my textile career from 1975
A large work shown together with three (?) others of mine in a group exhibition called Material Boys Unzipped at the Object Galleries, Sydney during the Mardi Gras festival of 2002, which then toured nationally. I was vastly amused at the time because I had written some notes to accompany my contribution; they contained the phrase “pink dollar consumerism”, at which a young male couple sneered.
In spite of gay mainstream attitudes, the festival nonetheless catered for a broad range of attitudes, affirmation being the strongest underlying theme. LGBTIQ communities steadily rejected the ridiculous Papal prejudice of that Polish actor and his star struck acolyte that our realities are “intrinsically disordered”. Nor, during the Aids epidemic were there such people as “innocent victims” as an idiot surgeon pompously proclaimed. On ABC The Drum recently, a Catholic journalist noted that contemporary theologians are now asserting that God is incapable of “creating rubbish” and that we live natural lifestyles not chosen ones.
This work has multiple layers of meaning and reference, most of which I will leave to the viewer. Somehow, I have assumed the odalisque attitude of French painters: Watteau and Delacroix, to the point of regendering the word for the inhabitant of a harem to odalisk for an earlier work. Thus the lounging on the bed with the cat; after all Goya’s naked dame has her dog in attendance.
My cat was a finely bred Tonkinese, wondrously intelligent and shriekingly nervous; my friend and I bought two so that they would be companions. The younger one, however, was completely different in temperament: intrepid where his elder was sedate, but also trusting and friendly. Our house was broken into once, while we were away and I suspect the intruder kicked the younger cat in the stomach; it developed a huge tumour. They both died in different but equally traumatic circumstances. We ask for closure but rarely manage to reach that state of mind. As one bereft person said, “I forgive but will never forget”.
I continue to dream of my cat, which, incidentally, I had called Chook; I’m a country boy, after all, and the afternoon chore was scattering the grain and calling the hens to their meal. I wonder if Chook stalks the rooms of my house by night and drops into my dreams to say hello.
Jung used to say that the presence of an animal in your dreams indicates natural energy inhabiting your unconscious state. With every visit I feel renewed, strengthened and reassured.
Mare Nullius. Button and object assemblage, 85 cms H X W.
What I thought a clever schoolboy transcription in Latin from the phrase with which the Enlightenment explorers described Australia, namely: terra nullius, is itself in current usage. Cook’s or rather Bank’s or Greville’s phrase evoked, as they saw it, a continent empty of civilisation. Indeed, when you go into the bush and you have not acknowledged the place and its ancestors, it exudes a painfully gothic emptiness. But the maritime trio obviously saw no cathedrals, no villages, no cesspits such as London showed. They mistook the careful tending of land and sea by the indigenous people here as neglect.
When I googled the phrase “mare nullius” I found it to be in current legal usage by indigenous people as part of regaining ownership of their rights over saltwater areas that historically sustained them. A legal phrase that horrifies me but is often used is “extinguishing native title”. It smells of highhanded, extortionate bureaucracy.
This is the age of the #metoo movement for which an Indian saint and teacher, Mother Meera, is a fitting leader. She describes the river Ganges as the mother of life, defiled by millenia of patriarchal neglect; this is the current reality of the planet: we have polluted land, water, air, even outer space. This is the core insight of my work, that oceans are polluted with floating continents of garbage, mostly the refuse of commercial over-fishing, nets and so forth, but also the plastic items of everyday consumption.
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
The above is from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Windhover, about a bird in flight. The word “BUCKLE” is pivotal; it describes several qualities fused in the experience, but paradoxically, also the potential for those qualities to disrupt and disquiet. Lovely but dangerous.
Thus my use of the buckles. The larger ones are meshed with electrical wire, to reference the fishing nets discarded at sea. Upon this is fastened a beer bottle top containing a human eye of buttons (iridescent pupil and the white of pearl-shell). The smaller ones are also buckles but chrome as opposed to bronze. Paradoxicality is invoked by inferring that the peripheral watchers are ancestor guardians or mere mortals, currently condemned to view the chaos we have accumulated.
Another material in this assemblage of detritus is the coloured mesh bags used to hold vegetables.
This is the paradox of art: that we evoke the detritus, but in doing so (with its morality tale) yet we create a loveliness that belies the pollution. Every artist has to infuse even the bitterest work with the promise of reversal, that we as a civilisation can develop a spirituality that reveres the planet and its resources.
The spiral of household nets references the famous Matisse cut-out of pieces of coloured papers, called, “The Snail”, 1953.
