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Meredith Turnbull

Meredith Turnbull is a Melbourne based artist working across sculpture and jewellery in a practice that is collectively informed by and reflected within her writing, PhD research and curatorial projects. Her inclusive art practice has, at its core, a unification of art and crafts as 'co-workers to human practice', work that spans historical ideas of public space, territory, scale, usage and display, ultimately as partisans of 'the complete artwork'

The very first interview I ever did for G&F was with Leah Jackson. We were only acquaintances then and the first time I saw her work - which was the impetus for the interview - was at the Rock Solid exhibition at Pieces of Eight, which was curated by you! It's so neat that it has all come full circle!

Yes, that's really funny! It's also funny that Madeline Kidd was in that show too!

Was she! I didn't see any of her jewellery work when I interviewed her...

That's because most of the people involved in Rock Solid were visual artists who didn't normally make jewellery as a general rule. I did that show because I am particularly interested in jewellery made by people who don't have formal metals and jewellery training - particularly visual artists - because quite often they make pieces that are very unconventional and activate the body in different ways which I find really refreshing. A lot of the jewellery I am attracted to doesn't look like contemporary fine art jewellery in the international style. In this way, Leah's work is really interesting; what she made for the show was beautiful.

A exchange in skills appears in your own work, too...

Yeah I guess so - I studied art history first, and that lead to my interest in public art spaces, and then I studied fine art at RMIT in Gold and Silversmithing. I had quite specific training there, although I did a few electives in other departments - a painting elective called Abstraction that ran for a number of years and another one in the sculpture department called Installation Art, which Melbourne artist Carolyn Eskdale ran. It was a great course for me, as even though I was doing jewellery, I was always thinking outside of that context, trying to push the boundaries of the way I was learning. So now I have a practice that is across visual art, curation, some writing about art and I make jewellery. They are all related but seem to have different outcomes depending on the context or who or what I am making it for.

It sounds like you followed your nose through your study!

I definitely did - because sometimes you don't fit, as an artist, in a specific category. I had to try to explain my practice recently for an application and I defined it as an 'object-based photographic spatial practice' and I started laughing at the language but it is the truth of it as well! I think the art historical study and research has provided a strong background and all artists do it but I guess I let that lead the process, in many ways, which is reflective of what I am doing now which is further study at Monash University. My PhD is in a sculptural and spatial practice field - looking at... it's a bit undefined right now... but basically around philosophical notions of excess, framing and territory as a way in which to approach a spatial practice, which is kind of how I work anyway. The excess talks to the crafting and the adornment in a practical sense as well as conceptually, the framing is about the field and the context and the territory is the art historical research, that folds across all the other aspects... So I guess I am trying to develop a way of talking about what I actually do!

I'm sure it isn't an authentic PhD unless it takes a decent lungful to explain it.

Sometimes it does take a paragraph! But I'm enjoying being in a broader context, thinking about it full-time...

The text I read for a recent show, by Bridie Lunney, mentions the role craft plays within your education, research and work. She writes: 'The works are hung within a fine art gallery context installed with sculptural tableaux so she alludes to both disciplines simultaneously. She has admitted to finding this dance between the genres of art and craft vexing. And so her work is aiming to produce its own space, an inclusive space that allows for an interdisciplinary practice.' With craft currently quite a catchall discipline, what does contemporary Melbourne craft mean within your practice?

It's tricky because it is such a broad term - it can be a person making ceramics, woodwork, anything with an aspect of the hand-made but it can also require a facility of technical training and skill, in order to be a traditional craftsperson. There are also people who work under the moniker of craft who aren't formally trained as well. It's now an expanded context for a whole variety of activities.

From associations as a folk medium, you are exploring its crossovers within art practice?

And I think that is something from the 1950s and 60s onwards, because craft, if you talk about craftspeople and crafting, is more than a century old idea - you would be formally trained through apprenticeships in a particular skill across embroidery, textiles, metalwork and so on. But now it has quite different incarnations and definitions. It's something I have been thinking about for a while, especially in the context of Melbourne art makers, because I find there are a lot of visual artists who use handmade and crafting techniques within their work but wouldn't identify as craftspeople or whichever term you want to use but they definitely utilise aspects of craft and craft traditions. There is a really strong context for that here, the craft world in Melbourne is so robust. It is incredibly diverse and there are a lot of very serious practitioners in Melbourne. I have been really interested, at least from the late 1990s, in visual artists like Louise Weaver, who often incorporates textiles, and Nick Mangan, a lot of his earlier work is very hand crafted... People aren't outsourcing, they are doing a lot of the making themselves. Observing that over the years has been fascinating. There aren't so many people who actively make jewellery as well as having a visual art practice but I think that's beginning to change. There seem to be more people coming through the university system who are exhibiting in the context of visual art.

Which is where the Rock Solid show came along?

