Telling stories

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  • Date: 19th February 2013
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The art of story telling is not lost it seems, as it is stories which appear to be the inadvertent connection between the artworks and exhibitions I discovered these past couple weeks. I think many artists begin with a story to tell, be it theirs or someone else’s, and then find a way to gel the narrative with their practice – overlaying it with medium, technique, theory, history, even ‘style’.

Oliver Watts The Sea Hare (still from HD video) 2013
cinematography John A Douglas, costumes incollaboration with Yuliy Gershinsky
Co-written by John Connell

Oliver WattsThe Sea Horse is a re-telling of a particularly strange fairy tale by Brothers Grimm. Watts is a founding member artist/ director of Chalk Horse Gallery in Surry Hills, where the exhibition is on till 16 March.  Watts strips bare the typical fable rather than takes it as gospel: the archetypal beautiful maiden in the formidable tower, who seeks the strong handsome husband, and who sets up a multitude of obstacles for any poor sod who wants to win her undying love and eternal devotion, is turned into a study of assumed power and how it is easily trampled, outfoxed even. I don’t think it was the absurd romance which attracted Watts to the story. 
As an artist, Watts’ ongoing interest is the intertwining of art and the law, as justice and power in its social hierarchical manifestations. Satire is his language (he was a founding member of The Chaser) and writing, paper cut-outs, video and painting are his tools. 

Oliver Watts The fox, 2013
paper cutout, 100 x 150cm
image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse Gallery
Oliver Watts The raven, 2013
paper cutout, 100 x 150cm
image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse Gallery

The exhibition incorporates video and paper cut-outs. The story is sparsely told and silently played out by actors in striking painted paper costumes and with paper props. The video is bewitching; the framed wholly separate paper cut-outs, sensational.These cut-outs illustrate the key players in this mad story – the raven, the sea hare and very wily fox – but with the artist’s face. The beautiful maiden is allowed her own portrait. Watts puts impose himself within the story – his face becomes that of the raven, the fox and the sea hare. He is also in the video. Again, an artist who weaves and reflects on his own performance in his multi-discplinary approach.

Oliver Watts I am free 2010
paper cutouts from I am Tristan Tzara
image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse Gallery

Large scale, geometric, cut-out colourful paper shapes are pieced together to create oversized images of the fable’s characters (portrait of the artist as the fox, for instance) and one large landscape. There is great depth and richness in the flatness and irregularity of the many coloured shapes. They feel like oversized quality posters, like his earlier cut-outs, steeped in the poster traditions of early 20th century, with a tilt at Dada. I am Tristan Tzara was an exhibition in 2010 of paper cut-out posters, based on Tzara’s writings and cut a  particularly dashing, debonnaire air, with a touch of the absurd and a nod towards anarchy. Make sure to venture into the adjacent studios, to catch a glimpse of an artist at work, or a work just completed, or just the organised jumble of artists’ bits and pieces. 

The Commercial is the now not-so-new gallery, set up by Amanda Rowell. The Commercial introduces a wholly different range of artists whose practices don’t follow a regular fashion or aesthetic; artists who are idiosyncratic, challenging and shaking up and down preconceived notions.
Lillian O’Neil creates many stories about love by way of large, cut-out collaged photographs, arranged and layered in complicated symmetrical compositions. Total Romance, which has just closed at The Commercial was a bit saucy and felt a bit like a ’70s free love fest. It is after all a ’70s tradition is it not, to cut out favourite magazine images and plaster them all over the wall. Honing in on the detail is worth it. Catch a sense of the works on line.
Agatha Gothe-Snape shows with Rowell too. I think she is definitely someone to watch and her work, which is fascinating and always surprising, something to follow. 

Agatha Gothe-Snape Every Artist Remembered (ACCA), 2011
Power to the People Contemporary Conceptualism and the Object in Art,
curated by Hannah Mathews, ACCA, Melbourne 

She draws her work from performance, from conversation and participation with an audience, from the gesture, and from text and colour theory. Already, a rich yolky yellow is her signature colour. She is interested in the making of art and experiments with media to deliver her aesthetic and message. From handwritten names of artists written across large sheets of paper Every artist remembered, to ‘electronic drawings’, to power point presentations. Her approach is refreshing in its fearlessness. She is setting the path, not following.

Agatha Gothe-Snape, We all walk out in the end, 2012, acrylic paint, Site-specific work commissioned for entrance hall of the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (photo credit: M. Sherwood)
Courtesy the artist and The Commercial, Sydney

You can subscribe to a series of power point presentations/ displays by Gothe-Snape (for a small amount) which are delivered to your inbox  – I’m not sure how regularly – to absolute delight. Even though you’ve missed quite a few by now, the subscription includes all previous (and future) posts. Her power point presentations are bold exclamations of text, sound, colour in rhythmic moving patterns. They are a bit reminiscent of animated snippets of ’80s music videos: bold but a very clever use of what I guess is really a fairly limited technology. It is a very sophisticated way for her to toy with ideas and engage a large audience. Wait for her next exhibition or subscribe and experience her work today.

