This is what catharsis looks like

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition Crafty Queers at Kingston Arts Centre, Melbourne (2 February – 2 March, 2019).

There is a craftiness not just in the ability to manipulate form, but also in the vesting of objects with coded queer narratives. They may not be immediately apparent, but they are brimming just beneath the surface. Layers of personal history are embedded within ‘Crafty Queers’ – both Anna Dunnill and Nicholas Smith were raised in religious households, and through this exhibition aim to unpack their heritage. As their queer identities came to the fore, the artists began to question whether these divergent aspects of the self could harmoniously co-exist.

There is a quiet power in Soft Hold (2018-19), Dunnill’s series of six palm-sized textiles. The repetitive process of stitching becomes a kind of meditation; hands which would otherwise be clasped together in prayer are redirected to a similarly contemplative act. While the term “pocket devotional” traditionally refers to miniature religious texts, in this case Dunnill’s labour is an act of devotion. In New prayers for old feelings (2019), flattened clay forms offer Dunnill a surface on which to inscribe performative marks, much like her tattoo practice. These ritualistic objects, lustrous in appearance and placed upon ceramic shelves, seem to emulate altarpieces; in fact, they have been an avenue for the artist to reclaim her religious identity, which remains of great significance to her as a queer person. Dunnill refuses to leave her early education behind; instead, she embraces those foundations by re-imagining them in the present.

Anna Dunnill, New prayers for old feelings, 2019, stoneware, glaze, woven silk and cotton threads, botanical dyes (red onion skins, brown onion skins, mint leaves, eucalyptus leaves and bark, avocado stones and skins).

In an effort to redress the devastating impact of waste on the environment at a local level, Dunnill experiments with botanical dyeing methods, using organic matter to produce natural colours. Found plant materials from surrounding streets such as eucalyptus bark and eucalyptus leaves, wild mint growing in the artist’s garden and leftover kitchen scraps – red and brown onion skins, avocado skins and pits – are mixed with silk and cotton threads in a jar of water, then left in the sun for several hours. Heat and light transform the fibres into an array of earthy tones. Dunnill has also picked amaranth weed from CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick, not far from her home, which turns a satisfying deep purple in this process.

Smith has developed a body of work that draws on a multiplicity of influences: religious iconography, popular gay culture, filmic and artistic references. The artist’s series of clay tablet drawings seamlessly meld household floral arrangements and heavenly scenes with young men in bliss or repose. One tile features three actors from Pasolini’s Il Decameron (1971), while another depicts a lithe figure donning tight boxer briefs and thigh-high boots, backed by robe-like brown velvet. Much like the chiselled male form considered to be the peak of physical perfection during the Hellenistic era and subsequently revived through Victorian-era decorative arts, Smith positions his characters within the realm of ‘respectable’ aesthetics to reveal homoerotic undertones. While the Kingston Arts residency has afforded Smith an opportunity to engage with new techniques, there are details of a previous work – St Sebastian martyred five times (2018) – echoed in the queered bodies of his muscular models.

Left: Nicholas Smith, Assumption, 2019, glaze, porcelain slip and nail polish on stoneware, velvet.
Right: Nicholas Smith, Terrance, Vincenzo and Franco with arums, 2019, glaze, porcelain slip and nail polish on stoneware, velvet. Images courtesy of Art Documentation and Kingston Arts.

Rapture and pain exist along the same continuum in the expressions of Smith’s characters. They are on the precipice of climax, death, or both, appealing to a morbid curiosity for the spectacle of martyrdom imagery. During the making of one diptych, Smith was preoccupied with thoughts of a sculptural masterpiece dating back to the pious seventeenth century: Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini. Teresa’s transgressive episode is encapsulated by this revealing snippet from the saint’s autobiography: “the pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it”. Smith occupies dominant western histories passed down through religion in order to interrogate his own conservative upbringing. The artist asserts his queerness by exposing the culturally repressed elements of Catholicism, casting off the burden of shame.

Through camp and queer revisions of Christian ritual, Dunnill and Smith open up a space for nuanced reflection, highlighting the shifting nature of subject positions across varying contexts. Devout worship gives way to desire; libidinous encounters; sensorial pleasure. Clay becomes the medium for releasing tension, its malleability resembling the softness of skin. I experience a strong urge to pinch and press my own flesh, to test its boundaries.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer living and working on Wurundjeri land in Narrm (Melbourne).

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