Wednesday 23 March – Saturday 9 April 2022
̶ a tiny trace or spark of a specified quality or feeling ̶
Scintilla begins with a group of people joining a drawing class that becomes a pathway into the development of a studio practice. As David Gatiss teases out the individual voices of the group over a period of four years, he becomes their mentor. The students, the less experienced and those wishing to reinvigorate their practice and leave past modes of practice behind, are keen to develop and refine their skills by meeting the challenges set in classes and workshops. The environment, an industrial building re-imagined as a ceramic school, is a stimulating and facilitating studio with long and generous white walls lit by a Southern light. It is here the journey begins and a destination is envisaged: the Scintilla exhibition.
Glimpses exist in the group’s work of the distinct journeys taken during this time, journeys that began with a 2b pencil, eraser, charcoal, white drawing paper, an easel and an arranged subject. Within each artist’s work rest the traces of this studio journey, the integration of the knowledge gained through exercises, gallery excursions, practice and the critical conversations led by Gatiss. These conversations at the end of the studio sessions, helped to sharpen thoughts and unearth the essence of the works being presented. Within the group, comprising Janis Burke, Jane Chandler, Elizabeth Colbert, Cathy Collins, Mimmo Cozzolino, Kristin Haskett and Mary Sullivan, new ideas and practices were confidently explored as the doors to what might be were left open.
Diversity is a key element in Scintilla yet, as Burke suggests, there seems to be a unifying aesthetic that emerged in the robust discussions of ‘… representational issues such as a tension between surface and depth, perspectival representation, tonality and colour in defining form, the qualities of line.’ The sharing of ideas also resulted in a diverse exploration of materials and processes which is reflected in the variety of papers, fabrics, inks, oils, acrylics, watercolours, pencils and charcoal used. A shift from two dimensional to three dimensional works also occurred. Such transitions require belief and encouragement: these were always present in the studio.
Outside the studio, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage. Lockdowns disrupted the workshop program and infiltrated the work of many of the group. Burke writes about her drawings, Finding a Form to Contain the Mess 1, 2 & 3:
These images are an attempt to render the psychological state of anxiety experienced during COVID lockdowns in the language of abstract drawing. This was overlaid on a landscape familiar to me: a distant view of the city skyline through the docks and over the water which I see framed in my home window; a landscape full of symbolic meaning. The anxiety was personal, but the fault lines were in the landscape, city lights dimmed at night with red bands of aircraft warnings; empty skyscrapers that seemed to pose the question of their ongoing viability; the docks silent with empty container ships, hulking shapes on the horizon exposing the fragility of global supply chains.
The works are intended to be contradictory and confronting; the perspectival space is shifting and contradictory. There is depth, but the works are also held to the surface. The colour is heightened in intensity, seems simple in its choice and application but is also layered, discordant and restless. Lines that suggest precision and clear direction do not provide resolution.
For Colbert, the five kilometre boundary limiting exercise led to a detailed exploration of a local reserve. Her installation, Tread Softly, reflects this experience:
‘Tread Softly’ begins with walking through a man-made reserve during a COVID-19 lockdown. The reserve becomes my world and I begin ask questions. What is this world? What am I looking at? What lies beneath the surface?
The black-crusted tree trunks become extraordinary. Patches of dry ground expand and crack beneath my feet; an expanse of long grass proves wet and soggy. But man dominates: the grass is mown. There are no wildflowers here. The hill is a manufactured berm, a buffer to the noisy freeway bordering the northern edge of the reserve. The possibility of a map surfaces: trace this world not only with your feet but by delving into its past. Fragments emerge: earlier footsteps suggesting a billabong and eels followed by the heavy footprints of farming, grazing, a rubbish tip, a parkland make-over and drainage. My footsteps pace the man-made perimeter, mark the distance between trees and follow the deep wedge of a bicycle track. Tread softly.
While some members of the group were inspired by their engagement with the outside, others turned inwards to draw on their histories. In Prefectures for Contemplation 1 & 2 Chandler references her early working life:
Once I had a job as a toy designer. I taught myself to draught patterns, cut and sew tactile fabrics to make samples of fantastical toy creations in brilliant colours. They were outrageous in those days, 60 years ago.
In 2021, while we were isolating at home during the pandemic in our designated prefectures, I wanted to play again with the spirit of those creations from the toy factory. The result is a series of brightly coloured geometric paintings; they needed some drafting skills and quiet contemplation so that I could feel and resolve how to put together each section to form a composition. Each section has an individual identity with playful colours and textures, but each is held within a formal composition.
Previously, I was a figurative painter but have been working towards abstraction. Perhaps these paintings are not strictly abstract; they have a subject and something to say.