The hierarchy of consumerism is firstly buttons and buckles that touch most closely the human form, Surrounding that are the things with which we clutter our lives: electrical wiring, bottle tops, vegetable mesh bags. Importantly, the crushed and serendipitously shaped aluminium cans form the fish of this underwater scape; like a water colour work by Paul Klee, one of my favourite artists, they suggest their necessary attributes and qualities: the red fish with tentacles, a blue one bursting through a dee blue shape. It is the self-organised circus of life.
Millenial, 25 cm H X 22 cm W, 8 cotton warps per in, DMC (6 strand) cottons X3.
Different generations regard each other, often not comprehending, across the gulf of years and experiences. My pets peeves are the overuse of mobile phones, peculiar, undeveloped grammar (apostrophe), a recent need to have the chin covered with short bristle, and being inked. Doubtless, once my parents’ generation realised they had to relinquish control over our lives they felt equally estranged and uncomprehending.
A decade ago, I received a commission from a Florida woman to sew an embroidery of buttons to celebrate her daughter’s wedding. In Elizabethan poetry that’s called a prothalamion. I showed the daughter holding her pet dog and her fiance with a mobile phone copying the event or maybe the audience.
In my latest small tapestry, a millenial man stands before flowers that represent a Unicorn tapestry; he wears in the centre of his forehead the unicorn’s eye. Make of it what you will.
A friend of mine who acts as devil’s advocate says of my portraits that they often are cropped, above and below. Instead of showing collar bone and shoulders I barely include the chin. This work is no exception. However, at the top of the work the visual idea expands into the empyrean. This extends the spiritual aspect of the third eye. To my mind, this gives an unusual vantage, as if the face is being viewed from above.
My critic, RWB, also remarked that the colour palette of this work is restrained, almost monochromatic. For me, it has a peaceful “flatness”; I think that may be due, in some part, to my having spent a weekend in the country. The fresh air and the energy of nature are palpable.
These are the last words of Voltaire’s Candide, who, having set out on his travels as an optimist, returns home and decides with a sigh, like Dorothy, that there’s no place like home, that the garden has been neglected and needs tending.
As tapestry weavers we all develop signature styles. The development sometimes involves sudden shifts and changes. These are tasks we set ourselves. My biog consisted of an enthusiastic venture. Gay Liberation was launched in Sydney; as a young gay man I was intent on developing my identity. My craft or sullen art was part of that launch.
One of the images I began to weave was that of a well hung young man, sunbathing on a garden recliner in the garden. Doubtless, I had been influenced by the works of David Hockney, usually poised on the marketable side of naughtiness, such as the man in a suit at the edge of the pool peering down at his friend, swimming towards him underwater.
What seemed to art matrons as gratuitous, adolescent prurience, was to us a revolutionary act; the proclamation of our sexuality, its energy, colour and style. The fact that this decade of gay history was followed by Aids is one of the ironies of contemporary culture. Not unlike the fact that the Parisian art community of Manet, Degas and Seurat was infected with syphillis, coincidence rather than consequence.
It was such a revolutionary concept in art, no longer coyness but open exultation. As Davis McDiarmid, newly arrived in Sydney from Melbourne, wrote, taking the lyrics of a song Doris Day sang, “Now I shout it from the highest hill; my secret love’s no secret anymore”. As gay liberationists described it, we had come out of the closet and become the fiends our parents warned us against.
My early work of the sunbather at that point consisted of the patio furniture: black plastic striped structure and the garden pots: several ceramic rims from which flowers clambered, a nasturtium for instance, and vegetation of LA greenery alternating with deepest blue shadow.
Because the project was becoming laborious, perhaps other events also intruded, I abandoned the work on the loom. Other weavers will recognise the frame of mind, daily examining the image and its cartoon, the frustration of a lack of progress. Finally, I cut the woven portion from the loom and later detached the garden section as a separate, multi-sided unit. I submitted it for an international woven installation.
The event proved an excuse to reconsider my earliest weaving techniques. My method of deliberation is to return to the cartoon, using my current method of weaving. Ironically, my weaving techniques then and now are identical; what has changed is my acceptance of the patience needed to work to completion.
A recent exhibition of Australian post-Impressionist Russell demonstrated the intense blues his group of painters used to depict the shadows of trees and plants under the hot sun.
My new work allowed me to justapose bright, emerald greens and deepest blues. (When you’re in the jungle you gotta CLASH.) In fact, all the colours are intense; the only palest reference to the original cartoon is the priapric dragonfly. Likewise, flowers, it cannot be denied, are the sex organs of plants. Il faut cultiver le jardin.
Begun last Tues, completed last night, Il Faut Cultiver Le Jardin, 26 cms H X 23 cms W; 8 warps per in, DMC ( 6 stranded) X3, cotton wefts.
