20 March 2015
After tracking her down, touching base by email and floating my interest in catching up, I finally got in my car in early Autumn and drove to visit Rowan Reynolds at her home and studio in Bothwell for the first time.
I brought bread and cheese and Rowan had made frittata and a large bowl of green beans with black olives and the food did what it is want to do, in making conversation flow. With her inherited long-haired Chihuahua, Pippa on her lap to calm the yipping (having known each other since she was a puppy, Pippa appears suspicious of my desire/attempt to share her owner) the topics of conversation stretch from art school to employment to Tasmanian Aboriginal history to roadkill.
Bothwell is a tiny town at the edge of Tasmania’s central highlands and is steeped deeply in both tragic (but locally, largely denied) Aboriginal history AND roadkill. Rowan described driving the 90minutes from Bothwell to work at the TMAG in the centre of Hobart through the Winter for an 8am start. She needed to give herself even more time for the journey to account for thick frost on the car window, black ice on the roads and the inevitable wildlife. There are times of day she says when the roads belong to the animals. As she shows me small-scale red, stranded fleshy paintings that she says are a way of processing the tremendous amount of animal death witnessed along the roadside she adds …they say moving to the country will teach you to deal with death, but I am still learning.
She doesn’t work at the museum where I last saw her anymore. Instead, dividing her time between the major purchases made with her earnings – her tiny Bothwell house and a bush block at Lachlan where she has settled a caravan. Both need and have needed a lot of work that she largely undertakes herself, but it feels like she is laying the foundations for a life where art can be the major occupation. She certainly has never stopped making since her PhD and while she doesn’t view any of the work she shows me as finished, it is clear there is an active, enquiring artists mind at work.
Rowan asked me if I was disappointed in the images she had emailed to me. There was a muddy, brown-ness to the images in my inbox which had surprised me and I told her so. But I wasn’t disappointed, they just made me curious. And viewing the works in person the brown becomes more complex – sometimes skin-like and fleshy sometimes like patinated copper or bronze.
It occurred to me that the surprise came from the fact that my memory of her work from her PhD, the last I had seen, was so pristinely white – flour grains, salt crystals, white thread. On the drive home I began to attribute the colour shift to an aging of ideas, a maturation process. The whiteness – so very beautiful in the gallery – is also impossible to sustain in a life where work is hard and space is hard to come by. This has been Rowans life since graduation. Hard graft and then retiring to small spaces at the end of the day. The pristine, crystalline perfection of an academic ideal does not necessarily translate to a life being lived, and the works now are coloured by something that might be more lived-in than before. Just like skin.
The thread is the element that has carried through from the past most strongly. A square white canvas bears the pyramidal likeness of Mt Direction (as viewed from her previous home in Berridale) rendered entirely in black thread glued fast to the surface. This is the work it is easy to be drawn to immediately – the apparent labour is impressive and the graphic quality and size stand out, but digging around the pieces Rowan has dug out of the studio and laid around the living room at the front of the house proves rewarding.
Small panels of board use the threaded surface as a ground for paint in fleshy pink-yellowed-neutrals. On another board prepped for further work the white painted ground has been ‘cast’ against a surface of crinkled plastic wrap. Texture is obviously key. Rowan has told me a number of times in email and in person that her move away from sculpture towards painting is about available working space more than anything else and in this texture, created sometimes by thread and sometimes in modelling mediums, I feel the sculptor refusing to let go.
I’m attracted to a small exquisite watercolour made with the ink soaked into a thread that leaves its filmy, blue imprint on the paper. It’s reminiscent of an otherworldly waterweed or maps of the arterial networks that spill from the human heart. It is delicate and intuitive, and I see my own experiments with watercolour reflected here.
In fact there are a lot of thought-threads Rowan and I share and much of our discussion around art is about time and completion; allowing things to accrete or erode – about accumulated effort. To make art slowly does not mean that an artist has ceased to make. If it is not in a gallery, it does not mean that it doesn’t deserve to be or that it ceases to exist in a valuable sense.