The histories drawn upon were not only personal but closely connected to the research undertaken in the development of the work. Cozzolino’s prints, AUTORITRATTO #1, #2 & #3, reflect not only his long history of re-birthing the discarded and concern for the environment but his process.
I’ve been sampling and rescuing urban detritus for a while so as to make art from it. It makes me reflect on how mass production has been both a boon and a curse for human culture. I look for discarded stuff as I walk local streets or along paths of the Yarra where detritus collects. The sampling is a love/hate affair. I love the multiplicity of human made shapes. I love holding an intricate, inspired or even ugly object in my hands. I think about the energy (guided or misguided), that goes into making this “stuff” on an industrial scale. But I hate the waste produced.
These Autoritratti (self-portraits) were developed from one of the collagraph plates I made with detritus. After I printed the plate, I preferred the sculptural qualities of the original and hung it on the wall. Recently, I re-inked the plate and photographed it as a portrait. I imagined that this is how a human being might look like 100 years from now.
A strong physical connection to the environment and an evolving interpretation of what has been seen and felt is skillfully and imaginatively explored by Collins in her detailed drawings, Untitled 1, 2 & 3.
This collection of drawings is a way of making sense of what endures. I am captivated by the fact that the arcs, rhythms and textures observed in fossils millions of years old can be seen in objects as prosaic as the seed pods and fallen leaves that lie at my feet on my daily walks. I have translated these observations through curious juxtapositions to create new, uncertain forms and strange, surreal landscapes. So much of life just fades to oblivion, unnoticed. With these explorations I am trying to honour the teeming mass, and ebb and flow, of life that has preceded us, by vivifying the husks that are left behind.
I work very slowly, scratching away with my pen and ink, occasionally collaging extra layers, or adding a swathe of watercolour. This laborious style I employ feels to me the most fitting way to respond to the subject matter as I try to extract, and recreate, signs of life in the same way an archaeologist takes an inordinate amount of care when excavating their chosen sites.
Human sensitivity to the environment is often intensely personal and dependent on particular experiences as Haskett exemplifies in her refined collages, Fine Detail, Rhythms of the Land and Unfolding Drama which reference her journeys through the Australian outback.
In our contemporary world the Australian interior is now often thought of as a hallowed place, not just a landscape. The need to preserve these places of great ecological and cultural significance is very strong.
The elements of these landscapes range from the monumental to the minute. Environments can present as tough and resilient but on further looking reveal great fragility. These contrasts can be isolated and amplified by contemporary art, and the emotional response to these elements is what I’m interested in: to stand amidst wind and sun ravaged escarpments, skies so large and disorientating, and twisted dried up vegetation that defies belief. The colours of these remote landscapes can be slippery, unattainable when there and must be absorbed internally and re-imagined back in the studio. The road there is a long one.
The environment and the pandemic infiltrate many of the works in the Scintilla exhibition. Sullivan, when reflecting on her collages Rusted Earth, Seawall Breach and When the Water Stilled, draws on the tension created by the external forces threatening our community.
When I come to my art, I want to express something about the human condition. These works are a response to what many experience as a heightened sense of crisis created by the global pandemic together with the continuing depletion of the environment. I chose here to focus on changes in the physical and natural realms ̶ from the creation of wastelands to the rising waters. They speak to the constant pull between nature and humankind’s attempts to contain it
While I frequently begin with an image or specific concept, my approach is to continually move beyond realistic interpretation. I work intuitively, the narrative emerging as the work evolves. Often my attempts appear unfathomable and demand a reflective period. This can be simultaneously stimulating and frustrating. It leads me to search out meaning in marks and negative spaces, adding and subtracting layers and expressive marks and brushstrokes, trashing where necessary, allowing the work and the story it tells to unfold organically.
In the classes and workshops attended by the Scintilla group, each member was encouraged to acknowledge and reveal their own story. Many pages of personal histories and understandings were able to be drawn upon and explored in a stimulating, enriching and most importantly, shared environment. Burke captured the essence of Scintilla when she wrote: ‘The group has been a wonderful experience, a shared experience of support, generosity and friendship which is being celebrated by this exhibition’. For Cozzolino, the shared environment altered his approach to his work.
Working in isolation has always been difficult … my working process is quite undisciplined and I tend to go down too many artistic rabbit holes. When I joined the group I became much more disciplined just by seeing how other artists worked.
Transition is a key word when describing the Scintilla journey: practices, materials, and ways of thinking about a work have all been challenged and open to change within a context of personal validation. Multi-directional sparks of concern and inspiration have informed the works of the group in which there is neither a passive acceptance of the present, nor a rejection of the past. What has been honed is an awareness of ideas and practices in the process of making.