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Miriam Stannage: time framed

In September 2016, Miriam Stannage, one of Western Australia’s senior artists, died. She was 77 years old. In 2015 she was honoured as a Living Treasure by the WA Department for Culture and the Arts. Shortly before her death, Stannage was the subject of a major survey show curated by Lee Kinsella titled, Miriam Stannage: Survey 2006 — 2016, at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of WA.

Kinsella edited a monograph in conjunction with the exhibition, Miriam Stannage: time framed, which traces the trajectory of both Stannage’s work and her personal history. Kinsella’s introduction to this book is reproduced here with permission.

1998.9P  Tom Gibbons, Miriam Stannage, 1984, photocopy, ink and acrylic, 48.6x57.6 cm (h,w), The University of Western Australia Art Collection, McGillivray Bequest Fund, 1998
Tom Gibbons, Miriam Stannage, 1984, photocopy, ink and acrylic, 1/5, 48.6.x 57.6 cm. The University of Western Australia Art Collection, McGillivray Bequest Fund, 1998.

Introduction: Miriam Stannage: time framed

Miriam Stannage’s art practice is an ongoing interrogation of the slippage between what we see, what we read and what we know. For more than fifty years she has challenged herself to experiment and to forge a distinct practice. In a note scrawled in the mid-1970s she gave an insight into her approach:

“Talked to Robert Bell – he says he knows what people want and feels just to be perverse he will do the opposite – I feel the same … How could it be done and keep alive one’s own individuality?”(1)

Her conscious decision to bypass professional art training may in part account for her ability to quickly assimilate new ideas and incorporate new media across a broad range of genres.

She engages with contemporary events and news reportage, testing and adapting their visual expression in her work to ensure a vitality of both form and content. While her works may initially appear to have little in common in a formal sense, they are founded upon the artist’s ongoing exploration of key themes: life, death, the spiritual and a quest for what makes life meaningful. Her almost compulsive return to these themes imbues her practice with a particular richness as she interweaves past work with art-historical and religious references and material drawn from popular culture.

The Stannage family recognised that both Miriam and her younger brother, Tom, were highly capable individuals. The siblings were confident in their respective abilities and were sustained by their unequivocal Christian faith. As a result of their religious upbringing they were imbued with a particular subjectivity that engendered a somewhat distant relationship with the commercial and popular aspects of contemporary life. Their liberal, educated family encouraged freedom of thought and creativity, with intellect recognised as an attribute to be channelled and committed to advancement for the common good.

Miriam Stannage was a well-recognised and well-respected artist when she married English academic and artist Tom Gibbons on 22 November 1980. Their thirty-year creative and personal partnership was a cornerstone in the artist’s life and art. Stannage and Gibbons were recognised for their generosity and warmth as teachers.(2) The couple enjoyed sharing their knowledge and were eager for others to engage with their passions and share their enjoyment of written and visual culture. They did much to support and encourage other artists and contributed to the life and culture of Perth, which included regular social gatherings at their home. Miriam hosted Sunday open afternoons at her flat in Daglish, and later Tom organised regular film nights at Bagot Road, Subiaco.(3) The couple were also highly supportive of each other and together they carefully manoeuvred their way through difficult, emotionally laden terrain.

An example of a particularly galling incident was the publication of a scathing review by the renowned Australian photographer Max Dupain of Stannage’s photographic prints and collages from her Homage to Sight series, 1981, which were on display at Hogarth Galleries, Sydney, in May 1982. Dupain took particular umbrage at her Mona Lisa with cataract, 1981, in which the artist had overlaid an image of an opaque cataract from an ophthalmology textbook upon Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait. Dupain claimed that she had ‘blasphemed the Mona Lisa’.(4) Tom was entirely supportive of Miriam’s challenge to the Sydney Morning Herald in stating that the review, combined with the cartoon that accompanied it, was ‘unfair to my reputation as an artist’.(5) A formal apology was published in the paper on 10 June 1982.

mona-low-res
Miriam Stannage, Mona Lisa with cataract, 1981 from, Homage to Sight, series, hand coloured silver gelatin photograph, 50.7 x 40.5cm. Courtesy of the artist’s estate.

In effect Dupain was responding to the challenge issued by Stannage in wreaking havoc on traditions of art history and photography that he considered sacrosanct. By presenting the Mona Lisa as suffering from a cataract Stannage was contesting the smooth and seamless narratives that often surround traditions of art, and exposed the weakness of Dupain’s inflexible and somewhat one-eyed championing of a singular and ‘pure’ fine print tradition of photography. Rather than viewing the use of collage and appropriated imagery as a metamorphosis or development of photographic practice, Dupain saw it as a grotesque transgression.

