Standing in front of Paul Yore’s Spoils of War, 2015, is like being yelled at from a moving car. There are insults, flashing lights and a whole lot of loud. It’s obscene, sure. And as if to make the point, his map of Australia is decorated with buttons (like tiny visual trigger warnings) and a red extension cord feeds into the work through a slit in, you guessed it, Tasmania. But the real shock value comes not so much from the words he chooses but from their cold familiarity.
Yore’s map sets the tone for Can’t Touch This, a small group exhibition at Verge Gallery in Sydney featuring artists working with textiles. The 10 artists selected by curator Miriam Kelly owe an obvious debt to the feminists of the 1970s (and after) who reclaimed the decorative arts to talk about gender and identity. But Can’t Touch This tackles a much broader set of issues, all linked by the idea of marginalisation.
The ubiquity of textiles in everyday life, which often stops us from really seeing them, is something many of the artists in the show use to their advantage. Mumu Mike Williams, for example, rewords the anti-theft warnings on utilitarian postal bags in Postbag Painting, 2016. Australia becomes Anangu, one of the language groups in Central Australia, and bag becomes Ngaru, a bush food. It’s a find-and-replace that flips assumptions about control and ownership.
Raquel Ormella also makes the unseen seen again. For Workers Blues, 2016, she pulled apart navy workwear and turned it into a patchwork canvas that hangs like a discarded protest banner. By exposing the seams and previously hidden parts of the garments she shows just how faded and worn the clothes really are. Her labour exposes the labour of the workers. And by cutting the word ‘Nullius’ into the cloth, Ormella reminds us of the old colonial comfort-lie, and prompts us to consider the legacy of these workers and what their labour has built or destroyed.
Kate Just also considers power and labour, but in a very different way. Her 2011–2013 work is a response to the history of the Palaeolithic Venus of Willendorf figurine, and it spells out ‘Venus’ in large cardboard letters across the gallery floor. Each letter is encased in fabric that has been knitted by Just and 55 other women. Made from tough jute string, the fabric is not just decorative. It also seems to shape and contain the letters, but the relationship is not made entirely clear. The tension here comes from thinking about what would happen to the cardboard letters, and the language and power structures they represent, if the network made by the women was removed. Total collapse? A tilt? Nothing at all?
There’s a very different kind of power-play in the 2017 works by Carla Adams, woven portraits of losers she has met on Tinder. There’s Luke (Women are a lesser form of men) and Ashley (I wouldn’t even fuck you with my dad’s dick). By using artwork titles like this, she sets up a compelling dissonance between the violence in their words and the gormless, open-mouthed expressions on their faces. The human brain is not designed to easily compute this sort of threat.
Then there are the exuberant, soft-sculpture portraits by Marlene Rubuntja, Three Women from Yarrenyty-Arltere, 2014, and a suite of odd totemic objects by Chantal Fraser called #traditionalblurredlines, 2017. These objects call to mind both tribal masks and Kmart’s range of pineapple homewares and they are a fittingly piecemeal/piecework take on cultural appropriation.
Kelly rounds out the exhibition with works by Claudia Nicholson, Christine Dean and Troy-Anthony Bayliss.
Taken all together, Can’t Touch This is an ode to the provocative power and diversity of contemporary textile practices.