I was delighted to speak at Carmel Wallace’s survey exhibition Printed in Portland at Portland Bay Press in south-west Victoria over the weekend. Exhibition is current until 2 October, 2016. Opening remarks below.
It’s always fascinating to hear about an artist’s personal creative journey, and the pathways they have followed to find their artistic voice. Carmel Wallace was introduced to printmaking by former local Arts Officer Bruce Campbell, who enticed her to try a screen-printing workshop back in the 1980s. She recalls the infectious enthusiasm and energy with which Bruce encouraged her to try out printmaking for the first time. From that point she was more or less hooked, becoming involved with the Portland Community Access Print Group and going on to further study where printmaking became a major part of her multi-disciplinary practice, that has grown to encompass installation, sculpture, photography, artist books, and curatorship.
I tell that story not only in the context of a survey show where we look at an artist’s intro into a medium, but also because of what it says about creative communities, and the positive impact that one can have through the simple act of sharing their excitement for an art form. Sometimes it only takes a little spark to set off a whole new trajectory in an individual’s practice.
That spirit of enthusiasm and sharing seems an essential aspect of Carmel’s work, particularly in her collaborative and curatorial projects. It is also bound up Portland Bay Press, from its formation through the initiative of Carmel and PBP’s founding members, to how it operates today, as a studio and gallery with an enviable set up that clearly provides a nourishing environment for both local artists and beyond. A testament to this is the fact that over a relatively short period of 13 years since Portland Bay Press’ inception, it has become established as an important resource for the region and I congratulate everyone involved in the organisation for this impressive achievement.
Coming back to the work of the individual who we are here to celebrate today, this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to consider Carmel’s printmaking practice over a span of nearly 30 years. What it demonstrates is a potent blend of rigorous research, a remarkable ability to innovate and experiment with different materials and processes, and a powerful conceptual thread that underpins Carmel’s entire practice, and gives cohesion to the different aesthetic approaches manifested in the prints that form this survey.
That conceptual basis is Carmel’s sustained engagement with place, and that place is Portland and its local environs. Born in Mildura, Carmel has lived here for 40 years. This is my first visit to the region, and having spent only a couple of days here I’ve had the opportunity to gain an insight into its natural treasures and social histories from Carmel herself, who speaks about the region with a remarkable depth of knowledge and clear passion. It is easy to comprehend how the experience of this place can fully permeate a creative practice.
The first and most obvious aspect of place present in Carmel’s work is the natural environment. From the fertile volcanic plains, to the coastline and the sea, these separate realms and the myriad of life-forms that inhabit them are a source of constant inspiration. This makes its presence felt in numerous ways in Carmel’s prints. In some works it’s through a direct physical connection, like the impression of wood grain printed from a piece of drift-wood found on the beach seen in the striking print Untitled from 1993. Or it might be a more figurative interpretation of the landscape as viewed in the rich drypoint Cape Bridgewater of 1993, or multi-faceted sceenprint Elemental of 1991.
Water is a major theme, and her series Mapping the Waters powerfully conveys the oceans’ infinite depths. That abyss-like blue oblong hints at the awe inspiring sublime in nature. This print has been executed with Carmel’s characteristic mix of experimentation and technical dexterity, as she employed evaporation and different viscosities of inks to achieve its layered and liquid resulting aesthetic.
A crucial element to Carmel’s ongoing investigation into that nebulous concept of place, is her consideration of the layers of lived human experience that are tied to it. Part of the reason Carmel’s work in both print media and other disciplines is so successful is because of the way she navigates the connections between people and the environment that are inherent to an understanding of place. These potent understories come to the surface in Carmel’s work, as she effectively conveys layered narratives.
Prints such as Red Sea – Undertow #7 express this succinctly. In this work Carmel has printed vivid red circular shapes directly from crayfish pot collars washed up on local beaches.
Carmel scours the local beaches for washed up objects such as fishing lines, nets, the cray-pot collars, little plastic figurines and any number of random bits of detritus that she finds. Anyone who has seen her front verandah can attest to the zeal that she clearly applies to this practice.
All this random stuff becomes transformed into creative material in Carmel’s work. In a way it becomes the medium AND the message. For example in this Red Sea – Undertow #7 print and others from the series, the cray-pot collars refer to the fishing industries that have long been part of the region. They also provide the physical matrix that she prints from and thus denote the formal, abstract qualities of the resulting image. In this and other works that incorporate items washed up on the beach, they contain a darker message about the impact humans have on the ocean environment, and the amount of plastic and refuse churning up in the undertow.
Yet Carmel doesn’t convey this core message in a didactic, judgmental manner, but rather by revealing the beauty of a place in her work, while highlighting the issues that impact upon it, she hopes to encourage a spirit of protection and custodianship in the people who inhabit it today. This is a call that we all need to listen to regardless of what corner of the globe we inhabit.
Overall this exhibition reveals the passionate and focused work of someone who is completely immersed in their subject, and who has found within it an unending source of inspiration. This dedication is imparted to the viewer, and we can all reap the visual rewards of the depth of connection Carmel has with the local area, and her talent for expressing it in multifarious ways.
Congratulations Carmel on this fantastic show, and I am sure I speak for everyone here today when I say that we look forward to seeing how your investigation into Portland and beyond will manifest in your future work and projects.
PORTLAND BAY PRESS
21 Julia Street, Portland VICTORIA