Celebrating womanhood, ‘Bodywork’ and ‘Are You Having a Good Night’ are two of the best exhibitions of the year to date, says Miranda Johnson.
‘Bodywork’, curated by Erin Coates, and ‘Are You Having a Good Night?’, Michelle Hamer curated by Emma Buswell ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Two exhibitions that delve into the messy, fantastical and celebratory experiences of womanhood are currently on display at Fremantle Arts Centre.
“Bodywork”, curated by Erin Coates, features the works of three mid-career female artists whose practices range across soft sculpture, painting, and video works. Their three different practices intersect when considering the public nature of women’s bodies, whether by consent or enforced through social codes. Women’s bodies are variously objectified and glamourised – presented as beautiful objects, grotesque lumps of flesh, or figures of idolatry and public adoration – but they cannot escape public scrutiny.
Amber Boardman’s paintings present leaky, fleshy bodies, the thick impasto paint presented as a stand-in for the lumps of flesh and skin that make up a whole. They’re also wry observations of the interactions between our flesh and public space, whether presenting a crush of bodies worshipping modern commerce to the point of a riot in Black Friday Sale (2019) or the slow dissolution of colour and features on a woman’s face in Makeup Bus Commute (2015). Rather than criticise or moralise the actions of the characters observed in her works, she presents them with unassuming joy, humour and affection, seemingly revelling in the messy crush of body, flesh and environment.
Tarryn Gill’s large-scale sculptural works are similarly distorted and misshaped in the way they flex and roll, but their contortions are deliberate and precise. Human but also not-quite, the oversized figures unashamedly occupy the central space of the gallery. Inspired by the artist’s background in calisthenics, the bodies are unavoidably on display, designed to be visually interrogated and admired. As a reward, peeking into unexpected crevices leads to the uncomfortable realisation that the sculpture is looking back at you with the same intensity.
The second gallery space of “Bodywork” is darkened like a private inner shrine, reminding me a little of a teenage girl’s bedroom, an altar of femininity and the idolisation of female power. Here, Gill’s smaller soft sculptures, luxuriously velvety, sit alongside Kaylene Whiskey’s joyful celebrations of her favourite pop cultural figures including Dolly Parton, Wonder Woman and Tina Turner. The figures are brought home to Whiskey’s home of Indulkana on the APY lands, performing amongst native tobacco plants, cumquat trees and a water snake in the night sky. Whiskey’s works playfully merge the two worlds of faraway pop stardom and home life in remote Australia, reminding us of the transportive nature of a pop cultural obsession in its ability to bring joy, pleasure and distant worlds home to our own lives.
Superbly curated by Emma Buswell, Michelle Hamer’s “Are You Having a Good Night” acts as the negative space to “Bodywork”. In Hamer’s meticulously hand-stitched works, bodies themselves are absent. Rather, the works present a series of variable electronic message boards, of the kind we have all seen by the side of the road. These message boards assume a present body in the viewer who enacts these instructions.
Hamer’s works take as their starting point the accidental missile alert in Hawaii in 2018, where the boards spelled out “There is no threat” to calm the population down. However, she places this image alongside more sinister remarks, ones that any woman occupying public space will be most familiar with. The heckles of men to women walking along the street might seem innocuous, but when placed with the firm insistence that there is no threat, you may start to wonder why, in that case, the board needs to be there at all. There’s a lingering sense of sinister alertness in the works, a reminder of the invisible social codes that lead us to obey, to heckle, to be alert and afraid. In both “Bodywork” and “Are You Having a Good Night?” women’s bodies remain the frontline of these power struggles.
“Bodywork” and “Are You Having a Good Night” are two of the most thoughtful exhibitions I have seen this year and are well worth a trip to Fremantle Arts Centre.
Pictured top is Kaylene Whiskey’s ‘Cher and the Water Snake’, 2017, acrylic on linen, 76 x 101cm. Photo: Courtesy of the artist, Iwantja Arts and the Sims Dickson Collection