G.W. Bot exhibition, Works on Paper gallery, Sydney

I’ve had posting an entry about this exhibition on my ‘to do’ list since December, when I came back from Sydney having visited it!

L-R: Australglyphs deciphered – Mother and Child; Australglyphs I; Australglyphs II
Lino cuts on Magnani paper
92 x 52; 92 x 52; 92 x 52 cms

I’ve been interested in G.W. Bot’s (AKA Christine Grishin’s) prints ever since I saw her calligraphic relief prints in a book on Australian printmaking by Sasha Grishin (whom I now know is her husband), which means I’ve been looking at her work for at least six years. I actually own one of her prints through the auspices of Imprint magazine’s annual series of commissioned prints – worth having now that she has been declared one of ‘australian art collector’s 50 most collectable artists for 2005’! ( reference from the Maunsell Wicks gallery website, although when I searched for the reference on their website I couldn’t find it, but then, you can’t find G.W. Bot on their website either unless you know the URL of the specific page on which to look!)

The name ‘G.W. Bot’ is both a pseudonym and a totem, providing the printmaker with anonymity and referencing her adoption of the wombat as her ’emblem’. I’m not sure – and she isn’t specific – about whether by quoting the Aboriginal tradition of using animals as clan totems she is also claiming Aboriginal ancestry. Her notes on the Gadfly gallery website simply say, “According to Aboriginal totemic belief, each member of a clan inherits a totemic relationship with a particular plant or animal of the region. I like this idea of oneness with the environment. Where I live wombats are especially prevalent and they have become my totemic animal. The earliest written reference to a wombat occurs in a French source where it is called “le grand Wam Bot,” and hence my exhibiting name – G.W. Bot”.

Glyphs I
Linocut on tapa paper
60 x 362 cms

I went to see Bot’s most recent exhibition Glyphs at the Australian Works on Paper gallery in the Sydney suburb of Paddington just before Christmas. The gallery itself is slightly more interesting than the average ‘white cube’ gallery space: the timber floor makes the space feel ‘warm’, and there are various levels up and down around which you have to move in order to see the work, and which give you different ‘views’ of the pieces. I like the space. It is intimate but not so small that it limits the white space around the works, and the staff are actually friendly and interested! I was positively encouraged to walk around and take photographs and notes – and all of this means that I will actively choose to go back there when I’m next in Sydney.

Anyway, there were over thirty works on show: mainly quite large lino cuts, with some pencil drawings, some watercolours, and one multi-part bronze sculpture in an upstairs room.

Glyphs
Pencil on Colombe paper
73 x 100 cms

G W Bot’s use of a pseudonym interests me, for as well as allowing her to retain a certain amount of privacy in her personal life it also reflects a ‘veiling’ of meaning in her art practice. If I look up her details on the internet I find surprisingly little information about the content and context of her work. I will discover that she lives in Canberra, and that the grasslands surrounding her home provide her with inspiration. I can also deduce from the titles of the series of works that she becomes engrossed in that she is interested in ‘the garden’ and that she has produced work that in some way reflects the importance of family in her life.

In some ways this avoidance of explanation appeals to me, as I find myself quite uncomfortable talking about the ideas that inform the content of some of my work. While there are clearly personal references in some pieces I would rather bury such intimacy and allow people to draw their own conclusions. I don’t want to go through the agony of explaining myself. Perhaps G.W.Bot feels the same? It brings to mind my responses to Tracy Emin’s work. Emin’s work is touching, painful, confessional, personal and reflective of some of my own experiences. But do I want to be as self-revelatory as Emin? With her work I wonder if the searing honesty of it isn’t searing her too: at what point does it go beyond the therapeutic and become damaging? The endless urge to reveal all can become addictive, and as much a signifier of trauma and stress as the original incidents.