Yes - my interest is in the intersection of jewellery and visual art or in forcing that relationship, but what all those artists shared, generally, was that they worked across scale. That's something particularly interesting to me and something I research in my own practice. Each of them had made things from quite a small, ornamental scale to sculptural or large scale. I'd like to do another show like it. I have spoken to Pieces of Eight about perhaps doing another one in the future.

Would the focus be jewellery?

If it was at Pieces of Eight, yes, although I think it would be interesting to work with jewellers for an exhibition that was purely sculptural pieces - to take the wearable aspect out! I love the idea of unwearable pieces. I have a great deal of unsuccessful jewellery because I tend to make pieces that aren't easy to wear!

Less of a traditional design process?

Less testing and I am happy for things to change when they are being worn, like parts of the paint wearing away and showing the traces of the activity of the person who is wearing it. When you put your work in a commercial context there is less of an understanding for things like that.

There's an expectation...

People want their purchase to stay exactly the same, so trying to find an outlet for that type of jewellery is tricky but it's also an interesting process.

Referencing art history - within your jewellery, theory and process - is apparent across your practice too. I'll quote Bridie LunneyĆ­s piece again: 'Turnbull is playing with time and its signifiers within art and design movements. These images are thrown up together like an art theory lecture condensing history into an hour...'

Historically, I think I can be really specific in terms of certain aspects of Modernism and the avant-garde, those particularly being Constructivism and the Bauhaus and the role of women artists and their work, within those fields. The art historical research is uncovering these stories and viewing them in relation to the iconic figures of the art historical canon, like Constantin Brancusi, and making juxtapositions - for my research - against women who have potentially made work that is just as interesting but have perhaps been overlooked within the canon. But I'm also attracted to what they do, the aesthetic and formal qualities of the work. The art historical references are quite fragmented, they pull from a variety of sources, but it makes sense to me! I guess it is again a question of scale - looking at the ornament, to the public space - that is the frame for the art historical reference too - and then making my own comparisons within that.

Where has it lead you to now?

At the moment, I am interested in the idea of the 'complete' artwork, a unified artwork. It has ramifications in a variety of fields but I guess I am more interested in the premise of the Bauhaus and its manifesto - the complete building, where painting, sculpture, design and crafting are unified to facilitate the making of this one thing. I am really interested in looking at how that translates into art practice. How to incorporate a designed object amongst a larger installation, drawing out the relationships between those two things. Maybe it's about finding an outlet for the various activities that I do, to have them together at the same time. Sometimes I feel like my process is a little bit of a grab bag. Depending on the context of a show, certain things come out and are foregrounded. Occasionally people are surprised at something I have made and find it difficult to draw the connections between the different things I do but when you see the work from when I first started exhibiting to now, you see the broader picture and those relationships start to form more clearly...

Can you identify what those reoccurring relationships are?

That's really hard!

I know it's obvious to many, but it's been funny to discover through these interviews that designers can often tell you precisely what their work 'is'. And artists have said 'I don't know! Aren't you supposed to tell me>

It's nice the way visual artists can keep things so open - everything they make proposes a series of questions, sometimes answers too, but it's not a fixed point, hopefully whatever you make is a way for people to think through things, a philosophical interpretation of the world around you. I guess for me, in terms of the jewellery output and the sculptural installation sharing qualities, it could be the formal elements - I am very practical - but there is also a reduction of representational elements, down to graphic form - form, structure, colour is all important. Playing with scale is constant across everything I do and then perhaps the research - specific historical moments which are often already looking at those formal questions and conceptual questions - like the role the constructivists played in socialist society - they saw objects as tools, that's the way I see sculpture and jewellery as well - as co-workers to human practice, which is a socialist notion. They activate space and territory through how they are worn and used and displayed. So if you can nut out my practice, perhaps that's the one thing. Or the few things!

How do the next 12 months look for you? Do you have any shows coming up?

I do! I have a show coming up in November. I'm nervous, there's a lot of work to do! It's at Westspace and it will be more about environment in the way that we have been talking about it, more about the relationships between the artwork and its space. There are also 2 collections of jewellery to be made before then! Next year is really more about writing. I have a couple of projects, one is with a new art space called The Other Side that Jo Scicluna has started in Paul Morgan Architect's Design Studio. And I'm collaborating with jeweller Manon van Kouswijk for a group show at Craft Victoria. Oh, and I will be coordinating an art history class at RMIT next year, which is about makers and materials, right up my alley! And that's enough, because then I have to try to finish my PhD!

Meredith Turnbull is stocked at Pieces of Eight and Craft Victoria.

Photography property of Double Days and Meredith Turnbull. Exhibition documentation images courtesy Pieces of Eight (Rock Solid foreground cabinet artworks by Rob McHaffie, window display by Madeline Kidd, Masato Takasaka, Meredith Turnbull and Claire Ulenberg), Craft Victoria, Rae and Bennett Fine Art Printers and Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Photography..