The needle is used to repair damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness.
It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin—Louise Bourgeois
We live on the brink of the extinction of the species; it is imminent, yet like W.B. Butler Yeats’ ‘rough beast’, it is quiescent. It exceeds our ability to imagine it and if it were already upon us, we would have no idea how to put this reality into words. But there are other means of expression, ones that are as porous, precarious and subject to rents as language. Ones that can be re-sewn, patched up and covered in signs intimating what is to come.
Elizabeth Colbert’s art practice burgeoned following a long career in writing. It now ranges over and through many mediums—drawing, ceramics, painting, print making, weaving and sewing, each drawn upon to articulate an idea or concern from the complex fabric of feeling. Her art draws from many sources—aesthetic, poetic, autobiographical and philosophical. Though one of the primary themes of Colbert’s work is the fragility of things, it does resist pinning down.
For this exhibition Colbert has used and compressed all manner of materials and methods to produce a unique artistic vocabulary; it is visual and tactile, expansive and intimate, silent and resonant. The works explore grief’s terrain: grief in the aftermath of dismantling her parents’ home, her mother’s death and grief in anticipation of the destruction of planet Earth, its fauna and flora.
Because the works reflect the anxieties of our age while holding at their heart a very personal experience, we pick our way through grief’s layers and surfaces, trusting the artist’s handling of the many threads that will see us through a labyrinth of emotions highlighted or softened by colours, hues and textures. For indeed, even though what links the works is their psychical intensity, and we experience anguish, longing, anger, pain, dejection, serenity, even elation, there is a certain restraint that invites the viewer to enter into the works rather than overpower their emotions.
I meet Colbert, Liz, at her house, with its homely body, writing mezzanine and off-side studio. I am struck by this spatial triangle underpinning her being-in-the-world. Am I surprised? Not really. When I first knew Liz as a doctoral student, her writing project comprising a novel, The Fragility Papers, and a research component, linked practice and theory in a process of triangulation. Still, during this short encounter at her place, I am struck again and again by the recurrence of the number three.
Your claw prints—
are scattered like straw
across the crab holes
Three biographical moments: packing up the family home, her mother’s death, the 2019-20 bushfires. Three dominating colours: grey, blue, red. Three hues for each colour. Three techniques for conveying each experience: an overlaying of three sheets of Washi paper for each artefact; a trapping of threads, grass – in the early works – and lace between layers; a threading through from back to front, inside out, front to back of watercolour, ink and aquarelles. Shadows and fragments of bodies emerge. Traces. A sentiment of eerie familiarity.
These works bring uncertainty to the fore and undermine stability. They bind and unbind remnants of the mother and of the natural world. They uncover and cover as though the world is a sheer remnant. As though nothing more can be revealed but erasures, marks and the fragile membrane stretched over the body of the world.
Her concern for the larger world reminds me of her ceramic and drawing exhibition, Once Upon a Time, her first integration of text into her art. It drew upon ancient mediums, clay tablets and cylinder seals, to trace the abduction of students in Chibok, Nigeria, in 2014. These recent works also draw on tradition. The panels draw on scrolls, both current and ancient, says Liz. They are a form of sharing narratives and values. They compress past and present, memories, actions and encounters that shape us. I nod, but am surprised at her use of the word panel. To me the word panel evokes solidity, toughness, rigidity. And though my fingers itch with the urge to touch them, I don’t. They are fragile.
