In December 2012, a devastating fire tore through Lavery’s marital home in Sydney’s Inner West, destroying many of her family-inherited possessions and the artist’s own works. One of the few things that survived the fire was a timber spinning wheel, an olden-day machine formerly used to spin thread or yarn and handed down from her mother, which stood baked, a little blackened and dilapidated, between the fire-licked walls of Lavery’s flat.
Remains is a collection of new works in response to trauma and loss, showcasing Lavery’s signature synthesis of contemporary approaches to drawing and textiles. Along the way, it raises issues of identity and home, and marks the artistic and emotional response that followed in the fire’s wake. On the walls are works on paper inspired by the fired apartment walls; though produced by dripping and running water-based inks, and worked back into with stick or thread-like drawings, then inverted, the marks are distinctly and abstractly flamelike in their appearance and texture. In the centre of the room is the salvaged spinning wheel, its more splintered elements disconnected and strewn about the floor. And around the walls of Archive Space itself are graphite drawings, made blind and with unbroken lines of the spinning wheel for the three days preceding the exhibition, and was then augmented periodically through the duration of the show. They have since been painted over for the subsequent exhibition; they have ceased to exist except in their photographic documentation. This plainly epic drawing effort is connected to the textiles-based approach taught by Ruth Hadlow, whose contemporary practice and workshops start with an object and work outward from that object, developing ideas from a process-based approach to practice.
Lavery plans to transform the injured spinning wheel into an automated drawing machine- a fittingly stoic next step in the artist’s practice and the object’s life.
What’s the story behind this exhibition?
I had a house fire in December 2012, and from that experience, a number of things were heightened, and one of those things was how closely entangled my sense of self was to that apartment. I’m exploring grief and loss and how to rebuild from experiences which change your relationship to the world. The self is connected to the home, and for me that’s very domestic.
The show considers the idea of time, how we value time. [On the day of the fire,] I got a phone call when I was at work and my husband said, ‘You need to get home, there’s smoke coming from our building.’ The firies were there, the police were there...it’s all a bit of a blur, and that’s one of the things I’m quite interested in - how memory operates in instances like that and how [the experience of] time can speed up and slow down. Time is something that we run our lives by, on very strict clock time, but the experience of it is so different around life-changing events. Time stretches and it becomes this very human thing when we spend so much time trying to measure it and use it as a measuring stick.
We weren’t allowed in the flat for a couple of days because it was unsafe. And when we did go inside, I had a very strong sense that the flat wasn’t the place that I knew. It’s interesting that you can have places, sites that exist in two separate states. You can revisit a place that you have a very strong memory of, but your experience is totally different to your memory of it. You then hold then these two different versions of the place in your mind. That’s really interesting to me - the place in two different memories is a sort of non-place.
The place is no longer geographically bounded. You’re a textiles artist, and this is primarily a drawing show. How do your textiles training and this show correlate?
The most interesting things happen when you work between processes and techniques and materials. One technique will say something that another doesn’t say, and the differences are highlighted by going back and forth. I often work with the question: how can I approach drawing as if I was stitching or weaving? What I learnt from the processes I’ve used in textiles was a consideration of time and materials, and now I bring these ideas interests to drawing and other practices to see what happens.
Many people think of textiles as an outmoded or craft-based or even modernist practice. How can you be a textiles artist and a contemporary artist? How do you situate your textiles-based practice in relation to contemporary dialogues?
The way I see it is I’m a contemporary artist, and my background was textiles. I don’t see textiles as something that I will necessarily always work with. That was the area that I’ve come from, and then I approach things with what I’ve learned in that discipline, which is the emphasis on the making process and the materials with which you work - that is very strongly emphasised in textiles. That’s not the only discipline with those emphases, and I think that people can approach mediums and techniques with those same sensibilities. On the craft thing, I remember reading once that craft is a perspective than can be applied to any material or technique. The craftsperson is someone with attention to detail and expertise in their material and technique. So I prefer to think about craft in that way not attached to a particular discipline or aesthetic, but as a philosophy, as an attention to the details of materials and processes.
Yes. My sister did textiles, and I’ve noticed that her practice starts with an object and then moves out and out and out from there via processes that focus on the materiality of that object. I saw that with the spinning wheel in your exhibition. You brought that textiles way of working to drawing. Likewise, many people assume that painting or ceramics is outdated, but if you work inside those disciplines in a contemporary way, you’re merely thinking conceptually through painting or ceramics. And that opens up many different possibilities beyond the plane of the canvas.
You bring the materials that you’re working with into play with your ideas and something happens, a conversation happens. You could bring the same ideas to a different technique or set of materials and another conversation happens. It’s about finding which conversation you want to be part of.
Or which conversation you want to contest!
Yeah, and it’s always about coming back to the central idea and asking what does the material or technique say in relation to the ideas.
I guess another way of putting that is, rather than thinking of textiles as working with fabric, asking what can textiles do and be in a contemporary context?
It’s more interesting when the work becomes something that’s in between two things, that draws on different conventions, for example when it is both a drawing and a weaving. I am interested in artwork which has a sense of something becoming something else, when it has that ambiguity of form and way of moving between two things. If one draws as if one is weaving, what else might happen that wouldn’t happen if you were weaving?
That’s when you’re looking forward as an artist. You’re thinking about potentials, about expanding the possibilities of textiles today. How much personal material leaches into your work? And beyond your work, how much personal material do you think is permitted or accepted in contemporary art?
To be honest I try not to think about that question . I feel as though I make work that needs to be made, so to some degree I’m not thinking about whether the work is personal in nature. Making the work comes from me, and that happens to be more of personal content than other artists’ work, but I don’t choose it, that’s just the work that I make. I look at Louise Bourgeois, whose work is incredibly personal. As a viewer I get a lot out of her work without knowing all of its details. Her work is on one end of the ‘personal and emotionally loaded art’ spectrum. While my work draws from my own lived experience I also want it to maintain some openness to be a little more abstract so it doesn’t put everything out there, so it keeps a little back,.
Otherwise you preclude a viewer’s personal meaning from being projected onto the work.
Ultimately, the artist is in the work, it just depends how and if they want to show that. We’re humans making the work. Sometimes we forget this. Glenn Barkley’s String Theory [at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013], was a move towards a more generous style of exhibition that embraced what it means to be human and didn’t necessitate [over-theorised] conceptual foundations. It emphasised what it means to create work and connect to a lineage of working with materials and techniques and cultural traditions. I think it was a really important show in terms of encouraging people to be open to different styles of exhibitions.
It’s an open question, but what else are you thinking about in regard to your practice lately? Where to from here?
I am keen to explore the possibilities of the weaving drawings on a much larger scale. I have also started playing with cutting out my blind continuous line drawings from paper, so the work is in between a drawing and an object. It will force me to look intensely at lines that I was blind to while drawing them.
So you will double back through your process to create an object from a drawing of an object. Alot of artists end up making work about what it means to make work. I think it’s because through making work your obsessions are revealed to you. And you just have to keep following that rabbit hole, down and down and down, and that’s what your art becomes about.
-Lauren Carroll Harris