Bronwyn OliverJanuary 6, 2017
All artists are ultimately judged not by their biographies and personalities, but by what they leave behind. It doesn’t matter what sins they might have committed, or what trails of heartbreak and devastation they left in their wake. We might deplore Gauguin’s narcissism and perversity, but it doesn’t mean we think less of his paintings. Conversely, a harrowing tale of personal tragedy can’t save the work of a mediocre artist. With time and distance comes greater objectivity.
This is the way it would be in a perfectly rational world, but as we have seen in 2016, the world seems to be getting more irrational by the hour.
With Bronwyn Oliver’s retrospective at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, it’s still too early to dissociate the artist from her work. The very quality of the show seems to draw a bleak line under Oliver’s suicide in July 2006 at the age of 47. As one walks around the exhibition it’s impossible to shake the feeling that she had the world at her feet – with no excuses for the cliché.
The sole disappointment with this survey is that it will only be seen in Healesville. All credit to TarraWarra, but this is not the first time it has been left to a Victorian museum to initiate a retrospective by an important Sydney artist. Yes, the work can be hard to transport and display, but in a city where 500,000 people wander around the Bondi foreshores every year to satisfy their lust for sculpture, it’s scandalous that no Sydney venue has been prepared to take this exhibition.
Hannah Fink has written a comprehensive monograph called Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things (Piper Press) which was not quite ready to be released during the show. It follows Oliver’s career from her schooldays in Inverell to the final months of her life, spent in intensive, obsessive work routines. However, it may be better to see the show before reading about the artist’s life. The book introduces us to the dark and manic aspects of Oliver’s personality, which meant she would alternate between being selfless or selfish, generous or cruel; talented at both making and losing friends.
Oliver repeatedly told people she didn’t do small talk, and seemed to view every moment away from the studio as time wasted. The result was a concentrated body of work that continued to grow in scale and ambition. In this show we see the achievement and none of the pain.
Each of her trademark copper mesh works entailed hundreds, if not thousands, of small solders or weldings. One might imagine that a successful artist would have assistants for such laborious tasks, but Oliver did most of it by hand, often until those hands were bleeding and covered in bandaids. A posthumous test of her hair revealed high levels of toxic metals, which must have contributed to her chronic depression.
The visitor sees only a series of simple forms constructed from a dense weave of metal strands. There are frequent echoes of natural forms such as shells, marine life and plants but Oliver always claimed to be chiefly concerned with ideas and materials. Curator, Julie Ewington, quotes a statement in which the artist says: “I am not and have never been, remotely concerned with the observation of nature. I am not interested in structures in nature. My ideas do not begin with natural forms.”
Having included this emphatic rejection, Ewington expresses a mild scepticism – and so must anyone who studies Oliver’s sculpture. Nature is as omnipresent as it is in a David Attenborough documentary. For Oliver to deny nature is akin to Balthus saying there is nothing erotic about his paintings, or Rothko claiming his works aren’t abstract.
It’s easy to see why artists are unwilling to accept the most obvious associations – because every reference is a way of pigeon-holing and diminishing one’s work, as if a sculpture can’t be many things simultaneously. For Oliver there was also the stigma of that stereotypical idea that Mother Nature is feminine, and therefore an appropriate subject for a female artist.
Oliver’s feminism was of a more strident variety. She had chosen to work in a field dominated by men, regardless of the harsh, physical nature of the labour involved. She wanted to be judged on the same terms as her male peers, not consigned to the mystical realms of ‘the feminine’.
One trademark of Oliver’s sculptures was their capacity to be simultaneously elegant and menacing. The forms may be simple, but offset by a forest of tiny spikes. Even a piece such as Unity (2001), which reproduces the Chinese symbol for Yin and Yang, is given a halo of sharp copper strands. The same halo recurs in Umbra (2005), which resembles a flattened eye-ball riven with an impossible number of veins. It may sound grotesque, but the effect is mesmeric: a series of tributaries feeding out of a central core.
Her works may resemble pods or shells but we are always conscious that these are forms at one remove from life. A shell is a carapace from which a living creature has gone – it could be seen as a skeleton or an empty nest. An open pine cone has already lost its seeds. In this sense most of her sculptures might be seen as memento mori.
Even a small, peculiar work such as Husk (1994), which Hannah Fink describes as “testicular”, has a surreal fascination. One thinks of Giacometti’s Disagreeable object to be thrown away (1931), and the modern tradition of unsettling sculptures which it inspired.
Like so many of Oliver’s works Husk hovers on the verge of recognition but never settles. On the contrary, the longer we look at these works the more suggestive and ambiguous they become. This is the best reply to the idea that Oliver’s works were based on observations of nature – as we keep looking we realise that nature is only part of the mix.
One should not underestimate the degree to which Oliver drew on the art of the past. She looked at artefacts by the Celts, the Sumerians, the ancient Chinese, and various tribal cultures. She was alert to the sculptural beauty of functional objects such as pipes and other musical instruments, which she transmuted into forms that might have grown on trees, or in the depths of the ocean. The tremulous mesh of Curl/Schiaparelli (1988) is as sheer as a silk stocking – her immediate inspiration – but unfurls like a worm or a trumpet.
What’s important is not the superficial resemblance to one form or another, it’s the quality of the transformation Oliver achieves. A silk stocking becomes something very different when it is woven out of thin copper wire and hung on a wall. In Home of a curling bird (1988), which was adapted for a major public sculpture in Adelaide, Oliver created a long spiral basket in which two eggs are but faintly visible. It’s a brilliant, unclassifiable mesh of associations, as finely woven as the copper wire frame itself.
One of the most impressive aspects of Oliver’s brief career was her ability to move from small, intimate objects to large-scale public commissions that required a new conception of space, and a rethinking of the way a work was to be conceived and fabricated. She had a remarkable understanding of public space, but the price of this ability was a stream of stressful, labour-intensive works that helped use up the energies she needed simply to live.
Many visitors will pause in front of the small sculpture, Heart (1988), and feel a certain chill. This heart is a fortress – an amoured vessel held tight by strips of copper. There are only two openings, one of them tucked defensively behind the other. The green copper surface is punctuated by tiny, sharp tabs, adding to an already battle-hardened appearance.
The irony is that this vessel is empty: there is nothing to defend, or nothing left to defend – only a hard, aggressive posture frozen into permanence. It’s the self-portrait of a loner who felt oppressed by a terrible hollowness, even as she added a unique chapter to the story of Australian sculpture.
The Sculpture of Bronwyn Oliver
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, VIC
until 5 February 2017
John McDonald was a guest of the TarraWarra Museum of Art
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7th January, 2017.