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Exploring our Obsessive Impulsions

Elizabeth Harris

A search is a kind of obsessiveness.

We spend our lives searching for everything from the perfect coffee to the meaning of life. On one of the first truly brisk evenings of the Canberra autumn (post-ANZAC Day, so yes, the heaters were on), Obsessive Impulsion – an exhibition exploring themes varying from the concept of the search, to death, to impulse – featuring five female artists and curated by David Broker, opened at Gorman House.

Huddled outside with a Bentspoke tinnie, I spoke to U.K. Frederick, one of the contributing artists, about her pieces. A series of photograms, with light delicately filtered through the soft weave of flannel shirts, her pieces are representative of her own search and obsession.

“I read a story somewhere, that Courtney Love had donated Kurt Cobain’s clothing to goodwill after he died. So, this idea arose of anonymous superstars.”

U.K. collected shirts on the streets of Seattle; she acknowledges that isn’t likely to find a shirt that belonged to Cobain, but she compares it to the search for the Holy Grail – she knows it doesn’t really exist, but her work plays with the ambiguous space between representation and abstraction.

UK Frederick CMYKurt #5, 2018 61 x 50.8 cm, C-Type print (photogram of Seattle-sourced flannel shirt).

Her work also explores the obsessive sensibilities of artists broadly.

“In a sense, my practice can be quite obsessive,” she tells me, as her friends enter the gallery, waving and pointing to the flannel shirts they are wearing in support. Her photograms necessitate hours spent in the dark room. Developing colour prints means that she has to work without a safe light.

“You just work with your hands until the light is on to expose the images; it requires a degree of trial and error, all the while wanting to get the right feel across.”

This pursuit of perfection, while not knowing what ‘perfection’ looks like, is a feeling most of us can relate to, in career, personal pursuits and relationships.

David Broker, the curator of the show, said that for him, artistic obsession is a good thing, and “makes for really good art”. Yet, he acknowledges the other facets of such all-consuming passion.

“I think some of the audience tonight was quite disturbed by [the level of passion and obsession] and picked up on that. When all of these works, created by prolific artists who work constantly come together, there can be a disturbing element.”

Michele England Bread and Butter #, 2016, Oil on repurposed plate 17cm diameter.

Ann McMahon’s works, featuring intense weaves made of bread wrappers speaks to this obsession, and it’s many faces.

“It’s really about her children,” David explains. “Her children ate bread each day according to the colour of the bread wrappers, which were later used to make these colour-filled works. It’s a kind of extreme housework; she firstly does the whole motherhood thing, and then adds even more intensity to it through her work.”

These modern tapestries encapsulate the gratification and transformation that can come from compulsive practices.

“When you see them, you’re not going to think ‘ugh, bread wrappers,'” enthuses David, “They’re so far removed from the ugly plastic they were – Ann has made a beautiful, warm work out of daily routine.”

Jodie Cunningham Gumboot (Data portrait), 2017. Concrete box L=yearly income less tax / W=cost of living/ H=hours working. Recessed box=art practice. Towers=personality & family profiles. 30cm L x 8cm W x 12cm H box I with towers = Acrylic perspex, bamboo, stainless steel, nickel and concrete. Photo: Brenton McGeachie.

But the real value of the exhibition, David asserts, is in the way the pieces present themselves in concert.

“I hadn’t even realised this before tonight,” David tells me. “But the show is, in a sense, about death.”

He points to Suzanne Moss’ works, which despite its astounding colour is inspired by her personal grief, U.K.’s work which originates in the death of Cobain, and Michele England’s ‘protest cushions’ which examine the death of the planet.

The essence of obsession seems more to be in the pursuit of satisfaction, more than the sense of fulfilment itself; more about the living of life, than its completion in death.

“I don’t even know if this story is true,” says U.K. “But I’m fascinated by the idea that what could have been an incredibly valuable object to the freaky, billionaire Nirvana can be turned back into a simple object, worn by some guy walking down the street who doesn’t even like Nirvana.”

Taking a sip of her beer she concludes, “He’s just wearing it because it’s warm.”

the essentials

What: Obsessive Impulsion, curated by David Broker, and featuring the works of Jodie Cunningham, Michele England, U.K. Frederick, Ann McMahon, and Suzanne Moss
Where: CCAS Gorman House, 55 Ainslie Avenue, Braddon
When: 27 April to 23 June 2018. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm
More information: ccas.com.au

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Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris is currently studying Law and Arts at the ANU. She majors in Art History and has a minor in French. She has a hunger for fashion and food, and is a lover of the fabulous Canberra arts scene and many farmers’ markets. She has a deep interest in the intersection between the arts and law, and hopes to undergo further study in this area. Alternatively, she dreams of writing an art history thesis on the subject of memes. She can commonly be found enjoying a delicious cappuccino at any one of Canberra’s staple cafes, but particularly Tilley’s which she has frequented since she was four years old. When she grows up/old she wants to be just like Iris Apfel. More about the Author