The panels bear the history of process, material and psychological. The length of the works brings back the memory of fabric draping across my arms, she says, the decorative patterns of lace, the threads always scattered in erratic patterns across the floor: life and work rest within the materiality of many works. The panels display an ongoing preoccupation with text, textiles and texture, enhanced by a collision of loss, the needlework looping back to familiar and family lines: In the garden there were the delicate petals of the pink and white plum blossoms, the dark plum of the claret ashes’ leaves in Autumn, the soaked and dense falling of leaves on the ground. With colours bleeding into each other, with the occasional pooling of gold, these panels shimmer like fabric. And yet if you look closely, there is scar-like tissue. Oh, if you could only touch…
The panels consist of three sheets of Washi paper glued and pressed together. They are 46cm wide and around 130cm long. The dimensions vary because the lengths of paper are hand torn so that the edges are not sharp. The layers vary also—some are another 10 cm long. Trapped threads, such as wool, cotton, silk, hessian and hemp give the works another interface, another layer, allowing the narrative to emerge not only through the wash of colour, but the pressing through of points of contacts. The top layer and its flip side are splashed with watercolour or ink, marked with paint brushes, pencils, pens or ink nibs. Some inner layers are stamped with the linocuts of endangered birds. Some are dressed in lace, creating a feeling of the erotic in the sense of being caressing and suggestive of desire. Others are polished as though to fix a moment, experience or memory in time, as is the case with the bushfire pieces which evoke burning or decimated landscapes with violence, no doubt stirring deep psycho-geographical meanings in the Australian imagination. One of these pieces in particular must be read on its flip side, where black ash has been pushed through. Here the back becomes the front, or verso of the work, providing an alternative, surreal, possibly unconscious, version of one historical moment. Here, Mother Earth reveals its underside; it is neither benign nor nurturing. The violence that lurks in or erupts from these panels draws attention less to itself than to the fact that ambivalence is at the heart of Colbert’s work.
Through projecting her inner world onto paper, Colbert is referencing history, the art of cartography, art history and technologies, including writing and sewing. Consider the delicate linocuts of stylized birds, the line drawn maps, the subtle evocations of light, water, ash. Consider the dissemination of marks. Consider the ellipses.
Among the early works in this series, there are white panels that, to my mind, puncture grief and mourning, although these may not be on display. They puncture grief with black letters on a white background. They punctuate mourning by lettering a child and daughter’s symbolic thresholds—inscription into the community; christening, confirmation, debutante, engagement, marriage and traditional ways of acknowledging death. The words are like hooks or nails here. They function like anchoring points for a self on the verge of disaster. They are stark. They are marks of a different kind. They assert the power of language as re-membering: to write is to stitch a wound.
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan handled the difficulty of conceiving the process and effect of a child’s projecting an image of her physical body onto a psychical plane in terms of negotiating the threshold of the visible world (Lacan 2006, 77). What is at stake is a specular image. One that is bound, yet not bound to that of the mother. A threshold is that place always bridging the next stage of entry. It is also the sill of the door, its buffer between inside and outside—the sill over which I try not to trip as I exit Elizabeth’s living room to enter, a few steps away on the left, her studio. The word threshold also carries both a physiological and psychological significance, being the point at which an effect begins to be produced. Thresholds are meant to be crossed as we pick our way to the next fork in the path. And the crossing leaves traces. Sometimes in cross stitch.
At the intersections
my needle and thread
dart and weave
a mourning for
an anxious hope
for the remains.
Grief is an abutting against death’s edge. Mourning is a threading through of its flimsy threshold; a loving stitching of life’s fragile membrane.
The studio fills with light. I look at Elizabeth’s hands as she adjusts the two sides of a torn piece of Washi paper she has been working on, demonstrates how she makes marks on a painting. These are small sturdy hands. They dart with joy and energy. Hover over and around the work. Then the right hand follows some invisible thread. Makes its mark.
The hand that makes purposefully indistinct images through chance encounters, that paints shadows and stitches memories, cups the past, present, future. It is a cradle-like parchment hand that holds a positive-negative presence-absence of what remains, or is to come. This hand is poised in a moment of extreme tension between Eros and Thanatos, the time and space of its accomplishment.
The poetry quotes in this essay, unless otherwise specified, are from Elizabeth Colbert’s sequence of poems in 64 Nests.
Elizabeth Colbert. 64 Nests, Tacit Galleries, 13 March-7 April 2019.
Jacques Lacan. Ecrits, Trans. Bruce Fink, Héloise Fink and Russell Grigg, Norton 2006.
Frédérique Joseph-Lowery, Through the Eye of a Needle’, Artnet, http://www.com/magazineus/features/lowery/louise-bourgeois 6-15-10.asp, accessed 14 February 2020
William Butler Yeats. Selected Poems. Faber 1982.
Dominique Hecq is a Belgian-born poet, fiction writer, and scholar now living in Melbourne. Hecq’s works include a novel, three collections of stories and eight books of poetry. After Cage (2019) is her latest poetry collection in English. Kaosmos is forthcoming. Among other prizes such as the Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry and the New England Poetry Prize, Dominique Hecq is a recipient of the 2018 International Best Poets Prize.