Heather Ellyard + Hanna Kay

The two final exhibitions for Janet Clayton Gallery’s permanent exhibition space feature the work of Victorian-based artist Heather Ellyard and Israel-born, Australian painter Hanna Kay. Both artists chatted to Artist Profile about their latest bodies of work.

Heather, what drives your art practice?

Heather Ellyard: There are artists who love the paint, the fall of light, the reality of representation, or the essence of abstraction, but that is not the core of my work. I’m not tied to technique. I pick up and use what I need to address the ragged edges of history, the tribulations of geo-politics and the uncertainty of truths.

I use carbon, bone and salt, grids, bell-jars, and rubber looping. I use blackboards and generic dolls covered in words. And I use granite from home, where there used to be gold among the ancient rocks. The need for meaning is always there, pushing, shoving and making unstoppable claims. In an atmosphere of global imbalance, violence and suffering, I need to pay attention to my time, to remember, to empathise and to make art that matters. And beauty may be a by-product.

Tell us about your latest series.

HE: Continuum 6: hum with me the lullaby of stone is the exhibition title and first work in my show at Janet Clayton Gallery. It’s a 4-metre-long grid composed of 120 parts. I use the stability of the grid to make fluid associations of image and text. One thing leads to another, in gestalts or seepages, depending on how the eye roams and where the heart pauses. For me, it’s a way of making bone-poems, essential and condensed. For the viewer, it is a different way of looking.

Words are so central to your works. Can you elaborate?

HE: More and more, words are my paint and the structures I choose are my composition. This is where the grids come in, and the hundreds of generic calico dolls, tumbling into or lining up in various contexts.

This exhibition literally speaks for itself. The Peoples’ Scroll is a 2-metre-long, opaque reminder of our humanness. It’s covered in words, delicate, difficult and hopeful. Another work, No word is ever abandoned, is a blackboard grid made entirely of chalk-words, while Did you speak to me and I didn’t know is a dithyramb embedded in one square on which is also written: tell me your name again. Songlines is an 18-part framed grid work about the austere land where I live in Central Victoria – it’s more a collection of grace-notes than a landscape painting. Entanglements is a smaller grid of what I glimpse in the bush, stunned by how tree-branch and plant-root and blood-vessel are connected.

I believe words help us to understand and to share. ‘The world is transformed by speech’ wrote Nahum Glatzer, twentieth-century Judaic scholar, disciple of Martin Buber and father of my friend, Judith Wechsler, American filmmaker.

I draw words, poems of soot and carbon calligraphy. ‘Hum with me for distances and falling stars like molecules, and solitude itself’, I wrote into the work.

What next?

HE: I’m currently preparing a large format art and text book which will explore all six continuum grids, in sections, and include thematically related work since 2012. It’s titled The Continuum Project: a trajectory. There are silences in my work that will take time to absorb. The book will be a platform, a pause. I am collecting words against oblivion.

Hanna, what has inspired your latest series, ‘Equilibrium 2’?

Hanna Kay: This body of work is inspired by my immediate natural surroundings in the small rural village in which I live. My daily walks are framed by fields of feral grasses and weeds stretching from one side where the trees edge the river bank, to the other side, reaching the slopes of the ranges. In some seasons, the dew on the tall weeping stalks will glitter in the rising sun, while the setting evening sun catches the tips of motionless grasses turning the fields bronze. At other times the grasses are short, either frost bitten or drought thirsty. At best we call this multiplicity of flora cattle feed, but usually they are simply annoying weeds.

At first, in my fenced property, weeds were not welcome. I’d attempted to control their invasion only to be kept at bay by the realisation of the arbitrary nature of the definition ’weed’. I intended to replace unwanted ‘ugly’ vegetation with an assortment of what I had considered beautiful and desirable plants.  Definitions mark the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’, the ‘useful’ from the ‘obnoxious’. Nature itself does not have any such intrinsic attributes. Every thought we formulate, every value we attribute, every adjective we articulate in regard to the natural environment is our projection, our cultural constructions.

A fence marks the boundaries of my land. There are also patrolled invisible fences marking the boundaries between different colour, race and beliefs of people who inhabit the land.

Many of the paintings are titled with the term ‘Shibboleth’.  What is this referring to?

HK: ‘Shibboleth’ is taken from my native language Hebrew, and it means ‘ear of grain’. For me, in addition to personal memories of singing odes to the harvest of the land, it evokes the Biblical myth of a massacre of members of one tribe by their brothers – the legend tells that after their defeat by the Gileadites, the Ephramites tried to escape across the Jordan River. Stationed next to the banks of the river, the Gileadites would ask each person attempting to cross to say the word ‘shibboleth’. The Ephramites, who were unable to enunciate ‘sh’ sounds, would say ‘sibboleth’, thus revealing their identity. The Gileadites slaughtered 42,000 members of the Ephrime tribe.

Historically, the word was used as a pronunciation test to identify the ‘other’. These days it has a wide range of common meanings and is used differently in several disciplines, including semiotics, linguistic and philosophy. This body of work intends to draw attention to the arbitrariness of definitions, in particular when it comes to our treatment of the environment and its people, be it refugees on the other side of the world, or neighbours’ ‘otherness’ that disturbs our fenced equilibrium.

How do the works filter this theme of ‘otherness’ through the landscape?

HK: Experiences of the peculiarity of the ‘other’ does not always have to do with pain and intrusions. Nature is just another way of meeting that which is different to us. Whether inspiring or threatening, the working of nature’s forces is inscribed on rocks, trees, deserts, and mountains. The presence of natural forces that may at any moment act upon any place (fenced or unfenced) is evidenced in each of the works. The depicted natural phenomena intend to evoke an unforgiving Nature, which is oblivious to us and our social and cultural constructions. The paintings are personal, remembered encounters of the landscape and an attempt to highlight the tension between human transiency and the resilience of the natural environment.

Heather Ellyard | CONTINUUM 6: hum with me the lullaby of stone
Hanna Kay | Equilibrium 2
30 May – 24 June, 2018
Janet Clayton Gallery, Sydney

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