Comparing the two images, I was made to realise the difference in using colour and shape; the earlier work obeys no strict rules about flow; its gestures are impetuous. There is no stopping the rush of energy the young present to the world. Long life.
The movie On a Clear Day starring Barbara Streisand, beloved of gay men around the world, has so many insights for tapestry weavers. In a previous blog I wrote about weaving without a pre-conceived design, a type of automatic weaving. In the above movie Daisy Gambol (?) makes flowers grow on her rooftop by talking to them, reading daily newspapers. As Paul Simon sings in his wonderfully unique album Graceland, “magical is art”.
Of course the face woven here is not Freddie Mercury but Billy Idol. But it’s the genre. The BBC made a doco about the career of QUEEN. Channel Nine showed it tonight, in spite of the numerous f… words. For instance Freddie would get his audience to yodel after him, then jokingly say “f… you”, toss his head back and prance off stage, panther-like.
It was a two part doco; tonight’s was the conclusion, during which the song Bohemian Rhapsody was discussed. On its released it had been condemned both for its length and combination of musical genres. Elton John thought it an improbable chart hit. I was in Europe when it had just been released and witnessed the delirious reception it earned. Of course, it was like no other song of its time. In a way it looked back to the extended (programmatic) album songs of the seventies, a point made by a band member: that Queen was a bridge between the 70’s and 80’s. Also between rock and disco, as Mercury was quite comfortable writing for and playing to gay audiences; the rest of his band less so.
What I have to admire was that Mercury was not conventionally beautiful; for this marketable quality he substituted stage theatrics and an imperious attitude. He also had an extraordinary work attitude, even when Aids was taking its toll. The last album the band recorded was based on vocals Mercury recorded in three takes, ahead of the instrumentation being laid down. His famous affair with Rudolf Nureyev of course was not discussed, the fact that wherever he was singing, at the end of his performance he would fly to where Nureyev was staying. They were giant twin lovers.
Mercury’s attitude to Aids, when his manager mentioned it, even before he had been told he was HIV positive, was to say, “fuck it; you have to live life”. Where gay writers like Patrick Gale in the UK and Ethan Mordden, Felice Picano and Michael Nava in the USA, among others, wrote about Aids, documenting its culture of dread and uncertainty, Mercury was able to sing with the disease as his backdrop.
I will never forgive the Sydney commercial radio station when on the morning it announced Freddie Mercury’s death from Aids went on to play Another One Bites the Dust. Such schadenfreude, such noir wit; may it bite their backside venomously.
I wanted to continue with a sermon about Aids culture in the 90’s; how victims stopped seeing acquaintances once the symptoms had set in and the end was inevitable, how they began to fill a particular floor of St Vincent’s Hospital, how a friend of mine cared for them there. Thank you SR. Princess Diana visited the ward while I was consulting a cardiologist. Her meeting with Aids victims broke with Buckingham protocols, but was a new high for her shining charisma. Somehow I felt I must express something of that time and my community’s experiences, and even my survivor guilt, without it becoming a Hieronymus Bosch catalogue of deformities and inexcusable voyeurism. But how?
The doco went to great lengths to outline the effects the drag roles the band members played in the song “I Want to Break Free”. It was a piss take on Brit TV Soaps and the band obviously enjoyed themselves enormously. But the programmers of MTV, the US populist music show, disapproved; the song was banned and Queen featured more rarely on US charts as a result.
During the In Memoriam concert for Freddie Mercury, Roger Daltry and others imitated the bounding style of the master now deceased, but David Bowie walked onstage, went down on one knee, looked down and said the Lord’s Prayer. The words from one of his own songs are some explanation of an act others could not understand: “Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well; don’t have to question everything in heaven or hell; Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing, and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things”. Which makes it all even more mysteriously magical. Let’s not forget that Bowie and Mercury sang the duet “Under Pressure”.
In the middle of the movie The Big Chill William Hurt is sitting on a sofa late at night watching the detectives with not a clue as to what is going on. A friend joins him and demands a plot summary. Hurt says: “You’re so analytical; sometimes you just have to let art flow over you”. In yesterday’s movie Dangerous Liaisons Glenn Close says of a music teacher, “like all intellectuals he’s intensely stupid”. Music reading and playing would easily have to be considered a consummately intellectual activity, closely followed by tapestry weaving. It translates a cartoon into colour and shape, despite the extreme difficulty of the weaving process. After thirty years of weaving I have developed a “second Sight” literally, whereby the fault of having passed across or behind two warps registers subliminally.
