A tear in the fabric.

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A tear in the fabric.


Shimmen, Heather.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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A Tear in the Fabric

A tear in the fabric.
by Heather Shimmen

As a student I studied at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne in the middle to late 1970s, I was taught for one year by George Baldessin, well known to most printmakers and artists in Australia. I remember him saying to me as an impressionable young student at the time (sitting in the grime of the printmaking room), ‘printmaking is difficult for the first ten years and then it gets harder’.

This has always stayed with me, as well as the more encouraging utterances from both George and others, which were my lecturers at that time.

I have now been making prints, amongst other things, for about twenty-four years and George was probably right, to a degree.

Over the last twenty-four years my work has been called many things by various reviewers and others, including, as follows: the antithesis of the pretty picture, dark, gloomy with Germanic overtones, seriously funny, post-cubist, phantasmagoric, poetic, and beyond postmodern. Some of these statements I like and others I am bemused by. I’ll leave it up to you what you think.

I am intending to construct this view of my work like I do my own prints and paintings — by bringing in an eclectic group of slides, both my work and some things of influence — which may give some insight as to why I do what I do.

To begin with I will run quickly through some early work, mainly etchings made since 1979.

These are all etchings I made in the early 1980s and some are portraits of long-dead poets like Antonin Artaud and Arthur Rimbaud. There are female images of no one in particular that I remember. Although I did spend a fair bit of time in photo booths contorting my head and neck into strange positions.

I had a bit of a drama making one etching called With ill concealed defects. Whilst using the hand-me-down hot plate I inadvertently left the plate on while heating it. To my horror the plate began to melt. Thus the ‘mistake’ led to the titling of the etching nicely. I managed to save the work by replacing the hole with another circular piece of plate which I fitted in when printing. Hence the title which works with the image and suggests the female is not what she appears to be.

The portraits were often poets I was reading about. They were no ordinary individuals and their lives were so different to my own. I was struck by the mythology surrounding them, they seemed to be the 19th century equivalent to the movie star although far wilder and their exploits and ideas far more incredible.

My elephant was made at the same time when I had a studio behind the old museum. It was so cold in the winter I found refuge in there especially after my hot plate electrocuted me; I used it for a heater! Every day I visited Phar-Lap and the little stuffed elephant, hence I made an etching of him as I felt a connection with him and it was heated in the museum.

Preparing for this talk I discovered in my plans press more prints made than I realised in the 1980s. This came as quite a surprise; I suppose I have continually been making prints, stashing them away in the drawer and forgetting about them. One thing that I realised with my rediscovery was the link with this work and how it has developed into my current linoprints. In some way my approach is not dissimilar in both ideas and approach. I can see that I have tried to keep the painterly aspect alive in the linos and the way I like to make a line. Whilst pondering on what I was going to say I have realised more and more all the big and the little bits of life experience have filtered into my work.

Until comparatively recently I have made mainly etchings with the occasional experimental litho and linocut thrown in. I have also always painted and made drawings. Since 1998 I have been producing a lot of linocuts with which I have had success both in terms of recognition and with the development of my own personal art practice. The work I am showing you here is slide A — Valentine. In 1998 I decided to leave my permanent position as a printmaking lecturer in a TAFE college. There are a number of reasons why I did this, one being so that I could spend more time in the studio, taking a more concentrated look and have the luxury to spend as long as I needed and wanted to on each print or painting.

Because I know I had the time I decided to have a more extensive go at making linocuts than I had in the past and as I had always encouraged students to enter the Slickest Prize for linocut I decided that this was a good incentive for myself also to work towards. For purely practical reasons lino was perfect.  It is very direct and requires no chemicals.

I spent a month or two musing on the approach to this work. I wanted to make a lino print that was an extenuation of work’s I had been currently making, mainly with gouache, and found and assorted objects as well as a litho process I had used and experimented with in TAFE with my students. The Invisible Hand of the Future is an example.