The trouble with an empathic personality is an ability to be stained by the experience around you. Rowan’s clear love of animals suggests her as this kind of empath. At one point she mentions a collection of experiments that she produced while she lived in Berriedale with her Mt Direction view. Her home was surrounded by the sounds of domestic violence incidents and she was often on the phone to police calling in their assistance. These works, like the roadkill paintings, enabled her to process the experience in some way while waiting for police to attend. These works were unable to be located for this visit but, while my curiosity begs a viewing, whether or not I ever see them is in many ways irrelevant. They have served a very real, emotional purpose and an assessment of their aesthetics is not required. Still, I want to see them. My own interest in the force of emotional energy leaves me hoping they are found.
4 June 2015
The road is foggy and Rowan texts me a black ice warning. I proceed with caution. The drive to Bothwell is breathtaking and I want to stop and take photographs frequently but I am headed out later in the day than last time so I push on. Rowans pipes had frozen and without water she asked me to postpone my visit for a couple of hours. When I arrive, again we talk and eat as I ply the chihuahua with small liver treats I’ve brought in my pockets and my relationship with her softens.
In the living room/studio Rowan has a variety of buckets, tubs and plastic basins, round and rectangular. Each is filled with a measure of water and a black, insoluble pigment. We take turns kicking and waiting and watching as the pigment slowly resettles. We talk of time-lapse and sped footage, but my feeling is that when captured within a screen, the action will be mesmerising at its natural speed. We’ll see.
I talk to Rowan a little about my interest in the origins of the word occult, from the Latin, occultus meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’. I describe her work as a true occult practice, revealing the hidden energies in the aggressive action of kicking the vessel. It’s right up my alley.
The title of the work will be Dregs. We speak of the work of cleaning, of dirt at the bottom of buckets, female crisis and grief. I once made a spontaneous work with the dirt left on my hands after scrubbing a floor. I made it to mark a heavy grief that could not receive official recognition in my workplace as it was attached to the death of a friend rather than a family member. I taped a neat rectangle onto the wall and stencilled it in using the filth on my skin.
I’ve been very depressed about Australian politics and the curious motivation of Tony Abbot naming himself as Minister for Women. Ever since it first happened really, but more so of late. Initally at least I had a sense of humour about it. Now I can’t bring myself to continue the discussion of what the invisible labour of cleaning means to women. The reality has seeped in now and corroded my ability to find it funny.
Before I head home this time, we rug up and stroll the town. We amble to the river Clyde and down near the old barracks. Bothwell was a significant location of contest during Tasmania’s Black War and the remnants of colonial stronghold are all around but I was rather shocked to find no reference at all to the indigenous history of the place. No cursory didactics, no memorials. Instead there is a rather twee, civic cling to Scottish heritage via tartan street signs and a golf museum. Startlingly ugly signage leading to colonial sites of interest, defaces a physically lovely townscape.
I have heard colloquially of an incident nearing the end of the war where the town awoke one morning to find a small island in the middle of the river Clyde, draped in the bodies of a number of brutally slaughtered aboriginal women, their corpses neatly lined up on display to the township. An imagining of this horror has burned itself into my brain recently and it is much on my mind as we walk upstream and cross the river using a charming bridge constructed by a mix of municipal and domestic hands.
I break this narrative of our afternoon together to interject with a qualification:
I am aware that the domesticated animal/native animal binary used to analogise the colonial/aboriginal binary is possibly a tired one, but I shall risk completing the narrative of my experience regardless.
Driving home from Rowan’s on this day along narrow roads edged in pristine green and paddocks of bright, white Merinos, I was genuinely shocked to see marsupial roadkill that appeared to have been theatrically positioned, but more probably flung by the force of their demise, hanging inverted over the wire fencing, their rotting mouths gaping open as if in cry, the sheep browsing oblivious behind, fat and so white. The hideous chance of this analogy forced me to stop the car. In my mind now, the imagined faces of the murdered women and those of the roadkill wallabies and pademelons, flick between one another like a lenticular image.
