Obsessive Impulsion @ CCAS (2018)

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COVER: JODIE CUNNINGHAM Florence Daze [Data Portrait], 2017, acrylic perspex, bamboo, stainless steel, nickel and concrete, 28cm x 34cm x 17cm



Impulsion is a driving force; the impetus, the motive or influence behind an action or process. Obsessive Impulsion is an exhibition that focuses on the artists’ passion as it is revealed through the methodologies of five diverse practices. In both concept and technique, each series of works reflects a quiet flamboyance that drives artists to create an appearance of excess and yet there is no sense of overreach. Jodie Cunningham confesses to being a “chromophile” with an obsession for colour, circles, pattern and “the delights of Perspex”. U.K. Frederick delights in the tensions created between flannel shirts that might have been worn by Kurt Cobain and the abstracted light passing through the fabric in her evocative series of photograms. In the dextrous hands of Ann McMahon, recycled bread wrappers index domestic ritual through complex ‘colour field’ weaves that mirror the days on a calendar. Alarmed at inexorable environmental degradation, Michele England blends activism with domesticity in eccentric works where ‘kitsch’ household objects carry the “great moral challenge” that faces the planet. Suzanne Moss’s commanding paintings examine colour through its absence and presence. Exploring the ways that colours interact, she experiments with a saturated palette that reverberates throughout the gallery—as if in conversation with the other works. Obsessive Impulsion is an exhibition in which each of the artists presents work based on personal obsessions and we, the audience, follow the lengthy, painstaking processes through which they come to realise their ideas.

It is easy to be seduced by Jodie Cunningham’s apparent obsessive optimism. The positive vibe of her work, however, is in fact a response to the challenges and stresses she encounters on a daily basis. Talking to the Tax Man About Poetry – Data Portraits (2017) is not only an innovative way of interpreting data but also a revealing exposé of the problems faced by contemporary artists. In the words of colleague Bernie Slater and Cunningham, “The work highlights the tension between our desire as artists to make works with meaningful relationships to the world around us with just trying to make a living and survive. We’re in debt, we’re balancing creative lives as artists with financial and work pressures. We balance mortgages, meetings, micromanagement, parenting and domesticity with colour, ideas, discourse and intuition.” Each part of the works is representational; the taxman in the form of concrete blocks which serve as the base for her sculptures represents artists’ incomes and the recesses, variables for their art practices including art and other jobs, cost of living and hours worked. The ‘poetry’, three sculptures made from brightly coloured Perspex discs gets personal, collating demographic data about each artist’s income, employment, family statistics and personality data, including artist’s preferences for favourite colours, activities and dreams. There is almost nothing positive about these works that reflect the artists struggle in an environment of economic rationalism. Graphic 2D images of ‘data portrait maps’ in the works Staff Meeting and Discombobulated (2017) paint a bleak picture of bureaucratic stresses and the stifling of creativity extending a stark warning of a future devoid of cultural activity and discourse in our society. Cunningham’s work is her way of dealing with the complexities she faces in her multifaceted professional life and her role as a single mother. Setting herself ‘a daily creative challenge’ 100 Days (2017-18) consists of digital images referencing familiar sites such as the art deco school attended by her children and Canberra’s architectural icons such as the Australian Academy of Science’s Shine Dome. Even closer to home are her Strength Totems (2017) sculptural wall works that also reference local architecture and exist as abstracted personal totems reflecting the challenges of being a parent, the issues faced by her children, and a protracted Family Law Court ordeal that has threatened Cunningham’s wellbeing over a number of years. The Strength Totems are exactly what they say they are. Born in a dark space these symbolic works focus on the positives that develop from negative situations, such as, the support she found in her community and solace provided in objects like Dr Seuss books and her Nanna’s (also a single mother) handbag. This series, like Cunningham’s other works, using Perspex, glitter and bright colours does not attempt to hide adversity but rather take a positive spin, to seek relief from the relentless anxiety of being mother and artist, to grow and gain strength against the odds.

