The works of Susan Knight and Liliana Barbieri demonstrate a differential exploration of the spaces of historical pattern and image making. Barbieri's conventionally large installations have been scaled down for 'Plane Opposites', whereas Knight has chosen to enhance the scale of her crystalline quotations from pattern histories and botanical forms.

Barbieri is interested to reconfigure the visual and theoretical rhetoric of the Italian humanists, re-presenting the fragments of classical Renaissance painting on 35mm photographic film and trace. The transparency and fragility of the twentieth century medium quietly subverts the perspectival and ideological 'authorities' of the Renaissance painting quotations. These delicate 'Spazio-Ombra' constitute post-modern 'space shadows' - the medium is exploited to drag the constructions and mechanics of Renaissance scenography into the light. In rendering the surfaces of cultural history transparent, the artist perhaps suggests something of those histories that have been repressed or sidelined in the construction of masculinist, aristocratic narratives. In the mainstream painting discourse, stories of class, femininity, and the other more Foucauldian histories of daily life were seldom told, or pushed to the side of the central visual narrative.

Barbieri takes care to re-seduce us with a ruby-rich, archaic palette; the cadmium glazes of the original paintings have been artificially heightened by digital and photographic processes, which intensify and exaggerate the image content. Yet there is both a sense of seduction and 'red alert' with these images. The exaggerated palette and the medium are critical tools here. They generate a fruitful ambiguity that might sum up the complex position of a contemporary woman artist (of Italian-Australian background) casting back to a history that both includes and excludes her direct patrimony. There is the added complexity of the literal, geographic and spatial remove separating Italian and Australian cultural histories. Barbieri aligns herself with a rich painting history, yet also deconstructs it, visually dramatising her apartness from it. In holding these image fragments up to the light, the artist imbues the historical cultural spaces of a Renaissance painting with subtlety and a gendered inflection that speaks from the critical space of the present.

Susan Knight's delicate timber and paper rhomboids have been replaced in this instance by canvas and inkjet printing techniques. Yet the referencing to the domestic and craft traditions remains consistent and acute. These canvas shapes reveal and assemble as dynamic fragments which, in the artist's own words, appear 'to leap out of the quilt and onto the gallery wall'.

The surfaces are flat and hieratic; a 'medieval' space that nicely counterpoints the symbolic Renaissance depth of Barbieri. Occasionally the botanical details attempt to twist and turn into three-dimensions, but the overall effect is of stylisation rather than spatial narrativity between the fragments. The work is collectively entitled 'Cushioned', but the viewer, in this case, has been effectively cushioned from the sense of soft depth that one might associate with the sculptural softness of an ' Oldenburg' form. There is no couch, bed or chair in sight. The title invites us to consider metaphorically the idea of a soft covering or support. Here the cushion material has become soft canvas, stretched onto a wooden frame and hung as a discreet object upon a gallery wall. Does the artwork then become a stylised, commodified cushion? Or is Knight's more complex intention to actively 'cushion' or 'protect' aspects of craft history, to enlarge, archive and reproduce ad infinitum a range of images that might more conventionally be assigned to a domestic setting and experience.

Placement remains critical to Knight's aesthetic; suggesting some sort of optical formalism and the idea of endless reproducibility. On the one hand the images re-affirm the rich histories of craft traditions, but the more mechanistic techniques might also stand for the ability of the printed art work to compete with the manually made object or surface, divesting it of originality and individualist appeal. The serial patterning here might suggest a desire to escape from the precious readings and designations of high culture.

Knight's images are ghostly imprints, deriving from real floral specimens and quilted samples. As such they constitute a hopeful archive; their serial shaping across the wall may offer a caution about what sort of histories are available for official cultural consumption, yet these works ultimately reinforce the vibrancy of the original craft forms, and their value as ideas that can be celebrated and reused within the gallery context.

 

Amanda Johnson

2003
Lab X Gallery
St Kilda