Category Archives: Words

Work that has not been commissioned or formally published.

#otherworlds2 – Kathryn Cowen at AirSpace Projects

Sydney artist Kathryn Cowen’s exhibition #otherworlds2 is on show at AirSpace Projects, Sydney from 6 – 21 November 2021. My catalogue essay is below.

The other day, an ad for a fast fashion website scrolled its way up the screen.

PLEATHER, it read. So Much Pleather You’ll Feel Like You’re In The Matrix. Two models, unlikely to have yet been born when the film in question was released in 1999, lounged against each other clad in black plastic-leather outfits, against a backdrop of a melty vector grid.

It seems like a delicious coincidence that as we slowly emerge, blinking into the light after pandemic-induced lockdowns, we are being encouraged to clothe ourselves in the trends from the time of a different bug, over 20 years ago. The apocalyptic fear, uncertainty and speculation that the Y2K Bug generated has vanished, replaced with a pleather-clad nostalgia for a dystopian future. At the time, the Y2K bug seemed like a symptom of civilisation’s advancing digitisation. As it turns out, our relentless physical encroachment on the natural world was the real problem, and a zoonotic disease was the thing that would send us back into a panic-buying frenzy, 20 years after people had abandoned their millennium bunkers.

In #otherworlds2, Kathryn Cowen invites us to imagine a new future, led by the speculations of the present: synthetic biology, the search for alien life, science-fictional worldbuilding. Like the locus for these explorations, the Deep Space gallery of Airspace Projects is a laboratory, where one of Cowen’s paintings has been cultivated into another world, element by element. Light, colour, sound and scent conditions are all controlled by the artist in this environment – control that allows the viewer freedom to play with endless possibilities. In this laboratory-installation, a phosphorescent painting that depicts vegetation on either land or the seabed spills out into a biofuturistic world where incantations are uttered, strange smells swirl, and the light startles as it switches between artificial day and artificial night.

Sculptures inhabit this space like new creatures born into a humidicrib under an incandescent lamp. Physically attaching natural materials to synthetic ones is a challenging process, both in the artist’s studio and the scientist’s laboratory; once fused, a new type of thing emerges. Rubber cords cascade like a horse’s tail from a geometric fixture; painted plant stamens push upwards from a fluffy pink bulge; whipper-snipper plastic cords prolapse from an orifice of faux fur; synthetic purple extrusions recall brain matter; blue cable-tie anemones bloom; green sponges glimmer with flecked constellations. Their forms echo that of cells, with tendrils recalling the dreaded spike protein. There is a fine line between gaining and ceding control.

In this cave, this world within a room, the viewer is left to perceive the world of which they are protagonist. In the absence of other figures a soundtrack forms the accompaniment, interspersing the poetic invocations of Cowen’s collaborator Gareth Jenkins with an improvised soundscape performed on found, homemade and conventional instruments, echoing the hybrid nature of the sculptures in #otherworlds2. Jenkins intones:

This is not today or tomorrow
this is sometime else.
This is a dotted line
We’ve been following
all our lives.
No deviation
in the grand mean vector
under this Ultra Violet Light

this is the inclination compass
in Spring
getting it all just right.

A weed sprouts from a drain: Caroline Rothwell ‘Horizon’ at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery

Caroline Rothwell’s practice explores the intersection of art and science through sculpture, collaged historical prints and digital animations that invite viewers to consider our relationship with the natural environment. Rothwell’s exhibition Horizon is on show at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery until 28 November 2021.

The accompanying catalogue, including my essay for this exhibition, A weed sprouts from a drain, can be read at the link below.

View the Caroline Rothwell: Horizon digital catalogue.

(re)arrangements – Curated by Stuart Smith

In 2020’s lockdown, I worked on a catalogue essay for Stuart Smith’s ultimately postponed group exhibition at Grace Cossington Smith Gallery, (re)arrangements. Like many 2020/21 shows, this one has been the victim of a double-whammy, finally installed prior to Sydney’s long lockdown in 2021 but unable to open to the public. Read the catalogue here and see installation images below.

