When my tutor for Contemporary Art at the University of Melbourne, Rebecca Coates, told the class about an opening at Utopian Slumps on Thursday evening, for a show that she has curated with the gallery director, I immediately grabbed a pen and put it in my diary.
Unfashionably early, Ali and I were the first to show up. The gallery was obviously open, but it was so empty that I thought I had written down the wrong date. We heard voices around the corner and were soon greeted by a gallery assistant who welcomed us with a glass of wine. We decided that this was an opportune moment to view the art without the distractions of a noisy crowd, think about the work within its intended space and context, and take some pictures for you.
The show is Anthropological Bricolage featuring works by Katie Lee and Kate Smith, both exhibiting mixed media installations and small-scale paintings and drawings.
When we first entered the gallery it felt like we were seeing the work of one artist. There was an obvious separation in terms of the execution and materials used for the installations, but they all amalgamated seamlessly, with both sides of the gallery working together as if they were telling the same story (Katie Lee’s work was on one half of the room and Kate Smith on the other). It wasn’t until after we looked at the work more carefully that we began to identify each artist, view the work separately and appreciate the merits of each as standalone works of art. But maybe that wasn’t the intention either.
View of part of the gallery space with some of Katie Lee’s works
in the foreground and Kate Smith’s at the back
Kate Smith’s installation is a mish mash of found objects made kitsch through a series of cutting and splicing of the objects, stitching them back together and covering them with paint. I have often romanticised about living in a studio, where I slept and ate on paint-splattered furniture next to my messy art making materials and lighthearted graffiti on the walls. Smith’s installation was a highly constructed, well thought of version of this fantasy, and I loved it.
What I loved more is the sense of nostalgia it gave through the subtle references to the vernacular imagery of Australian contemporary life. The backdoor steps where one sits and enjoys a beer, maybe with some mates, on a warm summer’s day. An old beanbag from your childhood that still resides in your parent’s living room. An empty Garnier Fructis shampoo bottle.
The other side of the room is occupied by the more conceptual work of Katie Lee. Compared to Smith’s work, Lee’s is minimalistic and industrial, but at the same time incredibly organic. I stare at the strange noose-like installation made of flat rubber tubing hanging from the ceiling. There is a sense that it almost has a life of its own and its isolation in the room gave it a looming presence that was hard to ignore. In the corner, a lump of jet black plasticine is lurking up the wall.
These dark eerie objects are juxtaposed against the lightness of the plywood used for her other less organic sculptures that included some kind of small doorframe and an elongated wooden box on the floor. Charming small ink drawings hang on the walls lending its subject matter to the sculptures we are seeing in the room. Seeing these drawings suddenly brings the artist’s presence into the room as we see the shaping of the ideas that led to the final sculptural pieces through the artist’s own hand.
So how does this all come together? The word “bricolage” means a construction made of whatever materials are at hand, but it also means the use of multiple and diverse research methods. We learn through the exhibition catalogue that Kate Smith is traditionally a painter and Katie Lee a sculptor. In this exhibition, though, both artists spread their wings a little and blur the lines of what is painting and what is sculpture. Kate Smith’s painted assemblages on the floor are almost sculptural paintings in themselves. Katie Lee, on the other hand, brings her highly controlled and austere sculptural works on to paper, using inks in a flowing, drippy and loose manner.
As Rebecca Coates, in her conversation with gallery owner Melissa Loughnan says, “this is where the conversation between you and I and these artists arise, opening up a space where possible overlaps may occur, and at the very least, enabling the conversation around these topics to exist”. The end result is an overlapping of artistic practice and the possibilities of medium, subject matter, and space. Smith and Lee, as part of the same show, are given the chance to experiment and push the boundaries of their art making and therefore changing the kind of art that we, the audience, get to see.