When able to return to the road, I karaoke Kate Bush songs (a comfort habit) to distract myself. Wuthering Heights of course, Babushka, Oh England, My Lionheart, Hello Earth, The Kick Inside, Coffee Homeground. By the time I turn off the highway near my home I find that I have come, by no forethought, around to Bush’s odd (perhaps, misstep) The Dreaming :- both a cultural appropriation (an early example of ‘world music’ perhaps) and an homage to Australian indigenous culture that pictures the plight of a disrupted people in very Kate Bushy way.
BANG goes another kanga on the bonnet of the van…
I become distressingly self-aware and silent until I pull into my driveway.
Rowan wants to move from Bothwell when she can. I think I would too.
30 October 2015
My visits have a routine now – woo the dog (I am welcomed now), food, talk, art.
Rowan has been away visiting family in Adelaide and seems refreshed although the departure of winter probably contributes to this too. Winter in Bothwell seemed harsh.
I have arrived with an assortment of camera gear and my laptop for editing. I can’t remember now if we had actually discussed it or not but I had imagined myself very squarely as Rowans technician; a skilled guide to help bring her first moving image artwork to fruition. But as we move from eating and chatting to art it becomes apparent that this is not my role.
Rowan is blessed with ingenuity and an investigative fearlessness.
In her lounge room/studio in front of the couch is a lightbox she has fashioned from lamps and a remnant of Laserlite propped up on buckets. Three more white buckets are stationed equally on top filled with the now-familiar black pigment (a powdered oxide for colouring cement – I finally asked) and water. Several bucket-bases cut free of the vessel are propped along the mantle with their dried pigment on display. Recalling them as I write I now have the curious urge to see them motorised and rotating but stationary they are positively planetary in appearance.
I make mention of the return to whiteness and Rowan smiles. Of course the vibratory patterning of the bucket-kick shows up so much better and graphically this way.
I mention getting out my camera but Rowan is way ahead of me. She has been test shooting using her phone camera and has already recognised the problem of the kicked bucket jogging out of shot, ruining the framing. Not only has she recognised the problem, she has also already solved it. A makeshift camera(phone) rig fashioned from coat hangers and gaffa tape is the solution. With the camera suspended from and attached to the mouth of the bucket itself. It moves with the greater motion and still neatly records the action inside. It was an obvious problem I hadn’t even considered yet. I leave all my gear alone. Rowan knows what she wants and works to achieve it.
I muse about the colonialism in my attitude as visiting video artist. ‘Well… I’m not used to film…’ she says modestly. I enthuse in awe about her capability. This ingenuity is one of the benefits borne of working in isolation, I think. One just ‘gets on’ and doesn’t consult. Work may develop it’s own unique character this way.
Rowan has the native video editing software on her computer and I assure that that it will be enough for what she wants to achieve. I declare my availability by email for assistance but also stress that Google is the most useful teacher. There is rarely a problem that someone else hasn’t already encountered and solved publicly on the internet.
Our next time together will be spent in my studio testing projections.
This time on the way home, I stop frequently to take photos of this stunning countryside and shoot the odd piece of video. Passing a pastorally idyllic paddock of grazing sheep, I park across the road. A particularly cuddly-looking young Suffolk makes eye contact and then steps brazenly between the fence wires and out onto the road bleating at me sweetly and idiotically.
Over the next 20 minutes I clumsily herd the creature back and forth along the fence desperately trying to keep it off the road and get it back through where it belongs. At the point where I consider defeat I narrowly avoid stepping one foot into the rotting corpse of another sheep who has stupidly wandered out and become a casualty of country traffic. After a time the Suffolk takes it’s leave, easily rejoining it’s companions through the fence of its own accord.
As you would be able to tell by now – I am constantly guilty of analogy and a (perhaps misguided) search for meaning where there is often – probably – none. I have not been able to channel the meaning and moral of my sheep encounter but I suspect it is something to do with responsibility.
What IS my role here? How IS this process my artwork? I comfort myself each time these queries arise with the returning question: How is it NOT?
NOTE: This work The Rowan Reynolds project is a part of the exhibition exhaust that opened last night at Contemporary Art Tasmania. Due to a tech hitch this text and my accompanying essay are absent from the online catalogue/project website. EDIT: website now fixed and available HERE.