Naomi Zouwer: The enchantment of things. Megalo Print Gallery, 21 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston. Until August 20, 2022. megalo.org.
Can art give to the objects that surround us a special life and an enchanted existence? This is one of the questions posed in Naomi Zouwer's new exhibition at Megalo.
Several decades ago, Suzi Gablik published her much-quoted polemical text, The re-enchantment of art, that had a profound impact in some quarters of the art scene. In it, she continued her attacks on modernism as something that was "inherently isolationist" and disengaged from society and that it was alienating the practice of art from the broader public. Gablik argued that "what we will be seeing over the next few decades is art that is essentially social and purposeful, art that rejects the myths of neutrality and autonomy".
It may be argued that in the 21st century art has indeed become more socially engaged, although how accessible it is to the broader community may still be debated. Fewer artists speak about the "purity" of art or address it exclusively in formal terms of colour, structure and design. The figurative dimension in art comfortably coexists with the work of artists who continue to work in an abstract language.
Zouwer is a Canberra-based artist who seamlessly moves between painting, drawing, textiles and printmaking and who in her art practice employs objects that surround her and have special significance to her. Her parents had migrated to Australia in the 1950s, her father from Holland and her mother from Finland, and in their domestic interiors, through the objects that adorned them, they recreated the feel for their homelands. Some of these objects were inherited by the artist and they became symbolically charged and, in Zouwer's art, they brought with them the rich fabric of associations from the lives of their owners.
During the period of the bushfires and then the extended COVID-19 lockdown, Zouwer, like many artists, underwent a period of introspection. For a time, she decided to paint one object a day in her studio and found particularly fruitful the contents of her sewing box with its ribbons, bits of fabric, sequins and especially the Ric Rac trimming.
Lily Withycombe, in the catalogue essay for this exhibition, observes that the more Zouwer examined the Ric Rac trimming and "traced its disordered windings, the more it felt a metaphor for the hazardous, unseen elements in our smoky and diseased air". In 2021 Zouwer undertook a residency at Megalo where these paintings, drawings and collages were translated into lithographs, etchings and screen prints with the assistance of professional Megalo printers. The exhibition investigates the process of translation and, in a number of instances, we see the collages and the paintings that grew out of these objects and their realisation in the form of prints.
The enchantment of things possesses a strong sense of seductive narrative as the viewer is drawn into the metamorphosis of these humble small objects that are easily overlooked in their usual domestic setting, into intriguing and slightly enigmatic creations. Ribbons, hair dryers or a rug beater transcend their usual mundane existence and become the wondrous and enchanted objects in Zouwer's prints.
Exhibiting source material alongside the finished print does demystify the process but also demonstrates the ability of art to transcend the banality of reality. A screen print like Long Days #2 or the lithographs The rug beater and You can't see it but it's there have an effective but tantalising presence, like a record of something that exists, but that is slightly mysterious and intangible.
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