Two poles protrude from the first-floor windows of Sarah Scout Presents. A long thin pennant flag hangs from each: HOUSE and WORK, their appliquéd letters read. The words are turned inwards to face each other like a double-page spread. Or two bodies in conversation.
From outside these flags blend into the signage of Collins Street: medical offices, hair salons, and the flapping banners of Sotheby’s next door. Located upstairs in a heritage chambers building, Sarah Scout doesn’t normally advertise its presence from the street - you have to be right inside the building before you see any signage - but now the gallery joins its neighbouring establishments in literally hanging out for business.
This is part of The Long Echo, a solo exhibition by Melbourne-based artist Nadine Christensen. A suite of paintings, kinetic sculptures and textiles, it’s an ambitious body of work that makes the most of the gallery’s self-described ‘domestically-scaled setting’ – both embracing and literally bursting out of the physical space.
In an artist talk, Christensen explains that the pennant shapes of HOUSE and WORK originate - like the artist’s own heritage - in Scandinavia. Known in technical terms as a vimpel, these long thin pennants are traditionally used as placeholders on official flag poles, or in private dwellings to indicate that the family is home. They signify a connection to place: the civic and the domestic, the ancestral and the colonial. I am here.
The materiality of these flags, their flapping fabric and appliqué, references traditions of making and mending. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this necessary domestic pursuit - whether decorative or functional - was often simply referred to as ‘work’; the qualifier of ‘needle’ was unnecessary. This was the major, ongoing, cyclical work of the house by women; its nature was a given.
So too, here, is the work of the artist assumed but not specified. Within the context of the flags it is at once conflated and separated from the work of the ‘house’, the home. Housework is work. Work occurs at home. Housework and work-work are of equal importance. Artwork is work. Art is for the house. House, work, house, work: the rhythm of the days.
In Christensen’s paintings, the detritus of both converge; background and foreground lurch, tilt, and flatten. Her assemblages of objects produce a kind of visual poetry in which a wrecked car, a wardrobe, a cut-paper stencil and a fly - each addressed with a different painterly approach - might sit together in unexpected conversation. The flat lavender-coloured ground of Wardrobe (2017-18) might be a domestic feature wall; the silken surface of this work is broken by a textured towel hanging on a doorknob.
Every decision is deliberate. The edges are sharp, except when they’re not; the surfaces technically flawless, except when the paint is sponged on or scratched away. Everywhere there are overlaps, holes, objects viewed through gaps. We end up looking through the paintings, trying to gauge their ground. There’s a missing drawer-handle in Wardrobe I can’t stop looking at: a space the size of a pin-prick that somehow has the force of a black hole. Flies are a repeated motif; also objects that fly (kites, flags); also blue painters’ tape, ribbon-like but stuck down, painted so precisely as to require several looks, just to check. Wheelbarrows and cars. Domestic trappings, boundaries, metaphors of freedom, layered and layered and rearranged in a never-resolving cycle.
The exhibition includes several interactive works embedded within the gallery’s architecture. A wooden crank handle in one room, attached to a pulley system, sets a large wall-mounted object - a kind of giant pinwheel with silken flags - spinning in another room across the corridor. The turner of the handle, however, can only glimpse this - you have to ask someone else for help in order to see the piece in action. It’s another cycle, another half-seen motif, another I am here.
In a series of small, loose works that accompany - and perhaps act as conceptual blueprints for - the major series of paintings, Christensen employs a rudimentary technique akin to potato-stamp printing. Using the short edge of a piece of layered cardboard dipped in paint, the artist forms angular words gleaned from the language of self-help and domestic isolation. ‘Hang in there’, one encourages. ‘She doesn’t get out much,’ says another - whether with empathy, derision or pity is unclear. These are displayed in the office space, separate from the rest of the work. I’m not entirely sure they’re necessary for this exhibition; they spell out in corrugated cardboard what the rest of the work hints at in more sophisticated visual language. Still, there’s something refreshing about including these awkward texts, these notes-to-self; evidence both of a daily interior tug-of-war and of the ongoing studio practice that necessitates breaking free from impeccably-honed technique into rough-and-ready experimentation.
Paired with The Long Echo, in the front space known as the ‘Salon,’ is Tai Snaith’s A World of One’s Own. A salon is a reception space for welcoming visitors so it’s an apt setting for this work, which extends and expands on a podcast that Snaith has been producing since 2017. (The first season, originally titled A World of Her Own, was made for ACCA’s landmark 2017 exhibition Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism.) In each episode Snaith sits down with a different female or non-binary artist, leading intimate conversations around practice, process, and the work/life blur - often taking in motherhood, community and teaching practices as well as the stuff of the studio.
In parallel to the podcast, Snaith produces objects and paintings in response to each conversation, and it is these that are exhibited here for the first time. Conch shells, chains, a willy-wagtail, a braid, a pair of porcelain forms: translations, rather than illustrations, of the ideas that emerge from each interaction. They are elegant and varied propositions for living and working, making and being. Like the podcast itself this is an ongoing series, and the first iteration is a rich glimpse into the generous and generative nature of Snaith’s work.
While the first series of A World of One’s Own focused on established Melbourne-based practitioners like Sally Smart, Patricia Piccinini, Maree Clarke and Lou Hubbard, the second series shifts to engage with mid-career practitioners - Agatha Gothe-Snape, Esther Stewart, Sanné Mestrom, Lucreccia Quintanilla - and up-and-coming artists like Archie Barry and Atong Atem. I’ve been listening to the podcast for a few months now, often during my commute between work and home, home and work; also while making art - at home, in the studio, in between the two. I’ve found it illuminating, erudite and reassuring by turns: a kind of conversational ‘hang in there.’
Meditating on the spaces of life and work, both exhibitions grasp the objects and ideas of the everyday and rearrange them. They both reach out beyond themselves, beyond the gallery, the house, the picture plane. Both stick their flags out of windows to flap gently amidst the detritus of the world.
Anna Dunnill is an artist and writer living in Narrm / Melbourne. Her current research focuses on queerness, craft practice,religion and tattooing.