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Standing in front of Leora Sibony‘s Industrial Relations at Lismore Regional Gallery it is hard not to be reminded of some of the Dada-infused German art of the 1920s, such as works by George Grosz and in particular Max Ernst (his The Elephant Celebes and Ubu Imperator especially) in which technology, machinery and industry become a brutal force designed to enslave and mutilate humanity.

Yet while there is certainly something slightly macabre in a couple of Sibony’s paintings, this impression is soon dwarfed by the immensely charming playfulness with which this Mullumbimby-based artist injects her depictions of canisters, silos, propellers, engines, furnaces and other examples of 20th century technology that now verge on the obsolete.

Such imagery is reminiscent on one hand of the highly atmospheric, slightly spooky sugar cane mills that dot the landscape in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, yet in several paintings one can identify the unmistakeable outline of the water towers that are still such an iconic feature of the Manhattan skyline (indeed Sibony’s Castles in the Sky exhibition of 2016 was directly inspired by a trip to New York). In this way, Sibony is able to tap into the poetry of her local landscape as well as add to the well-trodden tradition of wistfully romanticising those more exotic water towers.

Instead of the tools and objects of industry representing any kind of dystopia, Sibony elects to bring endearing, almost cute, creaturely qualities to her paintings of ostensibly inanimate things.

Take So Happy To See You, 2017, for example, in which a chimney or furnace-like construction stands proudly like a duck. Elsewhere, some of her marvellous sculptures (made up of old kettles, wiring, chunks of metal, wood and found objects) suggest great big worms or strangely warped limbs.

And herein lies that slightly disturbing quality that beautifully balances the wit and serenity of other pieces. The painting The Endless Road II, 2017, in which some sort of large three-pronged electric plug strikes a pose reminiscent of a scorpion, has the suggestion of the infamous beasts of Francis Bacon, while Intimate Systems II, 2016, another sculpture, evokes the grim skeleton of a small animal you might see in a natural history museum. Sibony’s animalisation of the equipment of an industrial age that is quite literally decaying is a highly effective, and eccentric, exercise in zoomorphism.

Leora Sibony_So nice to meet you_2017_oil on canvas
Leora Sibony, So nice to meet you, 2017, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist.

Industrial Relations is one of several new exhibitions in the newly reopened Lismore Regional Gallery, following the extensive transformation of a two-storey building that was once part of Lismore High School. And while there are works on a grander or more experimental scale elsewhere in the new space, it is Sibony’s show that lingers in the mind and rewards multiple viewings.

On one hand she is celebrating pure shape and form: the curve of a tank, the snaking path of a pipe. On another, she is illustrating the almost childlike human need to find emotion and relations (as the exhibition’s title indicates) in ‘things.’ In the aforementioned So Happy To See You, a furnace has a ‘nose,’ in the painting Anonymous Sculpture, 2017, stoves or tanks appear to wear hats. Sibony embraces our tendency to project human qualities on to junk, bringing a warm and almost loving appreciation to otherwise fairly humdrum objects. Industrial Relations can also, of course, be seen as an elegy for industrial structures and machines whose heyday is far behind them; a final heralding of apparatus that is fast becoming quaint, not to say ghostly. Sibony explores both possibilities in this elegant show.

Industrial Relations
Leora Sibony
Lismore Regional Gallery
29 October – 26 November

Barnaby Smith