Fine Arts

Bowls, Baskets, Blankets and Boats: The art of deception

Bowls, Baskets, Blankets and Boats.
Belconnen Arts Centre Gallery, 118 Emu Bank, Belconnen.
Opening 2pm, Saturday, April 26. Ends May 11.
Meet the artist: Sunday, May 4 at 3pm.  belconnenartscentre.com.au.

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave …'' are words often quoted from Sir Walter Scott's poem Marmion but for one Canberra artist the more visually deceptive her art is, the better.

Jenny Manning has been creating intricate drawings and paintings of the tangled webs of microscopic fungal spoors for the past five years - though recently the ''rope-like'' stems and filaments of tangled webs have morphed into handles and edges of patterned vessels on containers.

Her paintings, drawings and richly coloured, patterned blankets, vessels and containers can be seen at her latest exhibition - Bowls, Baskets, Blankets and Boats - at the Belconnen Arts Centre Gallery from April 26.

''It is both a departure from and continuation of my earlier work,'' she says. ''I was in the forefront of making soft sculptures at the ANU [School of Art] in the 1980s. I challenged them because they wanted me to weld metal and make these hard-edged things that sat on plinths and I wanted to make things that were geometric but had soft edges. The textile department was only just beginning at that time so it wasn't ready for me and my three dimensional style. I made big rope bags in those days, a metre high, that sat on the floor.

''If I made pyramids - or more geometric forms - I would wrap them with bandages and ropes and cables, and wrapping hollow forms was part of a fantastic three years at the ANU.''


On first encounter with Manning's paintings on fibreboard sheets cut with a jigsaw to give an uneven look, as opposed to her objects - baskets, rugs and bowls, the focus is on the flatness of form, colour and irregularity of shape.

''All the drawings I do are very sculptural and three-dimensional,'' she says. ''They are curved forms on a flat surface. It's quite deceptive.''

The idea of making containers in many shapes and forms is one that has been with Manning a long time.

''The boats came out of the baskets because I was looking at containers, and the baskets came out of the bags that I started making 30 years ago.''

Manning finds symbolic meaning in boats.

''Boats are so symbolic of the transportation of the soul in the spiritual sense - the souls of the dead or the living from one state to another,'' she says. ''Also thinking about Noah's Ark and the Egyptians - it's a really strong symbol. Then I started thinking about water and its dangers, and about refugees and their fantastic textiles and patterns.

''I was using the patterns on the baskets and bags and extending it into the boat image - patterns that you might find in Afghan rugs. Some of the boat images look as though they are pierced in some way - haven't got a base and won't float. The fragility of the boats reflects primitive seagoing vessels and alludes to the precarious travels of refugees.''

Manning suggests that her body-bags are a little disturbing too, ''because they are wrapped in the same patterned forms but are constrained by ropes as if they are being strangled.

''It's another reference to refugee deaths at sea.''

The patterns and designs of the bowls are ornate made of bright purple, red, orange, green New Zealand and Scottish wool wrapped around black plastic irrigation tubing ''and it slowly grows into a basket … everything is rather slow,'' she adds.

Along with Manning's exhibition, digital publisher Bobby Graham has compiled an art ebook in support of Belconnen Arts Centre. As exhibitions are ephemeral, Graham and Manning wanted to extend Manning's art beyond the temporary nature of the exhibition.

''We hope by making this ebook freely available, Jenny's work will reach a wider audience and give pleasure to many more people than just those attending the exhibition,'' Graham says.

Manning is also passionate about art education. She worked in the Education Department at the National Gallery of Australia for many years and as an art teacher at Hawker College and The Woden School.

''Education is the fundamental role of the [national] gallery and is a gateway to getting to know the gallery's collection,'' she says.

''I trained the guides and put on children's exhibitions. Seventy thousand school children a year were taken on interactive tours. It's a very vibrant department in the gallery.''

In May, Manning will travel to the Italian town of Puglia, with 12 budding Canberra artists from her weekly classes, to participate in art workshops run by British painters Leonie Whitton and David Westby.

Whitton and Westby left the UK and bought Il Collegio in Puglia, a derelict olive farm that they transformed into an artists' retreat.

''I love teaching adults,'' Manning says.

''There are a lot of retired people who want to learn how to paint and draw. It's also important to give little children the opportunity to express themselves through art - not just on an ipad.''