This image is built up as a collage and incorporates gouache, litho sketch, drawing, glue and fabric and like its physical characteristic it is eclectic in ideas. I am an unashamed collector of all sorts of things, some might say ‘junk’ as I am with ideas behind my work. I have also travelled widely since I was a teenager and have a multitude of memories and experiences. Some of the strongest and most infantile for me has been Papua New Guinea, India and parts of Europe. I love second hand bookshops and often head not in the direction of the art books but to the miscellaneous section. My actions as a gatherer of relics, old and new, seem to translate across to my own work and the difficulty is in the decision of what is to be left in and what is to be thrown away.

I have a natural tendency to see the merit in most things as you can see from view of my studio. It is quite a struggle sometimes to be disciplined and throw away the superfluous. In this work and most subsequent things I have made, I often incorporate a multitude of ideas and sources. To make the work I roll out the lino on the floor of my studio and I begin to rip up my source material and reassemble. This being a process of ‘hit and miss’, I often apply gesso to erase the misses and then rework. In this way I construct the image which continues to be worked on during the cutting out process. However, once cut away the lino is gone for ever. Like my painting I work pretty intuitively often by just making a mess, building up layers that I push and shove and play around with until I decide it works This is not something that is easy to explain in words but somehow sums up my original intention, visually. It must have some kind of pattern, one which is instinctively mine. Of course most times this has metamorphosed into something completely different. Once cut then of course there is much experimenting in the printing process and it usually takes many versions of a print before I decide something is finished. Maybe it never is!

It is often a bit of a battle, one which is not always won, but when it happens I feel pretty happy.

So with the collage shown here and Valentine I have constructed the work and have built them up using a grid formation. Like many of my works, the female takes a central role. I strive to make these females of the species imbued with strength and power and a touch of introspection. I like them to appear ambivalent as I think Valentine is. I like my images to have an edge an unbalanced arrangement. Often I think influences stem from deep within and are hard to ferret out. They are tucked away in a file, marked ‘childhood’. Having had a child and seeing at close quarters the development of a child’s cognitive skills. I have found long forgotten memories of my own resurface. Certainly much of the journey travelled through as a mother has seeped into my imagery. I have become re-acquainted with the vagaries of childhood perceptions and remember my own. Especially the very literal ways the child’s mind works counterbalanced with moments of complete irrationality.

I am not sure that my way of portraying the female comes from many places. From the strong matriarchal element present in my fathers side of the family, from my love of both Goya and Velasquez’s portrayal of women and my interest in the many infamous and famous historical women who appear in both literature and in images based on a real life, often as saint, witch or whore. I think I am a little in awe of these kinds of women.

As is evident in much of my work I tend to concentrate on the eye. My eyes have been described in different ways for example ‘doelful’, ‘ transfixing’, ‘peering’, ‘a riveted gaze’, ‘ staring’, ‘contemplative’ and ‘alluring’. I wish them to be this and more. The eye has always been a focal point for me, ‘it is the mirror of the soul’ to quote something that is over quoted and corny I suppose.

In the work The princess raised her beaming eye and swept the vision, I have greatly magnified the original miniature of the Indian Princess and veiled her in fabrics as she once was herself. These are printed on silk organza with a litho process and were an earlier precursor to making linoprints. Incorporated is the images of safety pins, which reoccurs in other later linocuts. There are also strange, spiky botanical specimens, prints of children’s feet and porcelain pudding dolls. The safety pins pierce and also hold things together. They are all kinds of old and recent relics. The safety pin is actually fairly old. In fact older than the punks of the 1970s may have realised. I remember seeing some very rusty looking examples in an Etruscan museum when I was in Napels years ago.

Getting back to the work Valentine, whist having the time to think about the work and the form it would take I remembered a work of Hogarth which I love. It was an engraving for a frontispiece to Physiognomy a literary work by the Rev J. Clubbe and made in 1763.