But the flowing of art today seems in another direction entirely. In the past, I would deliberately limit myself to one project at a time; it took up all my attention, my psychic focus. If that cloud or bubble burst prematurely I abandoned the work and usually cut whatever had been woven from the loom. However, today, I am particularly aware of how much strain this places on the psyche, how much anxiety. Without being motivated to resume whatever project currently engages me, I am deprived of the soul-nourishing that weaving tapestry provides. Not that sometimes it is an activity that allows the mind or the emotional self to indulge in a swamp of recriminations against past wrongs. Part of my personality I keep getting told, by non-professionals.
However, the difference between a project strictly focussed on a cartoon and a more freeform activity is palpable. Shapes are not predetermined. And art flows over you.
An art academic recently pontificated that fibre has become the new material of art gallery creativity. By that, it was meant that the installation artist could use rope or yarn to create gigantic environments. Sometimes, an actual textile technique was used as in an area in a converted Sydney warehouse covered with a gigantic lace.
Alternatively, small items of textile, not particularly distinguished by technique and a mass spectacle formed. The intention is to impress the viewer with a spectacle that I would contend has much to do with two features of contemporary civilisation, namely mass production and over-population.
What I find perplexing or confronting about the massed spectacle is that many features of traditional art are missing. These include the inter-relationships of units. In a painting, woven tapestry or sculpture, the maker carefully, scrupulously, designs relationships between various parts of the composition to deliver an effective whole. By contrast, the installation artist designs an overall spectacle; however, from one venue to the next various components are not necessarily placed in the same position or even the “right way up”.
But we are told that conventional art is dead. The designer, installation and performance artists have taken over and new rules apply. However, I fail to be deeply moved by such art. That a serious artist might fill a room with balloons and messages attached for instance leaves me cold. The balloons move constantly; nothing is fixed; the MO is loosely defined and executed. Such examples are numerous and interchangeable.
Art is a market driven thing; the designer, installation and performance artists presumably consider themselves unmarketable, and thus radical. They are the new elite, lauded by public galleries eager to be ahead of the latest trend. The recent contemporary art giants who monopolise the auction sales command huge prices; any critic who might attempt to revise the status of any of the recent greats has the dilemma that their critique would seriously affect large investments. Thus, the critic remains sheepish in both public gallery and recent sales activity.
The three fragments illustrated above are in reverse order of execution: the last was woven earliest but abandoned and then only recently separated and finished. Likewise, the second, whose origin in 2002, as part of my Master’s project about refugees and the imagined diaspora. The first was of two maps of NSW conjoined, a Geminian complexity.
Having just watched the splendidly anxious-making movie Dangerous Liaisons, the tenor of the above can best be summed up by two quotes, first the iambic pentameter “In spite of all your faults and my complaints”, and Glenn Close concluding that “vanity and happiness are incompatible”. They probably best summarise the art world, both making and exhibiting.
This weekend just gone I travelled inland to a small city, Albury. My friend the driver (hopeless me, I do not drive) arranged it all, including the navigating and chauffeuring. Sydney is the capitol city of NSW and the oldest inhabitation by a British colonial army along the coast of Australia. It lies halfway on the coast between Victoria and Qld. However, our destination required that we travel diagonally inland to a small but prosperous city on the NSW/Vic border. Curiously, it is a border town within NSW while Wodonga lies just south of the border, within Vic. Just as curiously, on the NSW/Qld border there are also twin border towns: Tweed Heads and Coolangatta.
My friend was travelling south to attend a two day lace workshop; he is practically the only Australian male who makes lace. As textile was the theme of the weekend I warped up a small loom so I could weave a tapestry over the two days. We visited op (opportunity) shops along the way, in country towns; in one of them I found a curious book about Sumerian and Egyptian culture and writing. Perhaps to emphasise the antiquity of the subject the book was covered with a marbled pattern more readily found in end papers (the inside papers, back and front of old volumes). The more contemporary use of this pattern was the psychedelic decoration of 1960’s/1970’s rock albums.
I decided to rework the swirls of marble that the pattern were meant to suggest. Along with my regular habit of units of colour that flow consecutively, that is to say, one carries on where another leaves off, I found the practice of using two colour shapes to enclose a third in an arch satisfying.
When I had finished the work my friend suggested that the landscape we had driven through for eight hours had had an effect. Obviously, he thought, there were gently curved hills in my work. It is titled Marbled End Paper, 23 cms H X 20 cms W; 8 warps per in, DMC cottons 6 stranded (X3) wefts.
From the left over warp bits I re-warped the loom for a smaller size piece, which I called Safely Graze, based on the 9 degrees of difficulty needed to weave around the knotted warps. It was possible but quite frustrating and laborious. 8.5 cms H X 9.5 cms W. Certainly a miniature.