Meredith Turnbull: The Edible Woman

West Space, Melbourne
16 November – 8 December 2012

Entering Meredith Turnbull’s recent installation, The Edible Woman, at Melbourne’s West Space, I got the distinct impression of having just walked into a rather fabulous cocktail party in which an eclectic ensemble of characters were deep in the throes of stimulating conversation. Rather than your usual party guests however, this particular gathering was populated by a suite of pared back sculptural forms assembled throughout the space, including a series of segmented metal columns coated in matt black or grey, blocky timber forms, suspended black discs, a series of collaged panels and an elongated vertical sculpture comprised of what looked like enlarged papier mâché lozenges tittering precariously atop one another. 

Just as the ‘cocktail party’ was born in the early stages of the last millennium, Turnbull has developed a distinct formal language which is heavily informed by avant-garde and craft practices of the early to mid-twentieth century. Working within the realms of both jewellery and fine art, she utilises a range of reduced geometric forms inspired by these traditions which she has reworked and redeployed in a variety of scales and configurations across divergent exhibition contexts in recent years. Whether intimately sized wearable pieces or more monumental forms, her practice consistently evidences a concern with the way objects relate to the body. In The Edible Woman the sculptural forms loomed just larger than human scale, so that one was forced to physically negotiate a path around them. An accompanying wall painting of mutely coloured semi-circles that snaked its way around the perimeters of the space, established an undulating rhythm that helped carry the viewer through the installation.

The surface detail of the wall panels and papier mâché sculpture, constructed from a complex weave of coloured reproductions and texts which appeared as if ripped from aging art history books and interior decorating magazines, provided a busy contrast to the other more restrained sculptural elements. Each knitted together a woolly mix of aesthetic reference points, including snippets of bold 1960s and ’70s textile patterns, Modernist art works and furniture, ornately embellished ceramics, ‘primitive’ artefacts, as well as a number of portraits and photographs of women. The flagrantly decorative was thus layered with the utilitarian, the domestic entwined with ‘high art’, and the handmade sidled up against the mass produced. Such juxtapositions were not restricted to these surfaces however; the sculptural forms within the space were inscribed with a number of more oblique historical quotations, which ranged from the appropriation of the Romanian Modernist Constantin Brâncuși’s modular sculptural logic, to the construction techniques and decorative flare of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas (both cited referents). 

Taking its title from Margaret Atwood’s 1965 proto-feminist text of the same name, The Edible Woman appeared underpinned by a feminist impulse to assert the value of historically overlooked visual forms produced by female artists and artisans, and contextualise them against the male dominated Modernist canon. Turnbull does not simply assert an equivalence between art and design lineages however, she also actively attempts to foster an interplay between them. While this kind of convergence is enjoying increasing currency amongst young contemporary artists it owes a substantial debt to earlier generations of woman practitioners, with notable local precursors including Rosalie Gascoigne’s assemblage works, Elizabeth Gower’s collages and Vivienne Binns’s conceptual painting practice. What is striking about Turnbull’s approach in The Edible Woman is the way that these concerns take on spatial dimensions. The ornamental wall painting can thus be seen to enact a territorial function, literally demarcating a zone in which these different disciplines can come together. Rather than attempting to blend them into a cohesive framework, Turnbull instead opens up a space of productive multiplicity. The differing elements within the installation, and the distinct aesthetic traditions they reference, thus appear engaged in a robust dialogue that oscillates between points of general consensus and those of heated contention.

Meredith Turnbull, The Edible Woman, 2012. Acrylic wall-painting, papier-mâché panels (particle board, newsprint, PVA) and column (newsprint, PVA, timber rod, acrylic paint), standing and suspended elements (chiseled timber, timber rod, timber blocks, particle board, steel tube, copper tube, rope and acrylic paint). Image courtesy the artist. Photograph the artist.