Metropolis by Rosalie Gascoigne, Art Gallery of NSW
It may have been the kind of week that changes one’s life. I don’t know, ask me in five years time. I do know I’m not half bad at predictions, having accurately pinpointed the global financial meltdown – an assertion easily confirmed by posts around September 2007 when I was scrabbling to liquefy my meagre assets and consolidate a debt-free future before the excrement collided with the cooling device. I just knew it was going to clobber
This time last week, as I was meditating my headspace into a suitable state of nirvana in which to begin my studies at the Larrikin’s End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé, (and foraging in the miscellaneous toiletries box for patchouli oil as a back-up strategy), I flicked on the newly instated television to watch Sunday Arts on the ABC. For reasons best known to its producers, Sunday Arts usually devotes itself to the championing of neo-polka but it is equally usually tolerable for its visual arts content and the neo-polka segments are useful intervals in which to mix a G&T, toss some rice snacks into a bowl and remove a slab of (pre-homemade) pizza from the freezer.
Rosalie Gascoigne was one of the featured artists last week. Beginning her art career in her fifties, she quickly became one of
My first week as a ‘mature’ (as if) student was a revelation in many ways. Firstly, unlike real life, there were no crazies to contend with. We all sat around the reassuringly paint-spattered furniture determinedly chopping at/daubing with or organising colours, lines and shades as if it were as natural as, well, toasting bread and calling it breakfast. On Wednesday, over our free (hurrah!) but cold and demonstrably Nescafé (merde doble!) morning beverage, I happened to ask if anyone had seen the segment on Rosalie Gascoigne. One of my mature (and she actually does seem to fit the spirit of the name) colleagues, not only had seen it but had a book on the artist in her bag. Under only slight coercion, she was persuaded to lend it to me. Not only did she perform this exceptional act of generosity, she also informed me that there was a retrospective of my new-found heroine showing at the National Gallery of Victoria. I needed little persuasion to head for the train station and book a concession day return to
At 4.30 am on Friday morning, it seemed a less good idea but I got up, packed a rucksack with fresh-brewed coffee, an essay on post-modernism and Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and headed for the connecting bus. By 9.30 I’d arrived in
Retrospectives are a joy because you get a speed tour of the artist’s head in an hour or so. It’s enormously stimulating, like receiving an intravenous download of a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears. Having had the opportunity to read a little about Gascoigne before the exhibition, my view was illuminated by knowing some of her story. As the educated and erudite young wife of an astronomer emigrating from
Rosalie Gascoigne found her purpose in what lay around her and became a monumental artist in part because she wasn’t prepared to compromise her vision by succumbing to the carousel of trivia paraded as a woman's lot. I could go on about her work for a month but it’s all been said already. What interested me is the single-mindedness of her journey, which was undertaken with the most astounding navigational skill and insight. Completely ignoring social convention, (as opposed to wasting her energies railing against it), she scoured the countryside for the detritus of post-industrial life, farm machinery, corrugated iron, wooden soft drinks boxes and decommissioned road warning signs, often having to negotiate courageously with suspicious males who incongruously assumed custody when they discovered a woman was interested in their erstwhile trash. From these scraps a new object was synthesised. Individually, these items were just waste but collectively they made something metaphorically powerful and always aesthetically beautiful. She had learned from the Japanese discipline of Ikebana that placement is everything in art, as it is in life. One is nothing without one’s surroundings.
What Gascoigne could or would not do in domesticity, she resolved in art. She talks about being a hopeless housekeeper, not because she didn’t try but very often because the elements diminished all reasonable effort. Dust storms, lack of suitable equipment and the severe cold all conspired to place a ‘housewife’ firmly in the red. Housework is a zero-sum game at best, an equation that’s well understood now. Gascoigne collected domestic materials (enamel-ware, linoleum, food containers and labels) and tamed them into an order that is serene and permanent. All external conflict was resolved using the same ameliorative but determined method. Of course one can never know how these dynamics really play out in families. I’m not sure I’d have liked to come home to a house full of sheep bones and saw marks on the dining room table. As Gascoigne’s career was peeking, her astronomer husband Ben was retiring after an illustrious career. He seems genuinely to have settled into a supportive role as her cataloguer, archivist and general factotum. Don’t you wish all relationships could be like that?
‘Chance is a fine thing and it serves me well.’
And I agree. Thanks to the timely intervention of my introduction to the work of Rosalie Gascoigne, the road ahead now seems far less daunting, this week at least…