artist Sally Smart’s subversive mash-up
For the past few weeks, Smart has been preparing for PARADE at the Geelong Gallery, which opens this week. His works for the show are sculptures, reinventing the costumes worn by the dancers of the Ballets Russes, the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. “It’s such a big part of theater design, costume design, interdisciplinarity [design]”, she says. “Every time I saw [the costumes at the NGA] there was something alive in them; even though they were artifacts, there was something unspoken to me.”
In recent weeks, Smart has been preparing for PARADE at the Geelong Gallery, which opens this week. His works for the show are sculptures, reinventing the costumes worn by the dancers of the Ballets Russes, the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. “It’s such a big part of theater design, costume design, interdisciplinarity [design]”, she says. “Every time I saw [the costumes at the NGA] there was something alive in them; even though they were artifacts, there was something unspoken to me.”
The company commissioned music from Stravinsky and Debussy, and sets and costumes from Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso. With collage and assemblage being so much a part of his practice, Smart wondered if Picasso’s work rubbed shoulders with that of French artist Sonia Delaunay; she contemplated their intertwined histories.
The answer was no, but Smart knew there were stories to be told through the famous costumes. “I made digital collages mixing Picasso and Delaunay, which were then interpreted by the craftsman from a photo,” she says. “When I retrieved them, they were objects of exquisite beauty, they had to be executed.”
It was an incitement to one of the defining elements of his work, which now regularly features movement and dance. “Cutting photographs, textiles and assembling them into collages, these are all methodologies for painting, dismantling or reassembling or rearranging. I usually say I work in installation,” she says of how she describes her job.
“The dancers look like paintings, the paintings look like places; I want to shake up genres. Art can be what life can be, how enduring it is.
One of four female artists commissioned to create a response to the Matisse exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last year, Smart says the French impressionist’s work The Negress had a huge impact on her when she first saw it decades ago. “I saw the Matisse and it was visceral. I don’t know what I want, but I need it – the waist, it was a big cutout, it was so lively and so generous.
It was a critical moment, informing his masters at the Victorian College of the Arts, undertaken in the late 1990s. why am I painting? It really came out of the manufacturing process, the methodology, the metaphors of cutting, including an interest in the psychosis of cutting. I often use the term cutting policycut to change, cut to rearrange, as a feminist, and as a reference to the history and origins of the Dada art movement.
The idea of cutting and redeeming underpins her work – it’s the prism through which she approaches big topics: feminism, environment and climate, colonialism. “The Grand Darn [the title of a series of paintings using the patchwork quilt as a metaphor for Australian cultural history] was this idea of wanting to fix something but showing the marks of the repair – because if you don’t show the marks of the repair, you don’t show where we came from. I never do sewing, I want to see the sewing. Like an unconscious desire, the thing that is there reveals itself, but it repairs itself.
She does it with the costumes, inserting herself and her vision; in doing so, it recalibrates them. “We have to constantly change – nothing is static,” she says. “There’s an activation, a fix and a band-aid, but at the same time there’s also a reveal.”
“There is something very cathartic in excision; when some people cut their bodies, the need can also be powerful and harmful, they make statements, they mark the bodies. In art, making a cut can be decisive and quite brutal, it can also be delicate and tender, there is magic in that.
Growing up in the backcountry, Smart experienced a kind of theater every day. Her upbringing through the School of the Air was magical, a world she remembers fondly, informed, entertained and challenged.
Her work is constantly evolving, a mixture of collage, painting, costume and dance, questioning stories and identity and the relationships between body, thought and culture. It is beautiful, often fascinating and unique.
Smart’s great-aunt was impressionist artist Bessie Davidson. As a young woman in the early 1900s, Davidson traveled from Adelaide to Paris with her teacher and lover, Margaret Preston. She moved to France and carved out an impressive career.
“I’ve known her all my life, it was important for me to know her…She died before I was born but she was still alive in my mind as a little girl.”
One of four sisters, Smart grew up on a sheep farm on the Heysen Trail, named after Hans Heysen, the German-born Australian landscape painter. A stream of people went on pilgrimage to the territory of the famous artist, often setting up easels to paint in the open air. “There were a lot of Sunday painters. Art was everywhere because people were painting all around me. I knew I didn’t want to be one of those artists, but I knew female artists could be a thing.
Previously Assistant Vice-Chancellor’s Professor at the University of Melbourne, Smart is now an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne and sits on the boards of the National Gallery of Australia and the VCA advisory board.
The Exquisite Pirateon female pirates, launched her career, an idea she came up with after taking her young son to see treasure island. Female pirates exist in all cultures, but are not widely documented. The show references the surreal game Exquisite Corpse, in which someone draws on a sheet of paper, folds it, and then passes it to the next person; William Dampier and the idea of a sanctioned pirate; and Kathy Acker’s book Pussy, king of the pirates. “I found there were a lot of female pirates in the history of the world and I thought that was such an interesting model, to give agency and to talk about post-colonial issues,” says- she. “It was also around that time of Tampa and the politics around the ship and immigration.”
Having won a scholarship to New York after graduation, Smart put together a show featuring the ship as the embodiment of the pirate. “I love plans and the mapping of spaces, it’s like a big map. Ships were also assemblages and collages, pinned to the wall.
Somehow she managed to fit the whole exhibit into one suitcase, which then allowed her to travel the world, “it was almost like the loot”.
One place he went was Indonesia, another significant moment, the catalyst for Smart’s collaboration with artist Entang Wiharso, who also often uses cutouts. “I was visiting his studio in Yogyakarta. We worked separately but collaboratively around our speeches; a great friendship was born and [I’ve developed] an extended network in Yogyakarta. It was the most amazing awakening and now I have a studio there.
Smart’s landmark exhibition with Wiharso at Galeri Nasional Indonesia in 2016 was the first time a collaboration between a Western artist and an Indonesian male artist was staged.
As for what’s next, Smart is planning a little reflection. “Nature is a big part of my thinking at the moment, with all my walks, animals and insects… there will also be performances and dancing.”
“I need to take a break and think about everything…and take the opportunity to breathe.”
smart sally – PARADE is at the Geelong Gallery from March 19 to July 3.
THE CHECK, PLEASE
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