In the nearly four decades of work the Australian artist Miriam Stannage has characteristically played off word and image, message and symbol. Her increasingly common use of symbols and text in all her works makes reference to specific social and political situations as well as the nature of vision and perception, but also to spiritual themes. As an artist Stannage is a wary, interrogative ‘Pilgrim’. To get her ideas expressed most fully she has worked in various media, including collage and printmaking, in a manner closer to Pop and conceptual art, with their related sub-styles of energetic irreverent social challenge and commentary.
In 1980 Stannage took a short course in photography. She subsequently used still life objects, everyday items, collage and assemblage, as well as hand-colouring, in her series of photoworks. Her Homage to Sight suite was included in the 4th Sydney Biennale in 1982 and Weight Watchers in the first Australian Perspecta exhibition in 1983. Throughout the 1980s Stannage was seen more and more as a photomedia artist. Her use of mixed media and hand-colouring was associated with common practices of a generation of postmodernist women artists who emerged in the 1980s and took to constructed photography with an energy and aptitude that would make their works a defining feature of the era.
A series of works from the mid-1980s were often overtly about Biblical themes. The Flood and the Seven Deadly Sins, Crucifixion, and the Stations of the Cross were so intense as to suggest a personal crisis or perhaps a deep response to world crises. But that aspect of her content tended to be subsumed in the more topical aesthetic issues. Themes of the 1990s were more philosophical and conceptual, as evident in her Question and Answer series. Her works made reference to notions of Aboriginal heritage in the 1980s. Yet a post-Bicentennial sense of the many layers of Australian European and indigenous political and environmental history pervaded her works from the 1990s on. This coincided with her journeys in the landscape and formed the content of her ‘Words in the Landscape’ show at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery at the University of Western Australia in 1993.
In Mine an enigmatic grid of fifteen images made of thick plastic letters forming the word ‘Mine’ is spelt out crookedly, or as if thrown down askew, on various backgrounds – from sandy desert to leafy undergrowth ground. The original reference was to the use of landmines – a hot issue at the time. The alphabet letters segue effortlessly, however, to a reading of the image as concerning the mining industry but also evoking a greedy childish assertion of possession: ‘it’s mine!’. Stannage’s other major assemblage of this period, Ghost Town, similarly takes a set of alphabet letters arranged tautly against various backgrounds of leaf ground and bush leaf litter. The words refer to the institutions and landmarks of European settlement; ‘Store’, ‘Hotel’ ‘Hospital’, ‘School’, ‘Bank’ and ‘Gaol’. Some of the names are repeated so that the images become a checkerboard pattern. Yet they are all equal now, as tombstones for what is gone, as communities perhaps, a lost innocence from when European settlements and values were more confident of their right to possession. As the artist herself has commented:
Over many years I have used objects either natural or man-made in my work. I have photographed them in the landscape, painted them literally and in numerous styles, and collaged them on the canvas. … These ‘assemblages’, though minimal and contemplative, … I hope also evoke and convey deep feelings and thoughts on human experience.1
Despite the respect in which she is held, Stannage is underappreciated nationally. Her recent inclusion in the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Interesting times has marked a re-acquaintance with the artist, for Sydney audiences at least. The eloquent critical essays in her 1989 Art Gallery of Western Australia survey’ Miriam Stannage: perception 1969-1989′ are undimmed as exegesis of the work as a whole, but what registers in the Curtin Gallery survey of her work3 since 1999 is a renewed abstract edge on the surface and resurgence of the bass notes of an underworld. There are fewer assemblages using objects, but everywhere an absent human presence is evoked by the litany of titles – fingerprint, scar, missing, ground zero, massacre SOS (Save our souls), etc. Rather than apocalyptic, the oeuvre is graciously elegiac and ultimately redemptive and beautiful.
In 1987 Stannage recognised that ‘religion, nature, war, sex and sexuality and art’2 were recurring themes in her work. Spirituality too would seem to be a missing word in that line-up, as these grand themes and concerns are not out of place in the rhetoric of the daughter of a minister. There is scant fare though for a questing curator in Miriam Stannage’s person, domestic environment or conversation to fully illuminate the undertow. One needs to go to the works but following Stannage’s trail involves a journey across her various mediums – which can run counter to a tendency for art audiences to have loyalties to the traditions and culture of a particular medium.
Stannage’s word-image photomedia works often make use of urban detritus, with abrupt conjunctions and frottage learnt from international modernist and Pop art but relocated to a more specifically Australian environment. In contrast to often meticulous but tactile paintwork and lyrical calligraphy as shown in her graphic art and printmaking, in photomedia Stannage becomes more imperative in her message. While often using images from media, she doesn’t seek to position her photomedia work in the tradition of camera naturalism in the style of either reportage or fine print craftsmanship. For photo purists Stannage may seem heretical (not a ‘real photographer’, as I was told several times).
Stannage’s early works introduced objects from everyday life yoked to larger universal or political issues by the strategies of the pictorial composition. The macrocosm is yoked to the terrestrial; the microcosm as above so below. These might also be described as a reprise for modern times of the theory of 17th-18th century landscape known as ut pictura poesis, or the ‘speaking picture’. This genre often took the form of landscapes with figures which might point to a moral or homily, such as how death and temptation exists everywhere even in the most perfect natural beauty.
So, if the medium is not the message, what personal or national parable do we take from these works in which any bland urban scene or vast western Australian landscape may or may not have a hidden history, and in which someone or something can be missing and find itself beyond telling. Stannage’s is often unsettling art in which things are not what they seem. Fingerprints are normally used to expose a criminal or prove an identity but in Stannage’s variations upon a theme they provide patterns such as aboriginal maps. LED light signs and touch lights normally used to give instant news or secure direction also become ominous false beacons. Stannage comes from an upbringing shaped by the Christian doctrine, to which she adheres but which perhaps in normal passage allows for proselytised ANSWERS rather than QUESTIONS. Her ‘speaking pictures’ are subtle messages, just like the original genre format. However, her position is one of resistance and rebellion, in which she embraces multiplicity, unreliability, even joy, and through which she gives a different kind of witness. Stannage knows that other events of violence or original sin have happened or might happen, but also that reality comes in layers and codes we all struggle to decipher.
1 R. Read (1993) ‘See What You Think: Drawing on the World of Miriam Stannage’: 1-2.
2 Miriam Stannage quoted in the catalogue from The Western Australian Week Invitation Art Exhibition: Narrative in Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre, 1987.
3 This essay has been adopted from the original catalogue essay for the ‘Sensations’ exhibition of Miriam Stannage’s work at the John Curtin Gallery in Perth, Australia, in 2006. We are grateful to Gael Newton, Miriam Stannage and the John Curtin Gallery for making the material available to us and to Nina Sellars for her help in obtaining it.
Gael Newton is the Senior Curator of Australian and International Photography at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). She has curated a number of significant exhibitions, including the landmark survey exhibition, ‘Picture Paradise: Asia-Pacific photography 1840s-1940s’ (2008). Newton is the author of the key work on the history of Australian photography, Shades Of Light: Photography And Australia 1838-1988 and monographs on several Australian photographers: Harold Cazneaux, Max Dupain, John Kauffmann and Tracey Moffatt. She also wrote Silver And Grey: Fifty Years Of Australian Photography 1900–1950. She regularly contributes to magazines and edited books.