Thanks to countless sitcoms, the nuanced realities of office work are common knowledge. Not so with agriculture. Few non-farmers have much sensibility for the tools, techniques or cycles of farm life. Curated by Melissa McGrath, Sheep Show is a project that tenderly elaborates on the material nature of the ovine industry. McGrath observes the sterility of the clingwrapped supermarket lamb chop and the disembodied newsprint politics of livestock exports, and asks, “What happens in between? How can we engage with the care, knowledge and skill of running stock?”
A large sculpture upholstered with unrefined fleece by Den Scheer will hang in the gallery, radiating the pungency of lanolin. Scheer’s family own a sheep station east of Perth, and the artist supplies her collaborator Eric C with wool for spinning and canvas bale bags for quilting.
In the paintings of Laverton-based artist Doreen Harris, sheep farming is writ with bright colour and elevated perspective. Her paintings romanticise the messy, earthy nature of the work: freshly-shorn flanks speckled with blood and dust, wonky fences and the soft, heavy chaos of animal bodies crowding together.
A woollen garment machine-knitted by Emma Buswell illustrates the apocryphal tale of Shrek, a Merino who escaped Bendigo Station in New Zealand for six years, growing a record-weight fleece in his liberty. “Emma’s work shows that sheep farming isn’t just work: it can support local culture. People build stories and traditions from it.” A felted piece about matrilineal heritage by Katrina Virgona and “animal portraiture” by Alistair Taylor round out the exhibition.
McGrath’s approach has been influenced by visiting agricultural shows like the Dowerin Field Day. “These events make the kind of farm work my grandparents did visible. The finest animals are paraded in beautiful rosettes, women demonstrate yarn spinning, people drink cups of tea beside the alpaca pens. The sheep trade is a global industry, but at agricultural shows its local, personal realities are celebrated: family structures, town economies, community culture.”
This article was originally published in the May/June print edition of Art Guide Australia.
Mundaring Arts Centre is currently open with social distancing and hygiene measures in place.