The investigations undertaken by the artists in (re)arrangements result in new logics, new orders. These artists rearrange form or idea, seeking new intent by repurposing an existing one. A car part found by the roadside turned 3D glyph; a repainted detail from an early 20th century naturist magazine; an abstracted fragment of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. (re)
explores how strategies of redeployment and recontextualization can generate new ways of seeing and understanding. Coordinated by Stuart Smith, the exhibition brings together the work of ten artists with transformative approaches to a diverse range of media and subject matter. By fragmenting and transforming existing artworks, objects and found images, the works in (re)arrangements enable new ideas and forms to take shape.

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, at the Art Gallery of NSW

Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings at the Art Gallery of NSW is one of many casualties of the most recent NSW lockdowns, only open to the public for two weeks before the gallery had to close its doors. The AGNSW has now made available an online virtual tour of the exhibition, so I am taking this opportunity to revisit my review of the show which was published in The Sydney Morning Herald back in June. Explore the exhibition and have a read.

Artspace Sydney’s ‘the pleasurable, the illegible, the multiple, the mundane’ exquisitely captures what it is to be human

The final exhibition at Artspace, Sydney, before it closes for a year-long renovation lures viewers into a sensitive, multifaceted study of the human condition through artworks by 12 Australian and international artists.

My review of Artspace Sydney’s the pleasurable, the illegible, the multiple, the mundane has been published on CoBo Social – read it here.

A communal studio setting: the happy medium

In 2020, I was commissioned to write a story on artists’ studios in Sydney – a snapshot of group studio settings amidst the pandemic year. Unfortunately the shifting sands of the pandemic publishing landscape meant that it never made it to print. While some of the setups described have since changed, the way artists work is of enduring interest to me, and I hope others too, so I have given the piece a belated lease on life below. The many artists and arts workers quoted in this story gave generously of their time and thoughts for this story and I thank them for that.

Long before co-work settings were trendy, artists and their supporters were establishing shared work environments. For many artists, working from home isn’t a viable option. Space is limited; materials can be toxic. While some artists are in a position to work in a private studio, for many, a space within a communal studio setting is the happy medium.

For Penrith-based artist Kirtika Kain, whose work responds to historical texts, her residency at Parramatta Artist Studios (PAS) has presented an opportunity to share ideas with fellow Western Sydney artists. “We are all focused artists and from such an array of global communities; although our practices are so diverse, we have found unique connections,” she says. “There is a camaraderie without a hint of competitiveness.” Kain is one of 20 current studio artists across City of Parramatta Council’s studios, describing it as “a textbook residency… in allowing us the space to be alone and connected,” and facilitating her transition from student to fulltime artist. “[C]urators I only dreamed of meeting have come through our doors.”

“Without a significant exhibition venue in the Parramatta region to this day, Council recognised a significant gap in supporting local artistic practice and local culture, and so strategically decided to support the making of art,” explains Director of PAS Sophia Kouyoumdjian. As well as the sense of community fostered in the studios, PAS artists’ work is included in exhibitions further afield, including an annual exhibition at Artspace in Woolloomooloo (which also hosts its own studio program), the two-part survey show New Sacred at Mosman Art Gallery (2018 and 2022), and many partnerships with regional galleries.

Established in 2006 in the Parramatta CBD (where Kain is currently in residence), PAS branched out to a new space in Rydalmere in 2019. The larger Rydalmere studios situated in a light-industrial area allow artists to experiment with material and scale “in ways we have never witnessed before at PAS,” Kouyoumdjian says.

Carriageworks resident artist Dean Cross also appreciates the opportunity to branch out in scale. Cross moved from Canberra to become a resident of The Clothing Store Artist Studios, a building close to Carriageworks which the Redfern multi-arts centre leases from Infrastructure NSW. It’s Cross’s first studio experience. “Because the studios are so luxurious – it’s bigger than my apartment – I’ve been able to work at a scale that I’ve never been able to work at before,” Cross explains. “It’s changed how I can look at my work and I’m incredibly grateful to have been here and even for it to have been extended because of Covid.”

