An Essay on Subtext

By Eleanor Scicchitano

Linked under the banner of ‘the liberal arts’, visual art and literature are united in their shared quest to explore, celebrate and create beauty, tragedy and the human condition. At the core of both these traditions is a desire for the creators to tell stories that enable understanding through exploration. The artists who are exhibiting as part of Subtext have chosen to use language and text as a starting point for their works, extending the reach of the written word and its ability to inspire thought and create beauty.

Textile artist and printmaker Barbara Coddington uses a number of techniques to create one-off unique pieces from objects that began life as multiples. Inspired by her work with zines, typically low budget, often-photocopied magazines, she began to hand stich and print onto these papers. This simple action elevates the work to the status of high art object through its newfound unique characteristics. These actions mask sentences and meanings, inviting the viewer to look more deeply at what this everyday paper is trying to tell them. This new body of work continues her exploration of the use of text and the way in which new meaning can be mined from the pages of a book that is no longer educational or useful in its original form.

Tim Gaze works with digital techniques to force us to look again at how we read and understand language. Each word in his glitch poems has been manipulated, stretched and distorted to challenge the way we view the written word. Rather than glancing over the text we have to stop, look carefully and mentally reconfigure these words in order to gain meaning from them. In these works the text appears to be melting and sliding along the page, it is slowly drooping and moving under the gaze of the viewer. These works are not part of a passive viewing experience but rather they engage us and make us stop and work in order to gain meaning.

Piece by Mark Niehus
Piece by Mark Niehus

For many of the artists in Subtext poetry and prose provide a starting point for their practice. Mark Niehus works through art in order to make his poetry more accessible to his audience. This extension of the written word, with pen and ink illustrating his thoughts, enables him to draw his viewer in, before revealing the depth of the poem buried within the image. Where Gaze aims to challenge the way in which we engage with text and the written word, Niehus draws us in, tempting us with lush illustrations that provide clues to decipher his meaning.

It is with a trick of light rather than a lush pen that Sonali Patel brings her story to life. Placing her bust, a sculptural form that was typically used to capture beauty or celebrate power through representation, atop a mirror audience members literally see themselves reflected in this piece. Covering the sculpture are snippets from the story of Narcissus, the youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and subsequently wasted away, unable to do anything but stare.  Viewers are drawn perilously close to this same fate when they first notice their own face reflected back at them, breaking the spell as they try to see the rest of the sculpture. Patel has brought this tale to life and acts to challenge ideas of beauty, representation and the role that self-reflection plays in the life of an artist.

Polina Kynazeva’s images begin as pencil drawings, brought to life and colour through the new technology of digital drawing. The delicate and detailed illustrations bring to life the time-honoured classic Alice in Wonderland, bringing to life the colourful characters as they exist in Kynazeva’s world of imagination. This is her interpretation of this tale and each of the works challenges our memories of this familiar story.

Through the works in Subtext audiences are introduced to the depth and variety of ways in which the worlds of the visual arts and literature can work together and enhance each other’s reception and understanding. It is not possible to touch on all the works in this exhibition here, but each of them, from installation through drawing, collage and textiles, is a testament to the relationship between art and writing, and to the artists who work through these complimentary mediums.

SUBTEXT is an exhibition that SAWC are running as part of the Adelaide Fringe. Please come and enjoy.

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