21 March – 8 April 2018
ANCA Gallery, Dickson
Julie Bradley’s exhibition melds art, design and craft seamlessly in this latest offering of work that includes two exquisite room screens produced during her 2017 Hill End residency.
Bradley’s graphic, colourful work intertwines her past as a printmaker (who used to work at the Studio One print studios) and a design teacher at the University of Canberra and her present current visual art practice which plays teasingly at the border between abstract and figurative.
The printmaker is always looking for ways to layer texture, initially achieved by large loose sweeps of colour across large sheets of thick paper. It has to be thick because she works into it many times, and anything with less strength would disintegrate. The designer side of her is always alert: composing carefully as she works, she builds up abstract shapes of hand-coloured Japanese papers and then adds a top layer of exquisite line drawings of botanical detail in brightly-coloured gouache. The Japanese papers she uses are of various thicknesses, but they also have great strength thanks to their long interwoven fibres. The process is a long-developed system, defined enough to be familiar but flexible enough to change and grow with her thematic interests. It is also deeply meditative: one of the wisdoms that come with long practice is to let things alone to allow time to reveal a path forward, and so she’s often working on a number of images simultaneously.
Stones have preoccupied her for a few years now, and many of these works meditate upon what stones mean to humans and our culture. Some of them hold ideas about geology, salt crystals, sand grains, and precious stones. Others are related to language: the way words can be solid, yet not, building blocks able to be shifted.
When she was accepted for the Hill End residency, Bradley prepared by undergoing a daily drawing practice inspired by David Hockney, who always drew something before lunch. She drew plants and objects and, knowing about the landscape she was heading into, abstract shapes inspired by rock formations, allowing her to muse upon rock fissures and the way something so seemingly permanent and solid always has spots of weakness. She worked out some basic compositions to kickstart her work, not wanting to waste precious time once she was there. On her way into Hill End, she visited Merlin’s Look-out, a famous local spot that looks out across the old mine sites towards the Blue Mountains, and the first thing she saw was a massive split rock formation that was the twin of one of her drawings. The resolved work, Split Rock (2018), is a fractured, ghostly conglomeration of pale whites and circled portals of geological time against a teal blue-purple evocation of dusk. The ever-present botanical elements are pushed back under the paper-white masses, hinting at seams, evoking the power that green matter can wreak against something seemingly unbreakable.
Part of the pitch Bradley made to Hill End was to produce work on wooden panels to realise an idea that she’d been planning for a while. She has a fascination with oriental folding screens. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries there was a craze for these screens and their panels were often painted by Western visual artists: Bradley has seen a number in European galleries and museums, citing one by Odilon Redon at the Musee D’Orsay as a favourite. There is a screen painted by Grace Cossington Smith at the NGA right now.
Bradley approached furniture maker Elliot Bastianon to collaborate with her on two screen designs. Bradley’s design experience meant that she knew exactly what she wanted: an elegant frame made from a sustainable timber (Tasmanian oak) that would support the artwork visually but not overwhelm it. The resulting objects are cunningly constructed by Bastianon to provide privacy with a teasing line of sight through the base, and the birch ply panels are removable, which allowed Bradley to take them to Hill End in her car to work on them.
The wooden panels, she says, were a delight to work with, as they were firmer than her usual backgrounds of super-thick rag paper and beautifully smooth. Because of the length of the panels, she had to use several sheets of ‘background’ paper, and deftly worked the consequential linear seams into the visual design. Unlike her last body of work, which contained birds and animals, her work in this show seem part of a slow shift away from the figurative. Most of them have distinct linear drawings of plants woven across them, but in the screens they are pushed back, especially in the five-panelled Hill End Reef (2018), where her linework becomes more abstract, long sweeps of brushstroke, inspired by shards of grass rather than outlined leaf or crenulated twig.
The screen panels are direct meditations upon the many layers of Hill End as an historical site: geological disruptions, the golden glow of potential, and the embedded hopes, dreams and despair of the humans who have passed through. The golden tones evoke Chinese joss paper, reminding us of the Chinese presence in our mining communities. Mother Lode (2018), the three-panelled screen, carries not just the possibility of finding endless wealth in its title, but contains a weight of gratitude, a sense of having something in abundance, if only we can recognise its presence.
We can dig into these folding panels for meaning, and if we do, there are plenty of ideas to be found. But we can also stand back and enjoy Bradley’s skill at constructing beauty, and in this she never disappoints.
ANCA Critic-in-Residence 2018