Judith Kentish
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"The veil and the void: Judith Kentish's anatomy for the psyche". Catalogue essay written by Michele Helmrich, curator - public programs, University of Queensland Art Museum.

The veil and the void: Judith Kentish’s anatomy for the psyche

When looking at Judith Kentish’s mappa II series, do not assume the works to be entirely benign.

Pinned taut, the lengths of fabric tap our memory of summer breeze caught in cotton voile, of spring light filtered by transparent mesh. Now the bruised fabric lies inert against the gallery wall, stilled, silent, restrained.

Could such delicate works speak of death, or of the marking out of time to stem such finality? Should we remark instead on the germinating points, those pale dots that meander in rows across these dark cloth fields? To decay, to nurture, are equal markers of this steady progress. In this, the finite earth and infinite sky share a proximity of distance.

Kentish’s works require persistence in their making. The artist’s time is clearly invested in their slow progress. Just as her drawings or sewn works required a repeated mark to cover the surface with a linear script, so these works continue to set a challenge of endurance. Is such a challenge so different to the conceptual tasks set by artists of the 1960s and ‘70s? Here no textual imperative precedes the action, but action continues as if pre-determined. If there is drama, it is a drama of restraint, but the endurance that emerges is no less determined.

In making the works of mappa II, the cloth is dyed using materials found in the bushland surrounding the artist’s home. Eucalyptus and silky oak leaves and silver wattle flowers are immersed with the fabric, and left to soak in an iron pot for weeks on end, the mix sometimes agitated daily, sometimes not. The artist ‘tends’ the brew, without contriving the results. In this process of ‘tending’, she allows an alchemy of chance. Once the dyeing is complete and the material dry, Kentish goes about the physical task of lightly touching the surface with dots of bleach, the path of dots cast out as far as her arm can reach. Bleach is a means for marking that the artist has used since her work for the Sufferance exhibition of 2005, when its use signified erasure. Here, Kentish’s works do not erase or reveal a narrative, but find a grid-like structure of inevitable progress. Touching the surface is integral to the work, as if claiming unknown and vertiginous depths. This grid of dots pulls us back from and helps us negotiate the void.

Once on the gallery walls, the stains of leaf matter sit as if evidence awaiting a pathologist’s report. Some stains appear burnt into the fabric, scarring its surface. Stains tell stories and evoke responses not governed by rationality. The bleach also awaits analysis, for rather than sitting on the surface as would paint, bleach eats into the materiality of the work. This caustic solution is hand-delivered, and almost casually so. The brush is full at first, then the drops lessen in size and intensity as the hand delivers the row of dots and the arm reaches its stretch. But bleach can destroy. Looking closely, the alert viewer might discern tiny rows of stitching circling occasional dots, reinforcing the fragile cloth as the bleached dots threaten to tear. The works demand scrutiny of the viewer, and yet yield little more than an enigma. In many ways they remain a cold case, yet to be solved.

Such a parallel with the drama of forensic science may not be entirely gratuitous. The works, be they of a grey or of an ochre tinge, sit on the wall like flayed pelts staked out to dry. Scars and stains of skin are remnants of being in the world, of rubbing up against other beings, other matter. Kentish speaks of ‘trying to find an anatomy for the psyche’, of skin ‘carrying kinds of evidence’ (Interview with the artist, Monday 28 May 2007). And yet she shifts attention from the site of skin to a sense of eternal distance. She speaks of

finding a sort of scopic mechanism or device (with the veil of marks)… with a kind of vertiginous pull to the inside, which at the same time rushes to expand beyond skin limit to horizon. The thing of ‘place’..., for the psyche, yet also of this place, my place... obviously interwoven. (Notes from the artist, June 2007)

The scribing anchors the work. mappa, in this sense, is essentially concerned with ‘siting’. The artist situates or sites herself. The viewer situates, sites, themself. The cloth, the parchment, the page, becomes or stands in for the psyche, the self.

More recently, Kentish has transcribed the work as Polaroid photographs, from which she has made a series of large-scale prints, exhibited in mappa I. Excerpts of the cloth pieces of mappa II are magnified, as if to guide the eye into an even closer viewing. The veil and the void meet, but the journey continues.

Kentish, reflecting on these fragile cloths that stretch across the gallery wall, speaks of a ‘winding cloth’. Swaddling cloths bind the new born; winding sheets wrap the body for burial. The vertiginous sweep of life is bookmarked by a void of unknown dimensions and by the cloth that binds our physical dimension. While our psyche is held still vibrant by skin and cloth, our journey’s progress is marked by the imprint of each calendar day. One mark is perhaps the equivalent of one day of being present in the world. We hold onto this mark, this grid that stays the void, until the series of these marks has run its course. As we gaze on this bruised fabric, with its meandering grid of dots, we are reminded of our mortality.

Michele Helmrich, 2007

Michele Helmrich is curator - Public Programs
at the University of Queensland Art Museum