JODIE CUNNINGHAM Rachel [Data Portrait], 2017, acrylic perspex, bamboo, stainless steel, nickel and concrete, 21cm x 16cm x 15cm

JODIE CUNNINGHAM Bluebells [Data Portrait], 2017, acrylic perspex, bamboo, stainless steel, nickel and concrete, 16cm x 18cm x 18cm

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was much discussion surrounding the phenomenon of ‘Urban Neurosis’. It is common knowledge now that the dream of a home in the suburbs was to become tainted, especially for women, who were overburdened by motherhood, the tedium of household duties and isolation on the edges of cities. In societies that held the nuclear family as an ideal and revered the ‘perfect housewife’, the daily routine of household chores and raising children was in reality far from the glamorous. I see Ann McMahon’s contribution to Obsessive Impulsion as an earnest parody based upon the crumbling mythologies that once propped up the idea of ultimate mother and housekeeper. Taking the idea that ‘a woman’s work is never done’ McMahon ensures that it is not; creating extreme labour from what she refers to as daily rituals. An idea conceived in McMahon’s kitchen where the provision of bread was strongly related to the colour of the wrappers Study in Found Colour (2016) is a work that functions on a number of technical and conceptual levels. Perhaps recalling an era when our parents and grandparents never threw anything out, McMahon saves and recycles hundreds of wrappers to be woven into art works. At first an allusion to domestic crafts, the taught weave is a Postmodern tapestry, a natural extension in unnatural materials of ‘women’s work’ in the home and the result of highly skilled recreation. The woven panels mirror the days of our lives exploring the concept of repetition and routine in family life. Personalised, in that these materials have passed across her dining table and have already played a role in the lives of her family McMahon appears to sample Warhol’s prints of Campbell’s soup cans that represent the same lunch everyday, for 20 years. Also in evidence is Pop’s reliance on the idea that mundane cultural objects and the detritus of capitalism can aspire to “high” art. By weaving the techniques of craft into the concepts of contemporary art McMahon leaves us in no doubt that her unexceptional bread wrappers have the right stuff, organising them in graded hues that occupy the days of the month. While the colour field reference might seem tenuous at first, McMahon’s re-mythologising of the myths around a ‘women’s role’ using woven and thus abstracted packaging from staple food products draws upon abstract expressionism as much as it does her own inventiveness and wry sense of humour.

ANN McMAHON Study in Found Colour (detail), 2008, bread bags, 33 pieces, approx. 20cm x 20cm each

ANN McMAHON Study in Found Colour (detail), 2008, bread bags, 33 pieces, approx. 20cm x 20cm each

ANN McMAHON Study in Found Colour (detail), 2008, bread bags, 33 pieces, approx. 20cm x 20cm each

MICHELE ENGLAND Bread and Butter #4, 2016, oil on repurposed plate, 17cm diameter

To remind us that climate change and consequent deteriorating environments affect someone else’s home or habitat, Michele England employs common household objects such as plates and cushions to convey her message. She connects the common objects of consumer lifestyles to their impact on the environment; something rarely considered when going about our daily business. The objects she uses are often kitsch, associated with the homes of the middle and working classes as opposed to the high-end accoutrements of the wealthy. While taste, wealth and class are not mutually exclusive her selection of plates have a used, thrift shop look about them that speaks of the universality of consumerism and addresses the sadness of aspiration that is consuming the very ecosystems from which the objects were initially created. Paintings on plates address issues of food production and its deleterious impact on natural systems such as imbalance, reliance on chemicals and the destruction of environments for endemic creatures and plants. Appropriating images from the internet of men proudly clutching their catch, for instance, England has painted on decorative bread and butter plates providing a poignant commentary on the steady decline of southern blue fin tuna. Hanging in a row approximately one metre from the gallery wall, England’s cushions represent firstly a love of textiles and her interest in pushing the crafts of embroidery and textile design into the realm of contemporary art. Made, rather than found, her cushions are recycled tourist tea towels and thus we have two household staples for the price of one. Viewing the home as a habitat in its own right, England’s cushions reflect global environmental issues with an emphasis on the Arctic circle. Ostensibly an average cushion with its comfort associations is transformed into a “protest pillow” some with graphic images of Inuit people practicing traditional fishing methods and others referencing early exploration. Thinking carefully about the relations between embroidered texts and frou frou embellishments, England provides an issue on one side of the work and commentary on the other; “Catch of the day”, “Caught from tomorrow”, for example. England deals with a broad range of issues and her works for Obsessive Impulsion focus on (among other things) the Great Barrier Reef in “Going Going Gone” while “Plenty more fish in the sea” discusses the decline of Atlantic cod in the Outer Banks of Canada. There are elements of the outsider in these works, or in other words, England presents as an artist who occupies a space outside the main stream and communicates to audiences with a raw edge. There is nothing ostentatious or affected about these works as England’s obsession with “straight talk” is sincerely explored through homely method.