An Australian Language
Linocut on Magnani paper
92 x 59 cms

The problem with not saying anything at all is that it can place a barrier between the viewer and the work, as well as the between the viewer and the artist. At some point the relationship between the viewer and the work breaks down through lack of information. Sometimes I come up against a dead-end in ‘reading’ someone else’s work if I’m cannot make a connection between the image and my experience and interests, or I cannot reference what I know about the artist’s experience and interests. Art is a vehicle for expressing something: feeling, emotion, knowledge, poetry… all sorts of different things. If it isn’t outward looking it is inward looking: by saying nothing explicit it says something implicit. I guess you can argue with me about the ‘inherent meaning’ of art or whether it is possible for art to say nothing, or whether it’s important that the viewer ‘receives’ something from the artist in the act of viewing a piece of art. But for me it is all about a sense of connection: something in what I am looking at connects with me, and I find it difficult – maybe impossible – to appreciate pieces of art when I find it difficult to make a connection on any level.

Does it matter if I don’t have biographical, historical or contextual information about an image? I suppose that for me the answer is, ‘No – as long as I’m getting something interesting out of the image, but I can only go so far’. I’m a picky viewer: I want some information, just not too much! I am, in fact, quite happy to make things up and imagine biography/history/context – if there’s enough in the image for me to start with…

Australglyphs VI
Linocut on Magnani paper
92 x 52 cms

So maybe the questions for me about G.W. Bot’s work are, ‘Am I getting enough out of the images?’ and, ‘What clues is the artist leaving for me?’ The biggest clue left by Bot about the meaning attached to some of her work, at least, is that she is ‘particularly attracted by Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas on morphic resonances and morphic fields[1]. Briefly, the suggestion is that all things – organic and inorganic – influence (and are influenced by) “fields” around them, so that if a chemical crystalises in a certain way once, the next time circumstances arise in which the same kind of chemical might crystalise it will crystalise in the same way as its predecessor because the first crystal to do so left a ‘morphic resonance’ which subsequent crystals pick up on, and so on into the animate world as well as the inanimate world.

Gift of Tongues
Linocut on Magnani paper
70.5 x 100 cms

How might this relate to Bot’s work? Well I’m guessing in saying that she detects ‘connectedness’ in the natural world, seeing the same patterns and forms arising in the grasslands around her Canberra home. I’m a cynical rationalist rather than a romantic idealist and find morphic fields, in Sheldrake’s system, about as likely as the idea that position of a toilet in my house will affect my future wealth, but there you go. I find it more interesting that Bot raises the connection between morphology as a study of the form of living things and in the study of language, because I have always seen her work as very calligraphic.

Glyphographic Drawing
Bronze relief sculpture
708 x 135 cms

I see Bot in the tradition of Fred Williams. The genius of Williams was in what he left out as much as what he put in. So many artists gape when confronted with the Australian landscape, but Williams expressed the vastness and the complexity with minimalist elegance. So I find with Bot’s work. The first image of hers that I came across was a series of black squiggles on a neutral ground that expressed – you could tell from the title – a land after burning. Another artist might have put in more detail, but in fact none was needed: the loops and curls of the lines were sufficiently twisted and bent to suggest scorching and heat, cracked timber and leafless branches, but also a sort of endurance and potential for new life.

Glyphographic Drawing (detail)

In the end, what do I conclude? I find Bot’s work compelling: it speaks to me of a landscape that I have seen. I’m not intimate with the landscape around Canberra although I have driven through it, but I’ve seen scorched trees and seared grasslands, dust storms and twisted eucalypt trunks elsewhere. I identify the restricted palette and the austere marks as essentially Australian, and I place Bot within a visual tradition that encompasses Aboriginal artists and non-indigenous artists such as Fred Williams. Her work speaks to me, but how I wish I knew a little bit more about what it was saying.

[1] Sheldrake, Rupert, Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham, Chaos, creativity and cosmic consciousness, Park Street Press, Vermont 2001, quoted in Klepac, Lou, G W Bot: Morphic Fields exhibition catalogue, Hart Gallery, London 2004

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT © G.W.BOT

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