The impacts of the pandemic have been mixed. “When I first came back into the studio [after lockdown] in some ways it was a positive, because I had…fresh eyes on all these half-baked ideas that I’d left when the doors got locked,” Cross recalls. However, he did find it difficult to regain the momentum of a regular studio practice. “[I]t took a little while to find that flow again, and…I couldn’t remember where I’d put my scissors.”

Cross is not alone in having his studio practice interrupted by the pandemic. At Crows Nest-based Studio A, a supported studio for artists living with intellectual disability, 17 represented artists share a communal space, a setup which has posed challenges during Covid-19. As CEO and Artistic Director Gabrielle Mordy explains, a full-time online program was created in the space of a week, a process which involved navigating variables such as group homes and limited internet experience. With some artists continuing to work in the studio and others discovering they prefer to work from home, the whole studio currently connects daily via video calls and has also continued their daily dance sessions this way.

In non-pandemic times, Studio A’s resident artists work in a single shared space, using mediums including digital art, painting, drawing and textiles – the studio contains several looms and sewing machines. The studio evolved out of a recreationally-focussed program, and aims to provide opportunities for artists living with intellectual disability to be involved in mainstream art networks. This has led to many collaborations which often include access to the more extensive studio resources of other artists.

Studio A’s original location in Hornsby proved to be a barrier to resident artists in accessing Sydney’s broader contemporary art world, and while their current location is an improvement, the studio is on the hunt for larger, more central, accessible yet affordable premises near a transport hub, with a gallery to promote greater visibility of artists work to passers-by.

This lack of affordable, suitable artist studios in Sydney is not unique to Studio A, and organisations like Brand X have addressed the issue by working with developers, landlords and local councils to repurpose empty spaces for cultural practitioners (they currently manage a Creative Precinct at St Leonards, and the City of Sydney’s live/work tenancies in inner Sydney).

Art collectors Teresa and Andre Biet have also made an impact on the issue of affordable studios, establishing Shirlow Street Studios in 2019. The couple, whose program Art Incubator provides exhibition and mentorship opportunities to emerging artists, purchased and renovated a former olive processing facility in Marrickville, incorporating a design studio and workshop on the ground floor, and eight artist studios above. Resident artists are chosen across various stages of their careers in order to develop mentorships between emerging and more established artists, and studios were designed without doors, the open access promoting “exchange and conversation particularly when problem solving about a technical aspect of their practice,” Teresa Biet notes. 

In nearby St Peters at Orange Tongue Studios, the same no-door approach also applies, with artists sharing tools and tips and occasionally posing for their studio neighbours. Except for artist Floria Tosca, who joined last year, all of the current eight occupants have been at Orange Tongue since it was established in 2017. Tosca, whose practice includes painting and drawing, felt that the space was right for her as soon as she entered the building.

“[T]here’s a camaraderie [and] generosity…not just in making the work, but also in supporting each other in showing it, and…when people are going through difficult times.” With many artists having exhibitions cancelled this year, the supportive studio environment has been crucial. Artists Jonathan Dalton and Giles Alexander set up Orange Tongue (named after the material they used to build the walls) when their previous studios were demolished to make way for the Metro. “We couldn’t find a space adequate to our needs, so we leased a warehouse and purpose built the space,” Dalton explains.

Artists Consuelo Cavaniglia and Brendan van Hek, who work in materials including mirror, Perspex and neon, also struggled to find an appropriate studio space after relocating to Sydney from Perth in 2012. “[T]he rents were astronomical and the spaces tiny! It was quite alarming – at one stage we were shown a space in a building in Camperdown that was literally a section of a hallway and it was $250/week,” Cavaniglia recalls. After spotting a ‘For Rent’ sign in a derelict-looking building in Marrickville, they discovered a “huge space with the best light. It’s a rare gem.”

Five years after moving in, Cavaniglia and Van Hek also took over the lease of the neighbouring unit and were joined by artists Gemma Smith and Grant Stevens. (Smith’s dog Puffin is a recent addition to the studio family.) “[T]he only drawback to the space is the ordeal of taking things up and down a fairly tight set of stairs,” notes Cavaniglia. “On occasion we’ve had to lower works out of the loading windows down the side of the building onto the road – it’s a pretty impressive effort and the people in the factory across the road will often drop tools and come and help out with the more precarious manoeuvres.”