It is satire in which a specific test has been designed to measure the gravity of heads by a weighing machine. Apart from the satire, and my admiration for Hogarth, it is the way Hogarth has constructed this picture that was intrinsic to me. Instead of my characters being individuals as in Hogarth’s work with ‘A’ for absolute gravity through to ‘I’. For absolute levity or the stark fool, my characters are based on golliwog creatures (with a difference) whom may all be fools that rush around in all directions and in my mind they are. They are also numbered from ‘A’ through to ‘I’ and dance to the tune of Valentine. I have attempted to create my own form of absurd parable or moral tale whose meaning is just out of ones grasp. I like to keep people guessing. Like many artists I tend to reinvent ideas and ways of doing things over the years, coming to them each time slightly differently and with more ammunition under the belt, so to speak.

My use of fabric overlays began partly by accident and as a deliberate thing. I wanted to explore other ways of layering images and had come upon this one day a few years ago whilst mucking about experimenting at the time. One slide here is the many overlayed images on a rock escarpment I visited in Arnhem Land. I have also seen, over a number of months, the piling up and continual process of change of art and graffiti on walls in cities like Paris, New York, Berlin (on the wall) and even in Melbourne. I have often documented this graffiti as photographs and as super 8. This interest has manifested itself in my own work, originally as layered images in paint, often in whole veils of drips and transparent imagery. I was looking for a way to do similar things in linoprints which wasn’t necessarily the norm for the linoprint as I know it. I wanted to go another step for myself. There are a number of my contemporaries who are also being very experimental with the humble linoprint.

I felt I had captured something, a beginning — I still feel that way about a lot of my current work and hope I always do.

This use of fabric overlay blurs, distorts and multiplies the image, creating what I have set out to do, which is to create a sense of obscurity and mystery of both the image and the meaning maybe.

Beauty Spot, like the work I made in 1998 and 1999, stems from Valentine. The success of winning The Grand Prize For Linocut was encouraging for someone like myself who has been plugging away for years. It was like getting a huge elephant stamp or gold star from the teacher. It was one of those pivotal moments in ones life, nearly as fundamental as the birth of a child, which I have also experienced. After returning from Amsterdam where my prize took me, I decided I couldn’t just rest on my laurels and I had better get cracking and keep going and make some more linocuts! These works culminated as a body of work and exhibited in Melbourne as The sutured heart in 1999.

In Beauty spot, I decided to hone in on a small part of a female, like Valentine to look at her as a detail. The title is in reference to different interests of mine. Firstly in 17th century England the precursor to beauty spots, (still seen gracing the face of someone like Sophia Lauren) was the cosmetic use of ‘spots’ or ‘patches’ that could be purchased from door-to-door salesmen, they came in a variety of shapes, including half-moons, stars and just plain old spots. They were worn by both men and women and I suppose they covered scars received from diseases of the day such as the infamous Pox and Syphyllus quite well and to the mind of the day made one more attractive. In contrast to this practice, I have a fascination for body piercing both evident in our culture and one I had contact with first as a 14-year-old.

In New Guinea, where I visited with my family, my parents had gone into partnership in a farm 60 miles up the Markham Valley out of the town of Lea in the north-west of PNG. Here, for the first time, I met tribal people and saw first-hand very confronting body piercing, tattooing and scarification. To a young, white, teenage girl from the suburbs of Melbourne, this was another one of those pivotal life experience. It had quite an impact on me as I remember.

In Beauty spot I have focused on the lips of my female by accentuating the size with transparent pink underlay. This is a reference to Andy Warhol and Man Ray. Maybe the women and men of the 17th century would have paid large amounts to have collagen pumped into their lips, in the name of beauty, also, given half the chance.

In the mid-to-late 20th and now the 21st century there has been an obvious resurgence in tattooing and general body decoration in our culture as part of a larger Western one. Many of the approaches to this are decidedly tribal but of very different kinds. In a tribal culture body markings advertise the wealth of the individual or may indicate rites of passage. In some cultures markings are a barrier for potential spirits entering the body. In London during the 1970s I witnessed the Punk, the Mod and later the New Romantic tribes. Their form of physical adornment operated on the fringes, if not right off the edge, of what was deemed respectable and acceptable. Their social habits, visual appearance, and music were deliberately provocative and was usually found offensive by the rest of society This naturally set them apart These behaviours don’t seem to be part of a tribal society.