Gunter Christmann, So pleased to meet you, 2012,
acrylic on canvas, 100.00 x 119.50 cm (photo credit: Jessica Maurer)
private collection, Sydney

Next exhibition (opens Fri 23 Feb) at The Commercial is well established artist Gunter Christmann, who continues to work “energetically and experimentally” creating both abstract and figurative paintings. He hasn’t had a Sydney dealer for a while, but did present a very elegant show of small works Eyes and Mind last year at the East Sydney Doctors surgery. Such a great use of a waiting room (which was only recently King Street Gallery on Burton) – so much more engaging than a lousy, out of date magazine.

I found a very poignant story at The University Art Gallery (Uni of Syd)in its current exhibition Atelier Paris. This small, measured exhibition is the final in a series, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Power Bequest to the University of Sydney, a gesture of great benefaction by J W Power.
In 1967 The Power Institute acquired the Power Studio, one of the apartments in the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, an international complex for artists and writers. Many Australian artists and writers have had the great opportunity to live and work in Paris since then, staying in the Power Studio. The inside cover of this exhibition catalogue lists all of these writers and artists: it is a great who’s who of major contributors to contemporary cultural life in Australia.
The exhibition features 5 divergent artists who have all enjoyed the hospitality of The Power Institute and shows the work that was generated by this visit: ADS DonaldsonTony Schwenson, Michele NikouAlex Gawronski and Barbara Campbell. All very different work, but all with depth and integrity. Donaldson’s abstract piece as a homage to JW Power is a knockout; Nikou‘s bronzed poached eggs are lovely; Gawronski‘s photographs add another layer to the understanding of those by Atget, but it is Campbell’s story which I found compelling.
ADS Donaldson Untitled (for JW Power) 2002-12
oil on linen, 134 x 198cm
courtesy the artist and The Power Institute
Michelle Nikou, aeiou, 2012
bronze, 5 pieces ed of 3
courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney
Barbara Campbell prompt 43, 1001 nights cast (preface series) 2005
watercolour on Sennelier paper 10.5 x 24.5 cm © the artist

The works hung in the gallery do not start or finish there; rather are an introduction. What we see initially is 100 small watercolours, gorgeous gems in their own right, of painted texts – odd, seemingly disconnected phrases. The watercolours are details of a much larger project which is not fully articulated until the website is found, for me, offsite. Campbell’s website  archives the entire project 1001 nights cast, in all its complexity and poignancy.
Start with the premis or the framework for the story project: 

In a faraway land a gentle man dies. His bride is bereft. She travels across continents looking for a reason to keep living. Every night at sunset she is greeted by a stranger who gives her a story to heal her heart and continue with her journey. She does so for 1001 nights.

There is a personal connection and a direct connection with the other 1001 nights,of ancient lore and known in English as The Arabian nights. This an assemblage of Arabic stories with which, so the story goes, Sheherazade amused the King over 1001 nights, to keep him distracted from beheading her in the morning. Her fate was sealed in her story telling and it worked. 
Campbell’s 1001 nights cast is a similar act of survival and love, but told via the marvels of 21st century technology. Each day, in her Power Institute studio in Paris, Barbara read the daily newspaper reports from the 2nd Gulf War. The phrase which leapt out at her – something which spoke of the rawness of writing about war – she would paint, in watercolour. The watercolour was then webcast, sent out as a ‘prompt’ for someone to return within the day a story of no more than 1001 words, which somehow incorporated the phrase. At sunset, in which ever timezone she was in, Barbara would tell the story, put it out there online to whoever was listening. 1001 stories were told over 1001 nights.

Barbara Campbel lprompt 11, 1001 nights cast (preface series) 2005
watercolour on Sennelier paper 10.5 x 24.5 cm © the artist
Barbara Campbell prompt 1, 1001 nights cast (preface series) 2005
watercolour on Sennelier paper 10.5 x 24.5 cm © the artist

Each painted prompt is numbered. Each are documented on the website: pick one, any one, and up comes the prompt and the story. At random, I started at the beginning – no 1: The challenge of healing. Up came a story co-written with Barbara by Anne Brennan which moved me deeply. No 11 is the Carefully crafted image written with Domenico de Clario. And so it goes.


As I scroll through the prompts, it becomes obvious that this is a large scale and well-organised project that involved many people – no doubt friends, friends of friends, colleagues, enthusiastic bystanders – from all over the world, across many time zones but who came together each day, at a particular time, to offer a story to Barbara, in a gesture of healing.
Barbara’s practice has long been based in performance and text, its meaning, structure and visual qualities.  Here emotion intersects with this quiet, patient, ongoing performance to construct a meaning, across time and distance, which is universal in its message and content. She is in conversation with Assoc Prof Mary Roberts on Wed 13 March 1pm, no doubt in the University Art Gallery. It would be well worth hearing her tell her story. 
As a real romantic, but not so pathetic as the princess in the tower, I hope for, and look forward to, the living happily ever after bit…… 

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