Back over in St Peters in an old brick factory on the Prices Highway is a creative industrial space that defies traditional notions of the artist’s studio. Tortuga Studios was established in 2008, evolving from an earlier studio in Turrella. Managed as a not-for-profit incorporated association, Tortuga boasts 21 studios, a large gallery space (which in non-pandemic times is home to year-round exhibitions and events), photographic studio, kiln, hot-desks, a multi-purpose inner laneway, and a set-building workshop large enough to house the set of the interior of an RFDS plane. Tortuga is occupied by an extended family of creative practitioners including photographers, writers, carpenters, metalworkers, riggers, bagmakers and a clown.

“We are artists, but we talk of ourselves in terms of our cultural production,” Director of Tortuga Studios, H Morgan-Harris, explains. “Cultural production and manufacturing [are] a vital element in the broader entertainment industry, one of Sydney’s most dynamic sectors. The professional expertise at Tortuga – across multiple disciplines – cannot be described in the context of ‘artist studios’ solely. It is so much more than that. A number of our tenants take on multi-million-dollar projects, work in an international capacity and run creative crews of 40+ workers at a time.”

Tortuga is a particularly collaborative space with history and experience anchoring its strong community. But whether occupied by long-term residents or a rotating roster of artists, shared studios of all kinds offer artists and creative practitioners support, connection and solidarity. Conversations take place around meals and coffees, technical questions are nutted out, there are formal and informal opportunities to connect with others in the creative ecosystem, and, as Cross notes, “when you just need that extra set of  hands…it’s as simple as knocking on a door.”

Chloe Wolifson, August 2020

Where am I going? Moments of illumination and doubt in the work of John Olsen

John Olsen: Goya’s Dog (at the National Art School, Sydney from 11 June to 7 August 2021) spans eight decades of the artist’s practice, from the 1950s, when he first visited Spain, to the present. This exhibition tracks the influences of these Spanish encounters on the artist’s sensibility, his palette, and how he views the landscape and the human condition. It delves into the introspection and darker elements that pervade his work, and contrasts these with the sunny, more exuberant aspects of his practice. Goya’s Dog features over 50 major works, sketchbooks and drawings, many not seen in public for generations.

I was honoured to be invited to write the catalogue essay for the publication that accompanies John Olsen: Goya’s Dog. Excerpts from this essay appear on the wall labels throughout the exhibition, and an abridged version also appears in Art Monthly Australasia issue 328 (Winter 2021). Read the introduction below:

“Across two panels, the unmistakeable brushwork tracks its way through the shadows. Versions of the artist’s figure form part of a sinewy topography, his profile instantly recognisable, with pronounced chin and piercing eyes gazing east and west. It is not a murky gloom these figures inhabit, but a seemingly inevitable patina, with tones of blue and red echoing out like memories from within the brown. Lines of thought move across it, meet, converse, become scrambled, before disentangling and dispersing again. From the darkness, a small, familiar form draws the eye: an egg floats, its golden yolk ringed by translucent albumen. Broken, yet full of potential.

Donde voy? Self-portraits in moments of doubt was painted by John Olsen in 1989. The work, whose Spanish title translates as Where am I going?, encapsulates an aspect of Olsen’s practice more contemplative than the ebullience that has come to be associated with this iconic Australian artist’s work over the past seven decades. In the left-hand panel, the artist’s ‘well-known Napoleonic dome’[i] pushes into a lighter golden section occupied by a dark oblong shape: dawn breaking on the horizon of the darkened mind. In the panel on the right, all is shadowy, save for the ethereal tones of the egg: hope floating in the void.

The National Art School Gallery exhibition ‘Goya’s Dog’ traces formative moments in Olsen’s life: moments that sowed the seeds for a practice that integrates introspective yin and effervescent yang, and journeys and experiences that led Olsen, like the figures in Donde voy?, to look backwards in order to look to the future, and indeed make sense of the present.”

[i] P. Brown, ‘The Archibald Prize, 1971: An anachronism?’, in Antiques and Art Australasia, vol. 2, no. 7, March 1972, p. 1.

