LOUISEANN KING: SOLIS
Louiseann King is a sculptor/installation artist and academic based in Eganstown, a physical and historical landscape which is highly charged, complex and capable of subtle and dramatic change. This exciting project saw two exhibition spaces within the Gallery reconceived with thematic displays of work to explore depictions of women and landscapes in the nineteenth century, so that King’s sculptural installations sat within them, providing points of contrast and dialogue with works from the collection.
In this exhibition, King considered the way the Gallery collection is displayed, the spaces it occupies and how this generates meaning and context. solis will feature new sculptural installation works/interventions included a collaboration with sound artist Philip Samartzis which utilised local eco-acoustic recordings and the particular acoustics of the Ferry and Crouch galleries.
THE POWER OF SUGGESTION – LOUISEANN KING: SOLIS
King’s sculptural installation artworks are not of something but about something. They are never about an object but about what the object suggests; what it emits, what it has been orchestrated to convey. For King, it is never about things, but about thought.
Associate Professor Ken Wach[i]
Public art galleries, as often remarked, are rather odd places where people come to stare at odd inanimate objects before shuffling along to repeat the process. Generally the galleries are only too happy to facilitate this strange ritual as long as we don’t stare at them. They pride themselves on being, in theory at least, neutral repositories for art, what Beatrice Warde famously described as a ‘crystal goblet’, revealing their contents while remaining invisible in themselves. They also endeavour, quietly, to mediate our response to art–-most significantly through the choice of work displayed and through its arrangement. If all this is achieved without our awareness the galleries will feel they’re doing their job. The problem is that there are times when a gallery may want visitors to engage with the spaces because they are integral to the meaning of an artist’s work only to discover that visitors have been so successfully conditioned not to notice that this is precisely what they do.
With her major installation solis, artist Dr Louiseann King accepted this problem as a challenge to be met head on.[ii] When she put her proposal to the Gallery for an installation that would require her to take wholesale ‘possession’ of two upstairs galleries and transform them into a highly personal form of Gesamtkunstwerk, she was well aware of how difficult it would be to bring all viewers along with her.[iii]
Enthusiastic support from the Gallery’s curator Julie McLaren and newly appointed director Louise Tegart however, saw the galleries soon stripped of their colonial and early 20th century paintings, statuary and furniture and the walls repopulated with paintings the artist had selected from the Gallery’s extensive historical collection. The final step was for King to bring into the galleries two installations that, through metaphor and analogy, would activate the spaces and render them major players in a complex meditation on gender bias, national mythology and environmental loss. In this way King took on the role of artist-curator, turning mediation from what is essentially a passive process into a dynamic one.
Our likely first encounter with solis will be in the Ferry Gallery which, thanks to King’s artistic sleight of hand, has been has transformed into something akin to a 19th century parlour. Here the dark red-brown walls and black skirting and architraves that usually form the backdrop for early colonial and Federation era work, now find an echo in the strong tonal contrasts of the installation of densely packed vintage objects occupying the centre of the room.
There is no easy gestalt of the installation that we can grasp, so in order to meaningfully experience it we are obliged to move, like a bee does from flower to flower, tracing a weaving line around the perimeter, making discoveries along the way. While the objects at first glance appear to be the typical accoutrements of any self-respecting household from the colonial era—tall turned cedar stands and small tables, bell jars and vessels of every kind standing cheek by jowl, they soon reveal themselves to be eccentric inhabitants of an alternative world where sensations of the uncanny rule.
We note the mysterious glass vessels of obscure origin hiding inside other vessels that become, in the artist’s words, ‘psychologically charged’ containers preserving or trapping memory. We see special occasion crystal bowls that have been upended to become ‘crystal balls’ inviting us to ponder our own past and to speculate about our future.
Here and there among these objects, King has arranged bronze casts of native birds that had died.[iv] Most lie on their backs as the artist found them, laid out on the cast mould so that the intricately detailed heads and feet stand out against the rough and unpolished surface.
