two women's work.... by Jill Barker, originally published in Keyaki Avenue Vol. 3, 2001.
Two Australian Artists.
In this short paper I will discuss the work of two Australian artists: Judith Kentish and Judith Wright. Both of these women live and work in the city of Brisbane in eastern Australia. Both artists have exhibited in countries other than Australia, and Wright has had several exhibitions in Japan, but their works’ biggest audience has been in Australia.
It can be said that both Kentish and Wright are sensitive to their environments and that the works they exhibit are, partly, responses to the surroundings and life circumstances they have chosen, or found themselves in. In other words, the fact that they are living and working where and how they are has some importance for the artworks they produce. However, it cannot be said that the works are either typical or representative of the place where the artists live. This is because a direct, visual, unprocessed influence is not present in the work of either of these artists. That kind of 'thematic' influence is one in which each aspect of the work reinforces and confirms what is already known. The works produced by Judith Wright and Judith Kentish are more open-ended than that.
I will not describe in any detail here the subject matter of the work of these two artists because I want to emphasize the significance of experiencing the works' physicality. Each work's raison d'etre does not lie in the ideas it expresses, though it might lie in the thoughts it generates. Description and documentation of the work is interesting, but different from the experience of 'being there'.
Both artists set up the elements of their work (for example: Kentish's drawings, embroidered cloth works; Wright's drawings, video images, objects) in the exhibition space using their knowledge of the ways we respond to what surrounds us. The sites of exhibitions of their work are finely balanced spaces for encounter, each one holding the space like a clearing in a forest. One of the ways they do this is by understanding how we respond to scale and distance.
The Otsuka Museum of Art (TOMA) at the north-eastern tip of Shikoku in Japan understands the importance of the feeling of ‘being there’. TOMA's extraordinary collection consists of more than a thousand 1:1 scale reproductions of well-known images in Western Art. Of particular interest to me are their "Historical Reproductions". These are exact scale replicas of the rooms where famous wall paintings are found. Though the surface of the reproductions is quite different from the originals, that is soon overwhelmed by the feeling of being in the original room. It remains a bizarre experience to walk out of the replica of the Hagios Nikolaos Orphanos in Greece to the replica of the church of Saint-Martin in France, and on to the replica of the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Italy. It is bizarre because the effect of being inside each room is so very close to being really there. This is a rare case of having exact scale replicas. Most works are, by necessity, documented in ways that are far from the originals in many ways.
When we go to exhibitions by Judith Kentish, and at those by Judith Wright, we are offered experiences of intimacy. Not with the artist’s thoughts, but with what we see. In fact, intimacy is generated because what we see (or think we see) connects us with our own thoughts and memories. However, the two artists’ works set up this experience in quite different ways.
Judith Kentish's work has always relied on acute observation of surface. For example, in early works, Kentish painted delicate watercolours of small crumpled pieces of paper, observing closely how the shadows and hollows defined and formed the folds in what was once a smooth flat sheet of paper. Her beautiful paintings, themselves on small sheets of paper, were therefore intriguingly doubled. In another series of work, developed from those delicate watercolours, she scanned the painted images into her computer. Then she printed them out enormously magnified, with parts of the image repeated or mirror-imaged, so that the image of the original small crumpled piece of paper (from her wastepaper bin?) became a computer processed image of several square metres. Viewing them, we felt as if we had shrunk, so large and grainy the processed surface had become. And each image was strangely insect-like in its symmetry. So closely we looked upon that surface!
In later works, Kentish has pencilled row after row of careful scribble or used an overlocking sewing machine to embroider cloth with line after line of the same type of dense scribble in silky thread. The surface of the finished works remind me of the surface of an irregular tatami mat. Though the works are usually quite large, they draw us in close so that we may look at details. Up close, the surface fills our field of vision, blocks out everything else momentarily. Is this like a child's encounter with the world? A child looking at a discarded cicada shell in wonder? Or perhaps it is more like immersion in the page of a book: seeing the printed word, and being the story.
Judith Wright's work sets up intimacy in different ways. I want to say the work is companionable even though it doesn’t sound quite right. But even when we don’t move in close to the individual objects or images which make up a Judith Wright exhibition, we are included in it's space. Part of this effect comes from the way Wright uses light. A dimly lit room, or a spotlit object entice and welcome viewers. This is a way of heightening our focus, of having us pay attention of a particular kind, but it is not Kentish’s space of self-sufficiency. In these works we were not children touching the world with our eyes, immersed in silent discovery. This was more companionable; light defined a space of exchange the way that the low murmur of voices in a private conversation does. For example, in Second Stage (1995), the spotlight enclosed a space that our thoughts had entered long before we did. We became involved in the dialogue between the objects; we were included in their conversation.
More recently, Wright has had a number of exhibitions where the only light in the space is that coming from large video projections. Her video images are both profound and sensual, sometimes stretched as a thin skin of light across a wall. In this low light, as we watch the large video projections – of very close-up images of a body filmed underwater or of someone sleeping, for example – we can forget that we are watched. That is, we are so involved looking and listening that we forget to watch ourselves. This is also a kind of intimacy.
Although the work of each artist sets up the experiences of intimacy differently, they both present finely tuned spaces for a kind of immersion in the physical world, not a separation from it. The works are not concerned with making the invisibility of the spiritual visible, they are strongly connected to life and to here and now. They are close observations of the world without being explanations of it. They trigger idea associations and visual equivalencies from our own store of life experiences, and they do it through our acts of looking.
If I have made the work of these two artists seem mysterious or hard to grasp, it is due to the awkwardness of my writing. The effects of the works are complex, but they are simple and beautiful to see. Part of our connection to these works is that we can recognize and empathize with their vulnerability.
When something is held together by internal tensions just enough to let it resonate without falling apart, it is as fragile and vulnerable as a life.