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Elizabeth Pulie and Savanhdary Vongpoothorn
Chinatown, on the fringe of Sydney's central business district, is home to one of the newest spaces on the gallery circuit. Established in February this year, Gallery 4A is a non-profit organisation seeking to promote dialogue between artists, writers and curators in Australia and the Asian region. An initiative of the Asian Australian Artists Association, the gallery is funded from donations by private sponsors. The first exhibition at the gallery, loosely structured around the theme of portraiture, focussed on the work of three Australian artists of Asian descent: Emil Goh, Lindy Lee and Hou Leong. A program of international exhibitions by Asian artists is also scheduled. Yet this regional emphasis does not preclude artists from nonAsian backgrounds exhibiting at the gallery. A recent exhibition, combining the work of Elizabeth Pulie and Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, was a case in point.
Although the means and materials employed by Pulie and Vongpoothorn are quite distinct, the aesthetic results are similar. For this exhibition Pulie threaded hundreds of glass, wooden, aluminium and plastic beads onto thin strips of wire. These were then hung in rows from the metal curtain rod fastened to the wall to produce four works resembling bead curtains-popular in the 1970s to keep insects outdoors. The falling lines of beads produced basic shapes and patterns which were also sensuous and rhythmical. Layered with colour they elicited an emotional response from the viewer, an instant recognition of the symmetry and harmony of the forms. Deceptively laconic in design and appearance, this was Minimalism with heart, humour and soul.
These delicate bead curtains were the first objects produced by Pulie after years of painting. It is thus not surprising to find that they nervously hug the wall. Yet they also bear a strong formal affinity to her paintings. This is derived largely from a fascination with contrast, colour, pattern and line: the elemental components of visual perception. A good example is Wood and Stone (1997), titled for the materials used in the work, and consisting of hundreds of red, green and black wooden beads of different shapes as well as round soap coloured stones linked together to create a series of corresponding chains. It created the impression of dense and driving tropical rain.
Savanhdary Vongpoothorn is an Australian artist of Laotian descent. Her past installations have been characterized by an expressive use of organic substances and materials (including seed pods, flower stamin and vines) to create simple but poetic forms. This exhibition, in contrast, consisted of a series of delicate acrylic works on paper. Washing a section of the paper with a single colour, Vongpoothorn then pierces the back of the surface with a pin to create elaborate shapes and forms. These are mostly derived from Laotian fabric patterns and designs. The process of piercing the paper is obsessive and labour intensive, often taking many weeks to complete a single work. The artist likens the process to meditation. It is for this reason that all the works in the exhibition bear the titles of Buddhist mantras.
There is a strange but definite aura to Vongpoothorn's work. it is derived as much from the immediacy of the process of production as from the intricacy of the final design. Vikasati (1996), for instance, is a large square work painted a deep dark brown. The rich mysterious colour is matched perfectly by an elaborate pattern, weaving its way across the surface of the paper in a labyrinthine maze. Each of the dots forms something like a day, a moment of experience, all of which are woven together-perhaps as an act of remembering-to create the impression of a unified narrative or journey.
The works of Pulie and Vongpoothorn are linked through an engagement with design elements. Vongpoothorn draws on Laotian influences while Pulie's work has traditionally relied on nineteenth century European sources. In particular, an English pattern book by Owen Jones titled The Grammar of Ornament (1856). In the work of both artists, however, decorative patterns and shapes are used to create more then just a pleasing aesthetic structure. While there is nothing laboriously cerebral about this work, this is not to say that it is whimsical or slight. There is a subtlety and sophistication to Pulie's simple rhythmic structures and Vongpoothorn's obsessive paper stabbing, slightly deranged but delicate, that is both intuitive and intelligent.