In some cases the sprues suggests branches and twigs functioning as a type of bier. The birds act as memento mori, intensifying the elegiac mood that pervades the installation, and link with the brace of dead birds seen in William Buelow Gould’s 1840s painting on the nearby wall. For King ‘solis’, Latin for the sun, is a near homophone for ‘solace’, a word that took on special meaning in the personally stressful time of the work’s gestation.[v]
There are also a dozen delicate lost wax bronze casts of fine needlework that, lacking the dark patina given to the birds appear a bright coppery-gold. As appropriate to their special significance in the lives of pioneer women, they are protected within glass ‘reliquaries’. Close inspection reveals they bear images of native animals – kangaroos, swans, a kookaburra, an emu and a koala.
Standing above these, hoisted up on spindly rods like Roman standards, are three dark lace casts. They are torn in places as if wearing the wounds of battle and time. One, a large coat of arms, sparkles with stars, tiny polished sprues that catch the light.[vi]
These are an assertion perhaps of the central role that women had in homemaking, a role every bit as important as the work of men but so often overlooked. Certainly the artist’s choice of bronze, conventionally thought of as a memorialising medium, was intended to encourage a re-evaluation of what is often dismissed as ‘women’s work’.[vii]
Looking downward we may ponder the large sprigs of dried and pressed wattle, collected by the artist on her Eganstown property near Ballarat. Wattle is the most emblematic of Australian flowers and appears in a 1918 painting by Clara Southern on an adjacent wall. These we imagine are large-scale versions of the pressed flower ‘herbariums’ that were hugely popular with women in the 19th century.
Also at our feet, linking all the disparate parts of the installation, are ‘reflecting pools’, circular mirrors (some convex) and glass of different sizes, catching the light and reflecting the paintings on nearby walls.
Though the physical character of the installation may suggest a forest or a garden (and both readings resonate with the artist), the overarching theme of the Ferry Gallery itself is that of an interior in which female experience and aspirations are celebrated. For King the notion that mateship and hard physical toil were at the centre of Australia’s foundation mythology has allowed insufficient space to acknowledge the major role that women played. solis then, is an attempt to right the balance, to draw attention to the importance of women’s crafts and homemaking skills.
Seen in this way the paintings King has selected to grace the walls of the ‘home’ take on special significance. On one wall we see women and girls proudly posing for their portraits and, by way of contrast, on the other are a series of landscape paintings that present women playing a minor role of charming but passive ornaments.[viii]
This carefully cluttered ‘interior’ gives way upon entering the adjoining Crouch Gallery to openness and light, as if we’ve walked through a door out on to dry grass plains. If the Ferry Gallery presents the foreground, what is at our feet or within touch, the Crouch Gallery pushes out to the horizon.
The invitation to examine objects at close hand, to prod and poke, at least metaphorically, as we wandered around the ‘parlour’ is replaced by an urge to breathe deeply, to look around, to adopt the landscape view and then to stride in and out across the floor to look at the paintings, to explore.
With its large dimensions, cream walls and skylight that floods the space it speaks of different experience to that evoked by the smaller, darker and more intimate space we have just left. The yin of the Ferry Gallery gives way to the overtly masculine yang.[ix]
King’s installation here is decidedly minimal. In the centre of the space sits a 19th century vitrine atop of which are a group of tall apparatus stands holding slender bronze branches, and around the wall there are landscape paintings by male artists chosen by King to underscore the theme.[x]
Sculptors, dealing with the concrete, face inherent problems when attempting to work with the imagined depth that is part of landscape whereas painters, working with a medium having no depth to speak of, are perfectly placed to represent it. To use single branches as a form of synecdoche is one way around this. It’s more likely that, in keeping with the spirit of solis, the few spindly limbs act as a lamentation, representing remnants of once mighty forests.
This is suggested by the way the spotlight, strategically placed in the centre of the west end, glints off the polished parts of the branches as if they’re illuminated by a dying sun, and throws their delicate ghost like shadows across Arthur Streeton’s large The Vanishing Forest 1934 prominent at the centre of the east wall. Here past and present concerns about environmental loss are poetically linked.[xi]
If the tactile is activated in the Ferry Gallery (at least by suggestion), here the visual reigns, though a quick glance at the vitrine might imply that precisely the opposite is the case for there is nothing to be seen in it. The American artist and writer Douglas Davis once said that when we are confronted by a tabula rasa we have an itch to interpret and an empty vitrine, like a blank tablet, will surely set us scratching.