MICHELE ENGLAND Motherfish?, 2018, repurposed tea towel, embroidery, cloth, trims, 27cm x 36cm x 7cm

MICHELE ENGLAND Plenty more fish in the sea, 2018, repurposed tea towel, embroidery, cloth, trims, 27cm x 36cm x 7cm

U.K. FREDERICK CMYKurt #5 (From the series Kurt’s Shirts), 2016-17, C-type print (photogram), 61cm x 51cm

Flannel shirts have effectively served a number of subcultures—including gay men in the 1980s and Seattle’s grunge movement also in the 80s and 90s. U.K. Frederick’s photograms tell a story that began in a Seattle bookshop where she read that following the death of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, his partner Courtney Love donated his clothing to goodwill. Music with attitude, the rock subgenre from which Cobain emerged, elevated the casual connotations of flannel shirts to an anti fashion statement that identified the band and its fans. It thus became a style paradoxically not intended to make a declaration. Flannel associated musicians with the modest dress of working classes while being a practical garment for the cold weather of north western U.S.A. Although Frederick confesses to being a Nirvana fan, importantly, Kurt’s Shirts (2016-17) is not a work of fandom. She carefully avoids the idea of obsession with Cobain to consider the indexicality of his clothing, as a linguistic or anthropological sign that refers to his presence, a way of exploring his phenomenon, not only in life but also in death. When Love released the well-worn shirts onto the streets of Seattle their potential value and provenance was (perhaps unwittingly) subverted as they merged anonymously into endless racks of used clothing. Like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison, who also died at the height of their legend, Cobain’s death stopped time. We remember them as they were at that precise moment and they do not grow old. It is this instant that dominates Frederick’s interest and herein lies the obsession. Her experimental practice emerged as the result of an engagement with the “fabric of memory and flannel” and how this reflects broader interests in photography, musical cultures, melancholy and commemorative gesture. Having grown up in Seattle it was not difficult for Frederick to imagine that Cobain’s shirts were ‘out there’, worn by people for their warmth and low cost, quite unaware of original ownership. She admits that at the time of collecting the flannels, inspired by the idea that one might have belonged to Cobain, there was no specific plan to do anything with them. The idea of gathering such unassuming objects that were inextricably connected to a localised mythology was reward in itself. Considering a number of possibilities that might reanimate the shirts while exploring the implications of celebrity death, Frederick settled on photograms because the technique is analogue, like the time and music that the work inherently refers to. There is no camera involved in this process – just light, paper and chemistry – there is no distance between the abstracted light passing through the material and the paper upon which the work of art is registered. The simplicity of her process also reflects Cobain’s desire for an ordinary lifestyle, a desire that in part facilitated his rise to super stardom and the legendary status that ultimately led to his suicide. What is perhaps most exciting about this redolent and rich series of photograms is that Frederick herself becomes complicit in the paradox: in attempting to address and reflect Cobain’s humility through an index of shirts he might have worn she produces memento mori that effectively reactivate his myth.

