Joan Ross: The invisible punch - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

There’s no denying Joan Ross’s work packs a punch. Its brightness has been called an ocular assault and her assessment of colonisation is biting. But for all that, her work shouldn’t be seen as didactic but as an aesthetic experience, writes Carrie Miller, albeit one that delivers a mean right hook.

People’s stories about their childhood can be instructive. Speaking with Joan Ross about her early life gives you a sense of the iconoclast behind the singular vision that defines her work today.

Perhaps the most telling anecdote is of the time her whole school went to see the Queen on a royal visit to the western suburbs of Sydney. The eight-year-old Joan refused to go because she “didn’t believe in what the Queen stood for”.

For those familiar with Ross’s work, this precocious protest against the ultimate symbol of our colonial past is perhaps unsurprising. The artist describes her deep and abiding preoccupation with the appalling legacy of colonisation for Indigenous Australians as nothing less than an “obsession”. Certainly, it is the most obvious and consistent thematic component of her work. But to reduce her practice to a series of well-rehearsed ideological statements is to miss the fundamental complexity of it, as well as the primacy of its materiality. As arts commentator Andrew Frost notes, Ross’s work is, above all, “an aesthetic experience”.

Even when she began painting, which she majored in at art school in the 1980s, she was always interested in more than just paint – there was always an involvement with other materials. In fact, Ross’s later trans-disciplinary practice is, in part, a kind of homage to what she describes as her “love of materials”.

Her relationship to the materials she works with – often the discarded ephemera of domesticity such as kitsch objects and even old underwear – is an almost spiritual one. Paradoxically, by working with the tasteless signifiers of that empty and meaningless category of Australian, such as kangaroo fur, she manages to connect to it in a way that evokes the Indigenous connection to nature – the very thing such material has become divorced from. “I need to touch,” Ross explains. “If I come into the studio and start to tidy up, all I want to do is work. As soon as I physically touch the material something else happens.”

There is a deep ambivalence that animates her work – the ambivalence we feel between the enjoyment that the material benefits of colonisation have brought us and the price Indigenous Australia has had to pay for such comfort – that reflects her own contradictory emotions about the materials she uses.

“I love kangaroo fur, but I was an animal liberationist,” she says. “I have a love/hate thing going on with it. I sort of hate myself using it and then I absolutely love it and need it. I really need to use it on a political level, because it’s so powerful.

“I love the fluoro colour but I hate it as well and I always have. I hate the influx of it. I hate what I’m seeing around me but I still love it. That yellow – I could bury my head in it right now.”

The colour she’s referring to is the high visibility yellow she used to saturate an entire suburban lounge room in one of her most successful works to date, Enter at Your Own Risk (2010). The installation was literally the abject made manifest. The “ocular assault,” as arts writer Tracey Clement put it, of this exhibition made the viewer confront the way the effects of colonisation have literally seeped into the cracks of our everyday life. Regardless of our desire to reconcile the awful truths of our past, Ross shows us we are necessarily infected by its historical distortions.

Her aesthetic, shaped as it is by her mining of everyday materials, evokes the early 1990s grunge aesthetic of artists such as Mikala Dwyer, a contemporary of Ross’s whose work she greatly admires. But it would be a mistake to try to categorise anything about her practice. Her drawings, sculptures, installations and videos all pack a visual punch that is specific to Ross’s own peculiar, obsessive way of seeing things. It’s a vision that’s underwritten by a confidence that has sustained what has remained a boldly experimental practice. As she describes her first experiences at art school in typically honest fashion: “I didn’t show any great talent. I just had a belief in myself. I did some really shit work in the first two years, like everyone does, but I had a really firm belief in myself.”

Sydney’s Gallery Barry Keldoulis will stage Joan Ross’s next exhibition from 5 August to 3 September 2011.

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