It may help us to know that the artist thinks of the vitrine as a camera lucida (a chamber of light) and is in this respect is a miniature of the room itself. Rather than being empty then it is full of both light and space (it has a glass ceiling), the main attributes of the gallery and of the paintings that line its walls. Invariably however, most of us will ponder what it might have once contained, taxidermied specimens of now extinct animals perhaps, and imagine that the artist’s intention is to draw our attention to the profound loss of species and habitat that haunts our age.[xii]
Certainly this interpretation appears to be borne out by the mysterious susurrant sounds of wind, and of running water, trilling birds and the calls of bullfrogs that aurally charge the atmosphere around the vitrine. This soundscape, by Melbourne sound artist Philip Samartzis, was recorded at King’s own bushland property.
Having stepped back from the vitrine we may discover that looking through it offers more of interest than looking into it. The term ‘camera lucida’ also refers to an optical device that projects light through a prism on to a surface as an aid for artists. To view the paintings through the old vitrine’s glass ‘prism’, some of it rippled and uneven, and at the same time see other works reflected in it, is for King a reminder of how art is always interpreted through the prism of the mind.
Something that even the most discerning viewer may overlook is the way the artist has linked the more than thirty landscapes by arranging them around the walls in such a way that a single day is imagined–-from dawn to dusk. Fittingly, the final sunset work is of Ballarat’s Brown Hill region.[xiii]
While at the heart of solis is the affirmation of women’s achievements, it is much more than simply 1970s feminist art redux.[xiv] Complex and multi-layered in its allusions, viewers will discover that parsing solis is a demanding but highly rewarding challenge. Only with their close attention will they become aware of how subtly King works her artistic magic on their subconscious, nudging it to engage with broad issues of history, gender, and environment.
Geoffrey J. Wallis
Formerly Lecturer in Art, University of Ballarat
All exhibition photographs by Danny Wootton, 2018
[i] From Louiseann King solis by Julie McLaren and Ken Wach, with a foreword by Louise Tegart. Art Gallery of Ballarat, 2018 (unpaginated)
[ii] solis formed part of the inaugural Biennale of Australian Art held at various Ballarat locations from 21 September to 6 November 2018.
[iii] Gordon Morrison, director of AGB until his retirement in June 2018, suggested some years back that King exhibit at AGB, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the first steps were taken. King soon became aware that she wanted to totally curate the spaces herself, and with McLaren’s support, the process of making the installations and curating the galleries ‘happened simultaneously with both informing each other’.
[iv] The artist has a licence to collect native specimens.
[v] King’s dearly loved father died during the period of solis’ conception. Her paternal grandmother’s maiden name was ‘soler’.
[vi] Which King likens to the Southern Cross and other stars of the southern sky.
[vii] King began working at with Cameron McIndoe at Fundere Foundry in Melbourne after she won the Fundere Sculpture Prize in 2001. ‘It has been a long and wonderful relationship where I have learned a great deal and, through learning the principles of bronze casting, have been able to extend/push the medium. Bronze casting is a medium dominated by men where there’s a long, historical lineage of monumental casting. Bronze is the medium of the heroic, the monumental and the magnificent and, yet, it is has the capacity to be incredibly sensitive and responsive…’
[viii] By way of contrast, King had Tom Roberts’ The Charcoal Burners, hung near the south wall. In this work heroic male labour is on display. For the artist, paintings that appear in this space, including Eugene von Guerard’s large view of the Ballarat diggings, may be envisioned as windows of the ‘drawing room’, opening out to a world beyond the domestic.
[ix] This is just one example of the manner in which King brings into play an extraordinary range of opposite but complementary forces including dark-light, absence-presence, fullness-emptiness, nearness-distance, tactile-visual, female-male and the social construct of feminine-masculine.
[xi] The location of the spotlight was the result of pure serendipity, discovered by Gallery Exhibition Officer Ben Cox, responsible for the lighting.
[xii] It once held a stuffed crocodile.
[xiii] King envisaged this dawn to dusk sequence as conveying a sense of wholeness and unity.
[xiv] King’s PhD, titled A Ritual for Making, involved in part an examination of work and ideas of feminist artist pioneers of the 1970s and 80s.
& OPENING HOURS
Louiseann King:solis was on show from 1 September 2018 to 7 April 2019
This catalogue documents the exhibition with stunning photos by Danny Wootton and includes essays by Julie McLaren, Ken Wach … more>