Romancing the Skull | Sally Smart

For her newly commissioned work for the Art Gallery of Ballarat Sally Smart asks a question, 'Were there any women pirates?' It is this energetic reframing of cultural paradigms and stories that has long preoccupied Smart with her bold and epic collages. Romancing the Skull is an exhibition that explores the long fascination with the skull in art, and in response Smart has created a new work, a pirate ship for the Gallery's collection. 'Romancing the Skull' presents Smart alongside works dating from 1493, as well as her fellow artists Sam Jinks, Rona Green and Ben Quilty, and commissioned works also by Fiona Hall and Reko Rennie.

In her interview as Cover Artist of Artist Profile, Smart discussed with Owen Craven her ongoing navigation of the female figure in art history within her practice.

THE FEMALE FIGURE features often in Sally Smart’s artwork. Sometimes they’re rendered in quirky collages comprising magazine cut-outs and at other times are constructed from a mixture of fabrics and everyday objects. Her methods of cutting, pinning, sewing and stitching result in dynamic works of a layered, highly tactile nature, and allow her to ‘describe’ a rhythmic movement in both large-scale installations and smaller pieces.

Your work has long explored the representation of feminine identity, pointing to activities in our histories that were associated with women. Contributing to this is your choice of materials – silk, felt, everyday fabrics – and the performative aspects in your art-making of cutting, sewing and stitching. Can you tell me about the importance of your process-orientated practice?
The process-orientated practice has been various and usually very conceptually orientated along the way. My practice had primarily oriented around painting. Given that, a lot of content of the paintings is the same as the content today – details that make elements of identity. A lot of that has remained the same, delving into women’s histories and cultural histories.

In the 1990s I was interested in the contemporary ideas of identity and gender politics, and the unstable nature of identity constructions generally. I used the technique of pinning to emphasise this – a pin away from dismantling. This work conceptually and technically laid the foundations for my installation cut-out works. In making some work around this time, I began cutting out fragments of the body and laying elements out. I found I preferred cutting elements of my images and laying them onto the canvas and it gave me the density and dynamic that I was looking for in my art-making. I didn’t need to replicate anymore –  it made it look like collage.

So is it in the physical act of doing and making that you resolve the concepts and ideas behind your work?
Not really. It’s not in the making part of the process. It’s more in the research part of the making. I use a lot of models and so I need to know where they’re going to go. It’s probably more through drawing and diagrams. Issues of identity and gender is a discourse central to developing my work conceptually and technically. The use of materials is integral to the conceptual unfolding of my work – the process of cutting, pinning, staining and stitching – and their association with women’s practices.

Found imagery and magazine cut-outs are integral parts of your assemblage and collage installations. You rework and render these images into your compositions and installations. Where do these images originate? Are they the impetus that forms an idea, a concept, or do you seek out specific images that feed an interest or line of investigation?
I started making large-scale installation works based around metaphors – to do with cutting, dissecting, taking things apart, and often with a psychological base as well. I’d discovered a psychological condition called delicate cutting – that sort of cutting of the body, scarification, and mainly afflicting young women. It’s a cathartic psychosis. From this I started looking more closely at medical metaphors, looking inside and outside the body. And the cut – both the cutting and rearranging, taking apart and also reconstructing.

Recently I have become interested to look at choreographic techniques and how these might connect to the collage methodologies specific to my practice: the movement of elements in space; improvisation and rehearsal; and how these actions might be described and visualised in drawing.

There are a number of parallel themes that run through your work and have done so for a number of years. The figure is a prominent feature. Imaginary Anatomy (1997) and The Unhomely Body (1996-97) looked somewhat at the body’s biology and its make-up. More recently, your work has explored movement, with bodily parts pieced together in works from ‘Flaubert’s Puppet’s’ (2011) and your most recent body of work ‘Log Dance’ (2012). What role do you see the figure plays in your work? Is there something of you?
It’s not so much me in a portrait, representational sense. The figure is a sign, an armature for identity. It’s a lived and shared experience we all have when looking at the body in art – it’s a great vehicle. It’s extremely visible in the history of art. It has it’s connection to the brain and the psychological.

In relation to my body, there is a connection to my body – my hand, arm, brain – in the process of pinning and walking around, backwards and forwards, as much as representing my hand or limb, which I might photograph and use in the work, but it’s not a direct link. It’s a more complex and rhythmic connection to the work – I can’t ever disconnect myself even if I’m not saying I’m making a direct portrait of myself.

In her nature (2011), shown at BREENSPACE in Sydney, linked the figure with its natural world. Human bodies collide with a natural landscape of trees, flowers and insects. How did this relationship between figure and natural world come about?
One of the things about pinning to a wall is it’s a two-dimensional space but I create a deep space. There is a degree of artificiality in my work – influenced by mannerist art and the shallow picture space and showing that things were constructed. The space is a much more psychological space. You become simultaneously aware of the artificiality of the space. I really like playing with this. There’s a to and fro that happens when you’re with the work and so, physically, the work also operates in a different way – seeing the material in relationship to the wall.

I want it to be seen so it has depth and it has artificiality. That’s how I see my relationship with the landscape. The spiders and critters are constructed. The trees and limbs are cut and truncated and taken apart and reconstructed. It’s not a pastoral, idyllic scene. I don’t make art that is what it seems – it’s always very layered.

What is the importance of an exhibition space for installations, given much of your work is site – or space – specific?
It’s not an initial driver. But I use the grid as a structure and a way to navigate my way through a space or a wall. It’s a great way to control and define the presentation. The work is still driven by the conceptual elements, which are laid into the site. The site doesn’t affect the original making but it affects the outcome, in a way.

Each series of works seems very narrative driven and you have a pertinent interest in history and historical characters. Are you interested in retelling a story or in using the narrative or personalities as a starting point to tell a new story?
I’m not at all interested in narrative. I’ll more often than not try and subvert the narrative. People will bring narrative to the work – the reader brings narrative by personal identification – but I’m not interested in the narrative. There will be signs for a narrative but when it’s just about to guide its way into a narrative I’ll cut it.

What are some of your other influences? Theatre? Dance?
My act of cutting, drawing and assembling, led me to investigate ‘choreographers’ drawing’ – notations and marks used to render, map, define, describe a movement or a sequence of movements or a feeling. This has also meant looking at the performance/dance work of Martha Graham and using photographic images of costumes from her famous work Appalachian Spring.

My work is about making a visual construction of ideas like mapping, diagramming, charting or planning; but open, showing the process of that kind of working, drawing, assembling. The connection to performance, both in the attitude of  making – literally combining elements in situ – to the ‘rehearsal’ in my studio, and the representation of legs, arms, swishing skirts, and the ‘interior body/dress drawing’ all combine to accentuate movement. The whole wall is installed (choreographed) with many movements: a performance.

What’s next for you and your work?
I’ve been wanting to make some film work and stop-motion imagery for a number of years but I didn’t know how. More recently, asking about dance and choreography, it’s allowing me a way to develop and embed movement into my work. I’m now going to make a work based on Martha Grahams’ work – replicating and making elements move. I’ll be doing that in America, on a residency at the University of Connecticut, while I’m working with the School of Puppetry and Animation. And I’ll extend my interest in three-dimensional puppet work.

Romancing the Skull
Until 28 Janurary 2018
Art Gallery of Ballarat

Courtesy the Art Gallery of Ballarat and the artist. 

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