U.K. FREDERICK CMYKurt #4 (From the series Kurt’s Shirts), 2016-17, C-type print (photogram), 61cm x 51cm

U.K. FREDERICK CMYKurt #13 (From the series Kurt’s Shirts), 2016-17, C-type print (photogram), 61cm x 51cm

SUZANNE MOSS Series Hearth #12 (The roof beneath her feet), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 100cm x 80cm

The inclusion of Suzanne Moss’s work makes most sense in the context of a completed and mounted exhibition. Her use of pastel colour; near neutral, milky, de-saturated, with understated chromatic content serves as a binding force in Obsessive Impulsion. It softens the stridency of diverse surrounding concepts and binds` the colour palettes of five artists together. A wall of work representing both new and older directions for Moss reminds us of a history in which her unique style of abstraction highlighted delicacy and ethereality. Importantly and ironically, however, the subtlety Moss so eloquently courts also makes a strong statement enabling the individual interpretations that create a potent bond between artist and audience. I had always thought of Moss as an obsessive painter, a ‘painter’s painter’ who went to great lengths to produce work that at times seems to have scarcely registered on the canvas. Her earlier ‘white’ works all but obscured the underlying geometric abstraction and yet Moss’s fragile balance is far from indistinct. The audience is acutely aware of the tensions created between the two zones of paint and it is here that the success of these works resides. Central to Moss’s body of work is an older piece The Sound of Casurinas produced in 2015. The apparent absence of colour in this large white painting with an intimation of yellow paradoxically proclaims the presence of colour in her new works inspired by a residency at Murray’s Cottage, Hill End. In the bucolic country side of New South Wales and frequently visited by prominent Australian artists, the cottage is a tranquil repository of times past where retreat can be found today. Series Hearth and Flowers in the House (2018) are responses to the architecture of the rustic cottage and its historic ambience as Moss paid particular attention to how the interiors and transitional spaces are affected by and mitigate natural light; absorbing, reflecting and softening, generating changes in colour and contrast. In the 1950s while visiting Donald Friend, Margaret Ollie collected tiles and created a remarkable collage around the ancient coal range in the cottage kitchen. Capturing the magical dance of light around the stove Moss’s studies shifted the focus of her practice as she explored the ways colours and shapes changed in accordance with the ambient light throughout the day. While the resulting works might appear to eschew detail for contemplative observation, they are all about detail, a thread that has run through Moss’s work for many years. Her ability to translate detail into atmospheric renderings of her experience of the interaction between light and architecture, contemporaneity and heritage, is the incorporeal medium through which Moss communicates. “I would say my obsessiveness kicks in,” she says, “with exploring colour interactions and getting them just right. A much more saturated and complex palette this last (almost) year has been totally engaging and challenging. The shift has been a bit like playing Mozart and venturing into Rachmaninoff; a surprise impulsion if you will.”

SUZANNE MOSS Series Hearth #13 (Large turquoise triangle), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 80cm x 100cm

SUZANNE MOSS Series Hearth #14 (Small turquoise triangle), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 80cm x 100cm

When I first set out on this journey of Obsessive Impulsion I had little idea of where it would end. The contributing artists were five that I wanted to work with and with whom I hadn’t worked with previously. There were obvious connections among the artists in terms of their domestic concerns; family, routine, clothing, housing, architecture, furnishings and consumerism. As we met and discussed possibilities for the exhibition something significantly more exciting emerged, more difficult to elucidate but a bond that began to take shape. All five artists approached their work with an unusual intensity and all-consuming passion. Although this is not necessarily unusual, one is struck by England’s intemperate preoccupation with environmental issues and Cunningham’s anguish for artists working in a period that sees profit as the only valid motivation. To each idea is added sense of struggle where, for example, Moss found herself in a transitional phase dealing with new interests that challenged the foundations of her acclaimed painting practice. Ann McMahon’s unconventionally beautiful works are notable for their curious ritual of collection, recycling and intense labour generated from daily routines of motherhood. Trawling the goodwill shops of Seattle on the off chance a shirt that belonged to a legendary rock star might be found, is another dubious activity, especially when there is no way of knowing if the search was fruitful. When I tentatively suggested the title Obsessive Impulsion to the artists I was surprised to find that everyone embraced it, the only concern expressed, that the work might not be obsessive enough. If there was apprehension, however, it was short lived as each artist began to consider the relationship between obsession and process in their practice. Ultimately the idea of ‘home’ dominates this exhibition. Whether it is the homes of others, the place one occupies, former homes or the objects that make a home: there is no more relevant point of departure for an exploration of obsession. David Broker May 2018

Suzanne Moss is represented by Nancy Sever Gallery, Canberra






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