In the print entitled Pierced there is an obvious reference to body adornment but to be a bit cheeky I have included a fish hook as well as a broom which pierce the face and are in fact implements characteristic of the fishing and witch professions. Like Beauty spot I have focused in on one section of the face, the eye taking central focus. It is like a fragment of a larger image, one that will never be seen. There are many artists that have fragmented and reassembled images. Piercing has become very common throughout the West in the last few years. It has spread from ears to nose, eyebrow, chin, tongue and other areas besides.

Witch imagery has long been a favourite of mine and has been recurring in my work over the last few years in varying forms. In Pierced the reference to the witch appears in the form of a hand-held broomstick. I have always been drawn by the idea of witches not so much as the Hollywood plastic version as the historical one. Witches have been portrayed as flying through the air on broomsticks for a long time. Even today you will see ‘the witch’ portrayed in television shows and in advertising. Varying forms are still practiced worldwide across many cultures. I suppose the witch images that attracts me are the more medieval ones through to the 19th century. I hasten to say I do not myself dabble in the art of witchcraft.

They fit in with my image of the female. I am also interested in the stories surrounding so called witches of those times in England and Europe and the injustices perpetrated on many innocent women of those days. I think there are probably similar things still happening in some countries even today.

The painting Bird in hand is based on a sculpture I own and is a real life effigy of a sati bride in India. The image was carved after her demise having thrown herself voluntarily or otherwise onto the funeral Pierre of her husband. The sculpture has enormous power.

As with Beauty spot, I have used pink spots or in this case something akin to a birthmark. These make reference to both new and old varieties of viruses that seem to have arisen and which receive much media attention. Maybe these viruses are all the same age but seem to affect the human populations at different times.

I think this may have been the same for the 17th century as for the 21st century.

Women have often born the stigma of being the carriers of disease. This has pointed (in the minds the general population with a little bit of encouragement from the powers that be), to their weak and ungodly natures. The same goes for witches, although their crimes were said to be far graver.

It is stories and anecdotes, historical documents, and news reports that I often find exhilarating and must appeal to the voyeuristic and romantic in me and give me immediate visuals.

The works One love and A tear in the fabric were made in succession and have many similarities. They both express my love of the engraved line although these are made in lino, not steel or wood. They are made in a grid formation, like Valentine for both practical reasons (I have only a small press) and as a legacy of teaching design one year to painting students. I also like fact that parts of the whole are interchangeable.

Both these prints express something of myself that I have touched upon already, including my love of collage and collecting. The sources for many of my motifs are as far ranging as the motifs are themselves. I have always had a passion for insects and wanted to be an entomologist as a child. There are references to mathematical equations, an echo of my own past and my daughter’s present battles with the subject. There are heart symbols often as knots, a reference to ‘love knots’ sent to suitors, signifying the break of a relationship if returned untied. I have used silversmith’s hallmarks, ladders, children’s games, flickering candles and various heart motifs.

I find the world a pretty crazy place, which often makes no sense to me. This feeling and thinking is portrayed by the fractured images. They have been reassembled in a form which has a kind of cohesion which mirrors my kind of reality, there is no one message but a number.

In both of these linocuts I have really gone to town on the engraved mark. When I begin to make an artwork be it etching, gouache, painting, or lino I am always faced with the same kinds of aspirations and limitations. I have found making these prints satisfying in that I have found a way to meld together both the introspective mark that mimics the engraved one with that is calligraphic and spontaneous.

I attempt to achieve this in lino and marry all these many disparate elements.

The origin of the work came from my fascination and partial fear of birds like ravens. Maybe it began from being dive-bombed by magpies and nesting plovers, a very unsettling experience. The Alfred Hitchcock film had an impact as well, as a member of a film group at school we got a deconstruction of the film from a visiting film person who had inside info. I have vivid memories of reading The Raven a poem by Edgar Allen Poe at school and it having an impact on me. I have attempted to use a raven as subject matter in the past in painting but I have never been happy with the resulting work. In linocut form I feel I have got something of what I was trying to get, somehow to capture the essence of a bird like that but with variations.

