Call of the Small

13 August - 25 September 2010

Peter Bollington | Robert Boot | Sharon Cornthwaite | Jodie Cunningham | Linda Davy | Ampersand Duck | David Hodge | Jo Searle | Olivia Sherwood | Susan Stewart 

Shifts in scale present us with new ways of seeing the world, different ways of perceiving and understanding. Something that would normally appear so ordinary we may not notice it becomes a curio, a wonder, a precious object, when it is seen on a different scale. There is an element of virtuosity in the construction of the miniature; it draws us in, demands we focus; question the materials and the construction of the object. The miniaturist looks closely at life, taking a microscope or a magnifying glass to our world exploring the tiny, the overlooked, the subtle. Through the process of making, artists explore this world and construct new ones, real and imaginary.

An exhibition of contemporary craft and design, the Call of the Small features objects made at 1:12 scale by practitioners exploring themes of domesticity, experimenting with material, form and colour, and requiring a certain technical virtuosity. The confident and cohesive hang of this exhibition is all the more intriguing because it is presented in a showcase in the foyer of Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre.

The exhibition Call of the Small provides audiences with objects of wonder. The miniature knitting produced on 1mm needles intrigues and confounds. Sharon Cornthwaite and Jodie Cunningham’s wall hangings double as brooches, warping their relationships to space and the body with dual functions. Robert Boot’s turned acrylic objects evoke memories of vessels in glass and stone, while David Hodge’s book harks back to a tradition of micrographia, reminding me of Susan Stewart’s musings on the miniature in On Longing:

The social space of the miniature book might be seen as the social space, in miniature, of all books: the book as talisman to the body and emblem of the self; the book as microcosm and macrocosm; the book as commodity and knowledge, fact and fiction.[1]

The curator, Anna-Maria Sviatko, working around a theme of domestic environments, has carefully selected a series of works that complement each other, engage in dialogues, and draws the viewer in to consider their own relationships with objects and domestic spheres.

The works in the exhibition are presented in two separate spaces depicting four distinct domestic environments, however, clearly retaining the feel of a gallery.

The first environment I encountered had a warm atmosphere with most of the objects incorporating red or autumnal colours. I was drawn to Ampersand Duck’s hand printed letterpress posters, featuring letters of the alphabet, revealing her skill as a printer and the joy with which she approaches her medium. There is an element of humour in the installation of these works; the posters have been hung so they spell out R & D, causing me think about her making process, her awareness of the history and context of her practice, and her interest in pushing the boundaries.

The Timber trinket box made from mulga by Robert Boot sits on a plinth in front of the posters is exemplary of the craft of wood turning, simple and elegant in its form. The box is complemented by David Hodges’ hand-bound book on a plinth nearby. What are these two mystery objects for? We cannot see within; are they containers of memory, keepers of secrets, banks of knowledge, protectors of precious things?

The crisp materiality of the book and box is contrasted on a lower plinth by Olivia Sherwood’s series of organic felted objects. These pods, also containers, speak of a connection to the body. They are placed on a lower plinth in such a way as to draw you in, intrigue you, and make you wonder what’s inside.

Peter Bollington’s platform bench fits appropriately in this context. His combination of hard and soft materials, a timber-frame with a woven surface, echoes the contrasting media of the other works in the gallery. One piece breaks the formal atmosphere of this environment. Jennifer Howlett’s Basket with scarf – autumn is shown slouched on the floor near Bollington’s seat, as if a visitor to the gallery has casually placed it there, and wandered off leaving it behind.
Moving into the second environment there is a shift in atmosphere, more space, a certain coolness. Jo Searle’s wall works speak to me of winter gardens, of the bird-life in Canberra, of notions of nature present within our domestic worlds. These images converse with Linda Davy’s quirky Candelabra which also features a bird perched at its centre. Searle, trained as a ceramicist, has chosen this exhibition to experiment with a painted surface, creating gentle meditative images. Davy plays with notions of preciousness and desire, creating objects she herself would like to own.

In this section of the gallery I’m prompted to muse on the notion of the still-life. Olivia Sherwood’s pears remind me of paintings, luscious, sweet, speaking of autumn abundance, yet these felted forms provide a contradictory attraction, they are tactile, sculptural objects. These soft familiar forms are contrasted by Jennifer Howlett’s delicate and detailed silk shawl mounted on the wall. The shawl also presents us with a contradiction – it invites us to imagine it draped over our shoulders, a warm, light-as-spider-web wrapping, yet it is displayed as if an artefact – pinned to a wall in the same way textiles are exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia.

Peter Bollington’s lone modern chair in the centre of this environment provides the viewer with a location from which to contemplate the other objects. While obviously created with functionality in mind, it becomes a piece of sculpture in its own right, reminding me of large-scale abstract works by artists like Alexander Calder.

The third space is an absurd and mysterious room of imagination. Sharon Cornthwaite’s intriguing exotic cabinet filled with curious objects and shelves of natural wonders and man-made inventions are watched over by a mournful mounted Panda’s head. There is something strange and oriental about this tableau – it has a kind of gothic quality. A fan-shaped, knitted shawl becomes a massive wall hanging in this context, something glorious, heroic and simultaneously fragile. Situated nearby are more turned objects by Robert Boot, the black and white vessels speaking of ancient marble artefacts.

The fourth space is filled with pastel lolly-colours and dominated by Jodie Cunningham’s furniture and wall pieces. Further works by Searle, another series of three birds, this time in bright spring colours, engage with two of Cunningham’s abstract striped discs over a clean, clear acrylic table and stools.

Cunningham chose to construct a dinner table because of its association with family meals. The use of modernist styling references her own past and the interest that dominates her art practice, which is infused with references to abstraction, interior décor, and fabrics and flowers. It is a delightfully confident absorption of techniques and approaches which straddles, and happily challenges, the distinct traditional zones of high-art, craft and design. For this work Cunningham has used a barcode generator to create barcodes that spell out the names of each of her family members. These unique patterns form a personal codified narrative accessible only to Cunningham, layering the work with public and private meanings.

What intrigues me about this exhibition is that I imagine myself in these environments. I imagine entering the space, picking up the book, sitting on the bench, but I can only inhabit this space in my imagination.

In the words of Gaston Bachelard:

The miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains attributes of greatness.

Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.[2]

Kate M Murphy

Murphy is an artist who works with sculpture, performance installation and writing, and exhibits under the name of Ellis Hutch. She currently teaches in the Art Theory Workshop at the ANU School of Art.

1 Stewart, S. On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection, Duke University Press, Durham and London 1993
2 Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston 1992
Photo: Derek Ross.