Odds and Heads 2005Catriona Stanton
Enter a studio, tucked behind a fabric remnant warehouse in light industrial Sydenham. The deafening roar of jets overhead landing at Mascot alternates with the intermittent buzz of bees, hovering over a saucepan of melting wax. The heavy scent of beeswax prompts daily visits from an itinerant bee population. Who keeps bees in Sydenham? Not the mechanics swearing in the garage next door. Not Herby, a Barry Humphries look-alike on a bicycle, who managed to offload his dodgy bronze casting furnace to the unsuspecting artist. So, bronze is just not on, for the time being. As décor, the furnace paraphernalia looks quaintly anachronistic under mercury vapour lamps. Catriona stands with her ladle scooping molten wax into silastic rubber moulds. The air is heavy. The roller doors are open. Vietnamese women emerge from a shift at a local sweatshop, peering in from the back lane. If only they had time to sit. But then, unfortunately, neither did Herbie.
On a table stand five heads, modelled in clay from persons who did sit… long enough to be photographed from more than 4 angles. The intentional resemblance between these objects, images and their models, between photosensitive gelatine on paper and wet clay suggests that the art of portraiture, its time-honoured tradition, is not yet exhausted. Some obdurate life has survived in this tactile embodiment of others which is not yet mechanised or digitised, nor even subject to contract or commission. While digital video portraits may now be ubiquitous on a 3G mobile instalment plan, 3D scanners are beyond the reach of mortals of modest means in Sydenham. So is bronze, as an index of purchasing power and status. In this case, state of the art indicates getting by with ‘obsolete’ technology and ‘archaic’ media. Between modelling and casting, the passage from clay to wax, is manipulated with water and heat. The transition between liquid and solid, soft and hard is contained in synthetic rubber moulds reinforced by plaster of Paris. Without the rigidity of a shell, the moulds may be flexed and deformed, thereby morphing the classical container with unforeseen results. Though designed for serial replication, these moulds have yielded a one-off progeny, with off-casts in varying depths of relief.
Following a period dedicated to impermanent installations, site-specific work and performance, the artist has reinvested in skills acquired in Tom Bass’ atelier in earlier days. Today, neo-conservative rhetoric assumes that a return to ‘core’ values should correspond to commonly understood and acceptable cultural forms and norms. In Catriona’s case, a recovery of tradition was stimulated by prolonged contact with Aboriginal artists up north, for whom identity and kinship depend on affiliation to place. The ancestral genealogy of portraiture, its concern with the conservation of cultural, institutional or familial heritage, still resonates within its modern hybrid forms. The desire to embody the human form or commemorate the presence of individuals as enduring objects, speaks of dissatisfaction with the circumstantial transience of the instantaneous image. In the palpable form of sculpture, the mute presence of a portrait seems to survive all narrative contingency and cross-cultural translation.
These may be portraits. But the existence of these heads is not justified by a naturalistic resemblance or fidelity to their living models. Beyond the demand for likeness, individuality of character is conventionally identified with changing facial expression, rather than physiognomy. Yet these disembodied heads have been purged of expressive immediacy and rendered impassive, with eyes closed. Without a focus for the gaze, consciousness appears to fold back upon itself, to withdraw from the world and the circumstantial noise of the places it inhabits.