Stannage is a humanist, and her respect for humanity is manifest in a practice devoted to elucidating and critiquing the human condition. For her there is no separation between art and life. The art practice of this self-described introverted personality is a means of negotiating the difficulties of human relations and attempting to make sense of catastrophic events. She creates works of art to work through an issue or interrogate a concept, but always with an audience in mind. Throughout her career she has found innovative and unusual solutions when confronted by limited opportunities to exhibit her work.

The launching of her commercial gallery, Rhode Gallery, in 1965 is one such example. Another is the leasing of a commercial shopfront on the corner of Churchill Avenue and Rokeby Road in Subiaco in 1991. The venue was within easy walking distance of the couple’s home, and so the artist was able to change the display of her work every two to three weeks for over a year – and did so without a single sale. It was a highly unconventional display of art, and an unexpected ‘intervention’ for shoppers in Subiaco in providing intelligent and critical commentary on consumerist society and modern materialist obsessions. In January 1992 paintings and drawings from the Survival series, 1988, were on display in the shopfront, and later her Kodak Slide paintings from 1974. For another display period, Stannage created an installation by placing a female mannequin behind a shower curtain alongside two ‘No Loitering’ signs and entitling the piece Suzanna and the elders, 1992. Suzanna and the elders likens the shoppers who aspire to own and consume objects in shop windows to the voyeuristic and lecherous practices of the elders from the biblical tale who watched Suzanna bathe before attempting to blackmail her into having sex with them. Miriam Stannage, like Suzanna, retains her virtue in refusing to be embroiled in the power play. She maintains a distance from the trappings of the commercial art world to be revealed as an artist who is concerned with direct and meaningful engagement with her audience.

As observed in Suzanna and the elders, Stannage exhibits a rare combination of religiosity and a sense of humour. Hers is a playful, sometimes macabre, wit that is often paired with an open and frank engagement with human sexuality. Many of her works critique sexually charged male–female relations, including her 1976 collaged interrogations of the couple in van Eyck’s famous The Arnolfini portrait, 1434, and photographs from the Noah and the flood – the seven deadly sins, 1984, Paradise Lost, 2008, and Marilyn and Elvis (Spirit Photographs), 2009–10, series, which expose the triumphs, privations and difficulties of intimate heterosexual relationships.

paradise-lost
Miriam Stannage, Untitled from Paradise Lost series, 2008, lightjet photograph, 70 x 100 cm. The University of Western Australia Art Collection, University Senate Grant, 2014 © Miriam Stannage.

Miriam Stannage has had two major retrospective exhibitions to date. The first,Miriam Stannage: Perception 1969–1989 was presented in 1989 by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, curated by Seva Frangos assisted by Margaret Moore; and the second, Miriam Stannage: Sensations, was curated by Ted Snell and presented at the John Curtin Gallery in 2006. She has received various honours for her contributions as a teacher and artist, including an honorary doctorate from Curtin University in 1998 and the accolade of ‘State Living Treasure’ in 2015. Stannage’s works are held in state and national public art collections throughout Australia, and in important private and corporate collections.(6)

This publication, and the related exhibition of Stannage’s recent work held at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia in July 2016, have been produced in recognition of a remarkable artist whose work is deserving of further consideration. Chapter 1 is largely biographical and organised in a chronological manner and is followed by a section devoted to images of her major works. The remaining three chapters are themed in order to delve across the expanse of Stannage’s practice: word and image in Ted Snell’s ‘Observing Miriam Stannage’, expression of the intangible in ‘The space in between’ by Lee Kinsella, and discussion of death and disasters in Helen Ennis’ ‘Aids to survival’.

The book is not a definitive biography or account of the work of an artist, but seeks to provide new information and interpretation to permit a greater engagement with Stannage’s eloquent and highly coded works. This publication details the work of an independent, capable and pragmatic artist who continues to forge her own distinct and enduring art practice. She remains resolutely defiant in continuing to flout standard conventions and expectations to produce remarkable works of art.

Lee Kinsella

Miriam Stannage: time framed is available from UWA Publishing.

Notes:

1. Artist’s yellow notebook, c.1975, held in her personal archive. Robert Bell was at the time Curator of Craft and Design at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

2. Stanange has held many teaching positions – from her work as an art therapist in hospitals to part-time tutor at technical colleges from 1972, to her role as a part-time tutor at Curtin University until 1990.

3. Jeremy Kirwan-Ward recalls that Tom had invited him to several film nights when he was an art student, one of which was for the screening and discussion of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927. Conversations with Jeremy Kirwan-Ward, 20 November 2015.

4. Max Dupain, ‘Visual seduction where anything goes’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1982, p.8.

5. Letter from Miriam Stannage to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 1989, held in the artist’s personal files.

6. See collections p.197. Public collections include the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of South Australia; private and corporate collections include the Janet Holmes à Court Collection, the Kerry Stokes Collection and the Wesframers Collection of Australian Art.

Book Extracts