Monday, 7 November 2005

Statuary Friday #18

My ongoing blog project - documenting Melbourne's open-air public sculpture in words and pictures. Suggestions for future episodes are more than welcome.

#18 Cows

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Templestowe Rd, Bulleen

Heide occupies a lovely big untidy park sloping down to the Yarra. The museum has a good collection of outdoor sculpture; this group of gorgeous corrugated iron cows is a highlight. They are the work of New Zealand artist Jeff Thomson, and he made them in 1987.

In many ways the installation is more like a painting than a three-dimensional work. Although you'd perhaps expect that spreading it across a patch of ground would make spatial relations more important, what actually seems to happen as you walk up to the cows or walk round them is that they draw your attention to the setting - grass, trees, fence, sky, horizon - and make you look at the whole picture a little in the way you'd look at a landscape painting. You sort of notice perspective and lines and flat planes of colour. It's strange.

This is repeated in each of the actual cows, which as you see are basically cutout silhouettes collaged with more floating cutout pieces. Corrugated iron is a very interesting material for sculpture - it's neither wholly flat nor wholly 3-D. Generally the ridges run vertically on the main body sections, giving the flimsy structures some weight and gravity, with patches over the top running horizontally or diagonally to show the muscles and sinews and patches in the fur and bones in the ribcages and hips.

"Basically" cutouts is a pretty big understatement, though - the primary outlines and the overlaid patches of metal are cut and angled and placed in a way that's both loose and expressive and visually exciting, and highly evocative of cowish anatomy. It's painterly, in fact - the correctness of the drawing and the looseness and liveliness of the assembly work together to make the sculptures live. The actual paint is slopped and dripped and patched and layered and dabbed and spattered and scumbled and misted, sometimes in a natural-ish pattern, other times more fantastically.

It's hard to think of another open-air art installation around Melbourne that harmonises more perfectly with its environment. These sculptures suit the very particular mix attitudes and associations belonging to Heide; they are pastoral and countrified, but surrealist / expressionist / modernist as well - they're made of a very down-to-earth everyday material which has been used in a fanciful and non-utalitarian manner. And they are very Australian (or should I perhaps say Antipodean?) but it is an expression of Australianness which acknowledges the imported and exotic quality of the culture.


Ampersand Duck said...

A sculptor in the ACT, Ingo Kleinert, did a similar thing in 1995(ish) with corrugated-iron dingos, which he placed on the grass roof of Parliament House as an installation piece. I remember being roped into lugging the bloody things around because we were lowly first-year art students. They looked good when we finally installed them correctly. The worst thing was that we had to lift them aside and put them back every few days so that the hallowed mowers could make their perfect stripes in the grass.

I suppose I should treasure that memory, since nothing and noone can access the grass top of PH since it's been terrorist-proofed with horrid white barriers. That grassy bit is supposed to be a symbol of our Democracy. Heh.


JM said...

I LOVE these!

M-H said...

Sorry, they're definitely not Australian, and I don't really think you can generalise them to Antipodean. They are from New Zealand, a place where corrugated iron is an iconic material, and Thompson is an iconic kiwi artist. Having go tthat off my chest, I loved your review.

R H said...

I'm sorry too, but they are definitely Australian, and they are NOT cows. They are social commentators.

R H said...

If it were not for corrugated iron there'd have been no nice outdoor dunnies in Australia during the past hundred years.
Corrugated is more than an icon here; it is Blessed.

And as for New Zealand, I've never heard of the place. Where is it?

Lucy Tartan said...

I like them too, JM.

I am made sad by learning that the hill atop Parliament is off limits now. Hard to see how white crowd barriers are going to impede a proper terrorist, no? Yet another thing to add to the list of anti-terrorist stunts which seem mostly meant to increase terror in the local populace.

Fair enough, M-H! Russell Crowe, Janet Frame, Peter Jackson and Split Enz aren't Australian either. I do think though that transplantation must contribute something. These sculptures have lived in this spot for a long time and just by virtue of bieng a part of Heide if nothing else they are very firmly intertwined with the Australian landscape art tradition.

As RH points out, corrugated iron is a pretty important material in Australia also. Victor Meertens is another artist who uses it pretty much exclusively.

The link I put in under Jeff Thomson's name shows some of Thomson's other work, and it's lovely.

Ampersand Duck said...

The worst thing about PH being blockaded is that you can no longer roll from top to bottom, as we were wont to do after particularly fun gallery openings.

R H said...

I'll tell you this, if the latte set get their way and we cop a new flag I'll be demanding it be made of corrugated iron, that's how bloody Aussie it is! Because no abo humpy could have been tastefully renovated, or 1930's Depression shanty ever built - without the bloody stuff.

Corrugated bloody iron!- you are eternal, omnipotent, the Sphinx of the Southern Hemisphere!

(Did I say omnipresent?)