kindles a type of phenomenological response to working through a process that comes out of two places. This I think interestingly sets up a type of resonance – of holding on to a moment – or rather living through it, a dialogue set up in relation to two places, one person transitioning through the gate of two spaces. This is not a split personality but rather an honesty of provision, of understanding the constant transitioning of being, here as artist, from being-in-the-world to being-of-the-world, of coming from nature to the home studio (and vice versa). Holly’s work is a building of the interdependence of individual moments. In one series the Banksia, or rather its shape, acts as the springboard for a series of wrapped objects, the wrappings as stitched sections covering, yet accentuating the shape of the object – one moment connecting another, unconcealing through concealing. This for me brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s premise that the past is always alive in the present, indeed is welcomed by the present [the now of recognisability].3 The characters, objects and events that occur through myriad of ephemera and memorabilia from his walks embed stories… and this felt knowledge travels from one person to another unconcealing the lost times embedded in the spaces of things. Holly’s wrappings imbue such narratives, held and deposited – and then released though re-presentation.
The rawness of the object releases again and again in Holly’s work, her lyrical drawings embed the dyes drawn from the objects that she is drawing, Pisolithus marmoretus, Piso earth, lithus stone, Karri leaves, Marri resin, all rupture the past to re-present – this is vital to its ‘isness’ – the reemergence, the unconcealment, the specific relationships between home and nature, between object, artist and viewer and within the circularity of material, response and repository.
Dr Ric Spencer is Curator at Fremantle Arts Centre. He is an artist, publisher and writer who from 2004-2010 was art critic at The West Australian newspaper. He holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts from Curtin University where he is currently Adjunct Professor.
1 Lucy Lippard, On the Beaten Track, New Press, 1995:5
2 From an email conversation with Holly Story
3 See Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2002
Walking into Holly Story’s latest exhibition at Turner Gallery in Perth, I realised she had carefully constructed the various components of the exhibition to create an immersive experience which simulated the walk that the artist has taken, countless times over more than thirty years of investigating the bush around Deep River, which abuts the Walpole/Nornalup National Park in the South West of Western Australia. Like all good art, this exhibition engages a very specific site to alert us to a range of more global or universal themes.
A key component of the exhibition is Figures (B.grandis). These ‘figures’ consist of the cones of the Western Australian native Banksia grandis, entirely clad in patches stitched together from old woollen blankets. This cladding is so snugly applied that one could almost say they were grafted, recalling the skin grafts burn victims have applied to repair their skin. The association with fire is also evident through some of the cones that seem to have their seed follicles open, which is how these plants survive after bushfire, releasing their seeds to regenerate in the ash.
The anthropomorphic reference in the title seems to refer to the primitive (female) figurative forms these cones assume when clad in this manner. Their bulges and bumps suggest hips and breasts, and are reminiscent of early stone sculpture like the Venus of Willendorf, long held to be a sculpture redolent with references to fertility. The seeds still embedded in the closed follicles here are congruent with such references.
This is a powerful work on many levels and an excellent example of an artist with an acute material sensibility, able to marry form and content without demonstrative effort or self-consciousness.
Also central to this exhibition is the monumental work Red Canopy, a large ring of hand stitched panels of second hand wool blankets upon which Karri leaves have been steam printed in an intense red/vermillion/orange/brown. The leaf pattern clearly refers to the leaves one sees overhead in the bush, with chinks of light creating a mosaic-like effect. This pattern could also double as the leaf litter one sees underfoot when walking under eucalyptus. Here we are prompted to look above and below us (the title of the exhibition is Look Both Ways), as if the artist is leading us through her own navigation of the bush. The hole in the centre of this canopy could be for the trunk of one of the Karri trees contributing to this work, but when we turn around in the gallery to view the video work Spin, we see that this space is occupied by a woman who wears the ‘canopy’ like an enormous skirt, spinning around to re-animate the leaves again. The camera only focuses on the spinning skirt, with an occasional glimpse of feminine legs, but it is a significant figurative presence for this artist, who has previously only alluded to it or consciously addressed it’s absence.
In contrast to the works with softer, used materials, Volute, Pod, Bloom and Bone flower evoke industrial or engineering associations. The use of (ribbed) canvas and machine stitching here recall the engineering of the corset or even certain types of nineteenth century scientific instruments.
At first viewing, they could also be gentle manipulations of natural forms, but the more I looked, the more they exerted a surreal presence in the exhibition. In this manner, some of the work here has resonances with an artist like Louise Weaver, whose ‘cladding’ of natural forms is undertaken not only with incredible dexterity of crochet and knitting, but with a refined ability to realign her conceptual intent through unexpected choices of materials and colour. I also thought of the South Australian ceramic artist Angela Valamanesh, whose recent transformations of natural forms are redolent with nineteenth century associations of biological morphology.
With openings (orifices?) at each end, these works seemed to be more like devices than simply passive objects. Perhaps these devices could be used to probe deeper into an understanding of what lies beneath the canopy at Deep River? Despite having made numerous responses to this part of the world for more than a decade now, there is a sense that the apparatus of the work in this exhibition exists in part to help the artist with her ongoing clarification of her bearings.
Holly Story continues to be one of Western Australia’s most astute artists responding to the unique natural environment of the southwest, and this exhibition is a significant new chapter in a long and sustained body of work.