Deborah Klein

Deborah Klein's recent body of work, "Rückenfigur," explores the textures, techniques, and teachings that structure hidden histories of women's presence in art – both as creators and as subjects. The work represents a return to, and reflexive appraisal of, one of the artist's enduring themes: the (feminine) figure seen from behind.

In an artist’s statement accompanying the exhibition of this body of work at Queenscliff Gallery, Klein writes that the show “addresses a particularly divisive period in our history, when our state of disconnection – from ourselves, from each other and from the natural world – seems greater than ever before.” Her work’s engagement with ideas of disconnection is certainly timely, and well rounded, coming as it does after years of physical distancing from each other, continual environmental crisis, and new digitally-mediated patterns of social engagement which can leave us deeply isolated – by ourselves or in our echo chambers –  just as readily as they can connect us. The disconnections which Klein’s work traces, however, are also historical; taking women as her object of fascination, Klein has spent decades asking how women have been obscured, forgotten, or written over in (art) history. 

Klein’s women are rendered in the idiom of those material traditions often deemed “domestic,” or outside of the dominating traditions of “high art.” The lace collars which many of her subjects wear are, often, inspired by a collection of doilies the artist inherited from her late aunt, Eileen Klein. Their patterns are also draw from examples of lacework found in op shops, or from antique patterns found in the reference books accumulated in Klein’s collection. These works also owe some of their patterning to the work of May Morris, whose deft and highly celebrated work in textile design was often misattributed to her father, William, during her lifetime. 

Part of Morris’s legacy which is also inflected through Klein’s work is an interest in communities of creators – even if these communities be imagined – and in the sharing of knowledge, especially amongst women artists. Morris, who regularly took part in Arts & Crafts movement exhibitions, founded the Women’s Guild of Arts  in 1907. Klein’s interest in the knowledge shared through generational practices of “women’s work” is perhaps most astutely figured though her use of braiding as a motif. Intricate and highly technical braids adorn the heads of her women throughout Rückenfigur, in the places where we might otherwise expect to see faces. These braids have been a long-held interest for Klein, across work including the 2009 zine A Short Book About Long Hair, 2010’s Material Girls, 2015’s Hair Pieces, and others published with Moth Woman Press. The braid knots together gathered strands of hair into a carefully (and, often, lovingly) woven structure, flowing with a sense of narrative from beginning to fulfilment. It figures the passing down and the perfection of craft – including the crafting of the self – in women’s hands and homes, and the entanglement of individual hand and strands together.

Klein’s braids are characterful – sometimes revealing a single earring beneath their folds, or a ribbon shining through their bands. Still, they are always yet devices of concealment, withholding something of the very characters they represent. As Klein writes, “the Rückenfigur reflects a mood of quietude, self-containment and isolation.” These figures will be out of isolation, in the gallery space, until 10 July. 

23 June – 10 July 2022
Queenscliff Gallery, Victoria

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related