Ruark Lewis @RKD

Ruark Lewis’ exhibition WEAVE was held at our studio gallery @RKD this fortnight. See images and an interview text below…

Extracts from an interview with Olivia Kurt

In the late 1980s I had made a series of graphite drawings based on a group of bark paintings collected by Charles Mountford in 1948 at Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. It all began with those drawings. Maybe there is an inherent democracy in that fundamental part of us all being able to draw, to fill in the page with haptic marks and lines and colours which we all have practiced from since we were children.

The approach I take all begins with drawing, everything else seems to do so too. Recently I was looking at the childhood drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright which must have been rendered sometime in the late 1870s. They were crystalline, made almost entirely of triangles, which he sets within triangles radiating upward and incorporating colours and line in a remarkable and sophisticated manner. He was using 120 and 60-degree angles almost entirely. The same sort of rationale present in his juvenilia you can still identifiably in his late 1940s drawing/designs for the Berger, Patrick Kinney and Ward McCartney houses in California, Michigan and Wisconsin. I don’t know if I can claim anything like that for my most recent oil paintings which in fact are really drawings not paintings.

My interest in the weaving of Pacific Melanesia began when I was looking at the techniques and decorations of Papua New Guinea pottery in the 70s. I have seen how woven materials range across a vast range of material cultures and thatching and building structures, basketry and other everyday utility items. These all have similar systems. There is a common unit which you can also seen with the Yolngu where the use of bark for shelters runs back through a number of these other applications. There are amazing photographs of fish traps and bark shelters that use the flexible nature of the bark in complex ways. Much of this technology is governed by the location and the seasonal conditions.

It is the string bilum, which is in fact a form of knotless netting, that is the actual thought-line I most often returned to and that I have been thinking about over the years and partly it is the structure of their repetitive decorative abstract lines, and that in every sense these are objects completely wedded to the body when in use. I mean the lines of the polychromatic designs usually show informal qualities, and the pottery in certain areas where reductive shapes and linear treatment seems to echo each other. Strange then to think that there is a connection between weaving and ceramics.

I’ve never visited PNG, so my ideas have formulated as armchair research more or less. These are processes that don’t obviously appear to be shared, but the genesis is in these kinds of technologies when they I imagine the cross-reference as useful points of departure. This is a sort of virtual archive, revealed to me through the many publications that survey these subjects. Of course, the study of textiles and weaving and other related objects of material culture world-wide has entertained my imagination for a long time. Here one of the best researchers in the field is Louise Hamby, whose studies of Indigenous textile forms is unrivalled.

I guess it is a form of cultural memory, and although I tend to disguise the source of my interests in a process I have called ‘transcription’ somehow leads to the loss of memory, but that starts to get a bit confusing when you start to talk about being interested and being a creative artist. Another part of this interest has come about informally through a more recent friendship with the Australian-PNG artist Eric Bridgeman who I’d like to acknowledge perhaps indirectly, yet it is Eric’s current inquiry into the Jiwaka Province clan designs on fighting kumans (shield) is currently part of an ongoing conversation. His interest is more to do with the renewal of the painting tradition in his mother’s family Western Highland region.

I’d like to recall a comment or a lament that Margaret Tuckson writes in her important study of Papua New Guinea regional pottery, where she observes that the introduction of inexpensive metal cooking pots has had a significant effect on the ongoing production of traditional pottery cooking vessels in that place. Her field work and comments date back to the 1970s and I suspect her predictions have come true now. In a different way Eric comments on how the modern governance impacted on the traditional highland clan warfare and how that has now become pretty well made extinct the non-representational designs on the kuman (shields) of the Wahgi Valley clans. Although these exist in ‘living memory’ they are not regularly painted or practiced any longer.

I don’t think I am ever directly quoting culture be that my own culture or that of others. The weave appears throughout the Pacific rim nations. All over the Americas you will find objects produced in similar or different ways. Systemically that is what I’m thinking about. In my current output in the studio there are practical explanations that will explain the WEAVE paintings.

I am working of three groups of paintings simultaneously. The primary work though is a small 3 meter square mural commissioned by the  architect Ed Lippman for his family home overlooking the Sydney Harbour. It’s a language work, and to work out colours and their combination I started taking short passages from the long oral history that his father Henry (Heinze) recorded for the state library of New South Wales.

Interestingly what I have been discovering is how memory states certain ground. We seem as a species very concerned with a kind of absolutism in terms of ground, placement I mean. Literally where our feet have trodden. The oral history, begins in Berlin in the 1930s. The experience for the Jewish community at that time is very critical. What the record utters, utterance, the euphemism that the speech relies on to steady the claim. The right to be in the present, and reflecting on such a position looking back in the future I try and study this expression.

I’ve done this kind of deep listening before in a work called Homeland Illuminations and I talk about this in relation to the painting I created using translations of Arrernte songs by Carl Strehlow circa 1907. I devised blue and black for Strehlow’s ‘voice’, and later I was thought about how cobalt blue was a healing colour. Now the copying of these passages from the Lippmann collective memory archive needed to be made very certain in regards to the colours being employed to convey and to settle down the drama of the memories. Interestingly, I’m dealing with the German language again, the German way of thinking too.

Thus WEAVE began as codes for colour, the deployment of colour that will portray yet semi-conceal something. And the ‘painterliness’ or smearing, which I hope will be mistaken for brushwork is more playful than I can use in the calligraphic language pieces. It is interesting that an artist painting in the classical sense, renders their image on linen or cotton canvas, onto to weave, the threads bearing impressions or substructure beneath the creamy paste of the blended paint.

 

CODA

Looking at the drapery represented in the published work of the artist William Hodges 1744-1797, who travelled and documented the 2nd voyage of James Cook to the Pacific (1772-1775), you come upon what are secondary image transcriptions taken from the authoritative line Drawn from Nature . Explorers throughout the 18th and 17th century did not carry the camera with which to record, what often would be first encounters in the new world; of the people and the habitats and environs, the creatures of the sea and land as well as drawing mariner charts of these new terrains and the courses of the journeys the discoverer took. In place, artists like Hodges embarked on a visual discovery drawing and painting first hand what lay before them. In turn, the artist and mariner compiled reports from the records of their journals, and engravers worked for publishers to illuminate these remarkable narratives. on the printed page dry point etched lines delicately mimic the original recorded sightings, and as evidential ‘records’ the artisans took certain crafted liberties that rendered the European vision of the Pacific recognisable to the audiences back at home. The 1777 edition of Cook’s record of his 2nd Voyage, the field work Hodges’ was translated into images by the engraver J.Hall. In these elegant ‘works of art’ the manners of the painter are copied and the copier utilises lines that are drawn with differing depth, widening bite. The lines are skilfully scratched into the printers plate using a range of techniques almost imperceptible to the naked eye. This way tonal depth and shade is achieved, and with greater dexterity still, the contours of the facial features and hair or garments wrapped around the figure’s chest and shoulders are cut wavy flourishing line. It is beautifully controlled workmanship. These modest page formats have a powerful presence and fulfil this black art of printing admirably. Perhaps these renderings leave behind some of the mood and emotions of the original field works, and that in the publication, there is an attempt to calibrate and unify the illustrations for the sake of continuum and uniformity. There is as a result a kind of idealism and romance in the published works, drawn not from nature but for the eagerness to please the buying audience. Yet the craft itself, where the material folds in and wraps around the subject, is in effect a kind of weave designed to wed the paper and impressed lines using printer’s ink.

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