Queer Vessels, Curve Gallery, Newcastle. Until July 6
Lezlie Tilley's recent work at Curve until July 6 reveals another turning point in a long and distinguished career. She has rediscovered colour.
The new work consists of 15 medium sized sheets of paper, each with the outline of a distinctive vessel filled with a tiny grid of precise patterning, variously coloured for brilliance, including some jazzy optical dazzle. The tension between the highly animated object and the surrounding blank whiteness is dramatic. The miniature grids invite the gaze. These are powerful exercises in visual excitement. What an unexpected development from Lezlie Tilley's recent work, with its low-key concentration on the written word or memorably, in an exhibition at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, extending amended pages of text into musical notation.
An overreaching desire to take familiar art forms into unfamiliar territory has characterised Tilley's 30 years of exhibiting in many galleries and shows. I believe this pushing of the conventional boundaries also marks 30 years of successful teaching, with many inventive artists like Penny Dunstan and Jen Denzen having benefited from the contact.
Thirty years is a long time in the practice of art. I remember when I first saw Lezlie's work in the 1980s. She was experimenting with precisely cut-out letters spelling out Thesaurus lists, in parallel with appropriate fields of colour and texture. There were also biblical comic strips.
Colour was also an important element in an important series of works in the 1990s incorporating patchwork grids of wooden tiles often bearing brief botanical drawings. There was, too, a series deliberately exploring colour harmony and dissonance in small square paintings of stripes.
In contrast, there have been many bodies of work, predominantly in white, which transposed sewing and weaving patterns into gridded compositions. An impetus from something beyond direct visual stimulus also characterised investigations of the emotional power of non-art materials. A memorable sequence of the Seven Deadly Sins in 1993 combined thesaurus lists with panels of diverse textures. Envy involved corroded metal, Sloth was inert black rubber and Lust an overabundance of plastic flowers.
Textures from the natural world have also supported grids of minute stones and tiny shells, studies in actual times in construction paralleled with invocations of the geological eternity of weathering rock into sand. An installation of pinhead pebbles animated the void at Maitland Regional Gallery a year or two ago, with suggestions of infinite galaxies in an expanding universe.
But Lezlie Tilley has never stood still for long and her work is constantly evolving, taking new directions, while drawing is never far away. Even in the series of three-dimensional paper-cut works animating the flat sheet into sculptural studies in light and shade, the basis was always the crisp drawn line. Underlying cultural suggestion has also never been far away. The variety of vessel forms for the work at Curve is a virtual history of civilisation. Several drawings use the bizarre outlines of the bronze containers of prehistoric China. They, like the ceramics of the ancient Mediterranean and South America also drawn here, were excavated from grave sites, whether offerings or containers for bones. This intimation of mortality of unknown rituals plays off against the dynamic patterning imposed on the vessels.
The other artist exhibiting, the young England-trained Joseph Johnson, is also inspired by the historical past. His 141 small portrait busts in their round and oval frames suggest the tradition of the miniature. With their painstaking and highly detailed naturalism and restricted black and white palette they call to mind early photographs and the cartes-de-visite of the Victorian age.
Their subjects appear to be an encyclopedia of well-known personages, a veritable costume drama of ruffs and cravats, interspersed with lesser-known faces. Their thematic bond explains the first part of the exhibition's overall title: Queer Vessels, with alternative sexuality the link between portraits. There are some surprising, at least to me, inclusions like Cleopatra, Jesus Christ and Mona Lisa. Needless to say, gender orientation is not why many members of this highly decorative band have earned their place in history.