Ali Noble – Telepathic Lovesong

Galerie pompom, Sydney
26 May – 17 June 2021

Installation image by Docqment

Velveteen, Ali Noble’s medium of choice, presents itself in an unfixed manner. Shade, depth and tone shapeshift and shimmer depending on the light conditions and the viewing angle. As the audience, we are compelled to take our time exploring these works and their unsteady state. Not just an ocular interaction, our physical presence in this shared space takes on greater significance. The lure of tactility transfers into a performative state, as bodies carry eyes around the room, and hands long to touch.

The framed works in Telepathic Lovesong might first speak to the viewer as paintings through their scale and form. However, textiles resonate differently, more subconsciously than paint. Fabric lives with us, moves with us, it shields, reveals, contains and recalls. Its tactility can be alluring, comforting, sensuous, therapeutic, repellent. As Noble has noted, from the first time we are swaddled as a baby, textiles are intrinsic to our lives in the world. Cutting and sewing fabric are tactile and performative processes steeped in agency and control.

Noble’s velveteen scenes have a considered simplicity yet are far from flat. Inset rectangles, and the artist’s recurrent use of a symbolic vocabulary of curved, scalloped and teardrop shapes in a variety of sizes, draw the eye into and between these compositions, allowing the brain to invent animal, vegetable and mineral forms inhabiting the abstract. Pastels, too, conjure a myriad of associations, their kitsch further enriched by the crushed velveteen texture. Fairy floss pink and soft, mint green convey an optimistic, decorative impression, while dramatic black forms draw the viewer into the picture plane.

Velveteen is named after its rich ancestor velvet, but the two are quite different. Velvet, with its serious, regal overtones, sucks the light out of the atmosphere, into folds of opacity. Velveteen on the other hand flickers and glints as the viewer’s point of view changes, light dancing in and out of the crushed pile. The largest work in Telepathic Lovesong, Waiting Room, is an expansive expression of these scintillating, camp qualities, in the form of a dramatic silver curtain drawn across the gallery.

Curtains and drapery have been a familiar presence in art history for millennia, as a protective layer for paintings, and as a way for an artist to display a technical flourish. Functionally and dramatically, the curtain is where textiles paradoxically control and are controlled. Beyond the visual arts, the curtain’s role ranges from the dramatic to the quotidian. Whether drawn across the proscenium arch of a theatre or dividing a hospital ward, it cuts us off from what is behind, temporarily suspending belief.

Love, wonder, care, grief and longing are eternal elements of the human condition, even as that human condition is subject to technological advances, and existential threats. Creative and communicative impulses are a manifestation of our journey through this condition. What can be made of Noble’s slowed-down, hands-on, contemplative approach to her work in a screen-focussed, socially-distanced, sped-up world? While the warp and weft of the loom was an early ancestor of modern computing, the fundamental qualities of textiles remain antithetical to that of the screen.

As we have all spent time in the pandemic waiting room, a weird tension has emerged between deflation and inflation, with artworks seeming to get flatter, while their market value soars higher. In that virtual world, it doesn’t matter that we are temporarily unable to stand inside a gallery. The curtain, and the mystery it affords, is a relic. The emperor has no clothes, all that remains visible are his bits, and bytes. For some, the pandemic pivot simply shifts a jet-set pace to the online space. In the world of Telepathic Lovesong, it means something different. Time spent caring, time spent looking through drawn curtains. Not scrolling, but pausing to notice the mysterious ways materials and people communicate. Sometimes, pivoting means arriving, 360 degrees later, back where you started. In a room shared with objects and people, doing a shuffle-dance between shimmering artworks, attempting to decode their signs and symbols, free to move both feet any way you like.

Chloe Wolifson, May 2021

Third Iteration of “The National” Proves to be a Sustainable Spotlight for Contemporary Australian Art

The National: New Australian Art”, a biennial survey exhibition held across three institutional venues in Sydney, Australia, was originally conceived as a six-year, three-edition initiative. Coming to its third iteration this month, it continues to give insightful response to social and universal concerns while celebrating the country’s uniquely diverse art scene.

My review of The National has been published on CoBo Social – read it here.