I set about making the work by creating an image that far exceeds the size of a real raven. The work is approx 2.0 x 1.5 meters. In this way my raven looms large and threatening. It is loosely a raven as it also has collaged bowerbird eyes. These I have seen at close quarters whilst camping and are very beautiful.

I have welded my bird together with 19th century cufflinks and distorted the curve of the back. The beak is pierced with a hatpin and it has a broken leg tag and chain. Once again I have appropriated the engravers mark and have used fabric overlay which is offset.

Whilst in the formative stages of the print when I had it all down on the floor and drawing it up I was thinking about a lot of experiments done in the name of science to animals. I have seen plenty of those documentaries where animals are caught in the wild, tagged, weighed and tracking devices attached to them and wonder at the value for whom that this is done? I sometimes think of the parallel with the alien abduction and experimentation stories alleged by people. I see my raven also as portent of the future, a very scary one. Maybe my raven is not real and only a clone.

The two prints Two faced and The Saint, are very similar both in size and intent although made a year or so apart.

Two faced has much of the elements of my older and new work and maybe sums up my female imagery. My females are both dark and looming a bit like my bird. They are enigmatic yet I want them to engage the viewer even transfix the viewer. They watch while we look at them. This is a legacy of my love of Goya’s women.

These two images of the female are ambivalent and it is up to the viewer if they are saint or strumpet.

The word ‘bitch’ which appears on the t-shirt of Two faced and immediately labels her. Is she the ‘door bitch’ a female often found on the front desk at nightclubs. I have often observed on the wearers of t- shirts in the last twenty-or-so years that have statements and messages that may take some sort of political stance. However I often suspect the wearer has this label on their chest for purely fashionable reasons. I attempted to make the same kind of statement in Two faced but the female in this case has the markings of the 19th century. However a label written so visibly would have scandalised, shocked beyond belief and may have totally incomprehensible to the mind of the two centuries ago.

In The stain I have incorporated real tea as a stain and pure blue pigment. The tea is a reference once again to female activities, as do the needles and threads which appear in Tear duct. I have memories, good and painful, from adult expectations of me as a female growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I was a total failure at sewing.

I have also childhood memories of secrets being whispered around the old wood stove in my aunts kitchen and hearing talk of ‘ladies operations’ a complete mystery to a six year old.

The idea of the stain I have used before and links in with the presence of disease in the past and in the present and the stigma for women in association with this. There is a definite ooze around the lips where a silhouetted figure holds up an image of a squid, this maybe a reference to life fluids and sin perpetrated, like a lot of things I like the viewer to make their own judgements.

Ubiquitous balance and The messenger has been shot are my most recent works. Ubiquitous balance was a commission for the Print Council of Australia. It is very different from the treatment of the last image of the bird. This one is fractured and frail and is in full flight. It balances precariously on a fingertip. A child’s toy purchased in the 2 dollar shop was the catalyst for this piece. It is a favourite place of both my daughter and myself. The toy bird is a reproduction of an old idea in children’s toys. It is weighted very cleverly so that it balances on a very small surface and on any kind of object, even a bathroom tap. At one point, I kept finding the toy bird in many unexpected places in our house. I suppose it could be interpreted as donating the precariousness of much in life and in nature.

The messenger has been shot is a recent work that combines quite a few ideas already discussed but they may have been paired down a bit. There are the spots or patches used before and a flower, a lotus symbol of peace in eastern cultures. I have printed it on a red panel and inverted the print over the image below. There is a woman astride the horse who is not whole but spliced down the middle and somewhat fractured. The title is a reference to the saying ‘don’t shoot the messenger’.

To conclude very briefly, with all my work I make, I feel I am just beginning to discover something. I hope I always feel like this. Maybe this is what George Baldessin meant when he said that printmaking only gets harder the longer you do it. If this is true then I don’t mind as it only gets more interesting for me even if it does becomes more difficult.

© Heather Shimmen, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.