Notes (the sky is a garden)

An oeuvre of some hundred works developed in 1997/8/9

Flowers For the last three years Margaret West has been dreaming and drifting in a garden filled with flowers under blue skies. This most rigorous of Australian jewellers has been cultivating what seems, on first inquiry, a surprisingly lyrical patch, given the austere and refined focus of her earlier work. In four cities and on three continents she has recently exhibited a group of simple brooches and pendants whose format has hardly varied: shaped like a rudimentary petalled flower from the European floral lexicon, these are very simple, almost symmetrical, apparently unsophisticated blooms. I say shaped like because these objects do not imitate flowers but indicate them through an abbreviated notation.

The way these flowers are indicated is always seemingly straightforward. . . . This simplicity is crucial to the work. . . A deliberate appeal to artifice distinguished these visual mnemonics from copies of the beautiful flowers that nature, in her bounty, so plentifully supplies. ‘Artifice’ applies here to a rich range of cultural activities, forms and association ...

A further sign of artifice, of deliberate intervention: many of West’s flowers are impossibly blue, a colour that does not occur naturally in roses but has been persistently sought by rose-breeders. The blue rose is still a horticultural phantom, however, and the striking blue of West’s flowers is therefore a prime marker of her flowers’ unnaturalness. Moreover, in the lexicon of flowers the blue rose occupies a special place, the place of silence. It signifies an unutterable passion, even an unknown one. It is certainly a sign of the impossible ...

Skies, clouds
Now I want to look up from the garden to the sky. To southern skies. For the particular blue of West’s flowers is exactly the blue of bright Australian skies, the hard, intense, unforgiving blue first captured by Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton in their paintings of the late 19th century. This is the blue that early cultural commentators thought ‘unnatural’, even improper. . . (When I quizzed her about the colour West called a ‘shocking blue’.)

I said before that these works are mnemonics. Like the compacted stone from which they are made, West’s brooches and pendants contain, even compress, a lifetime of allusion, as the stones themselves carry in their very substance the hidden histories of geology. . . The basic qualities of stone: heavy, hard, resistant, strong, dense, tough. Cutting and polishing is arduous, requiring knowledge, skill and physical strength, as well as the will to coax from them their different meanings ...

These works return to a line of inquiry West pursued in the early 1980s, when she made a group of stainless steel brooches marked with bright primary colours . . . The impenetrability and heaviness of stone is thus at striking odds with the imagery West conjures out of their surface and substance. There is an essential play here between solidity and lightness, surface and depth, which ultimately poses an unanswerable question: how can stones float, or flowers become as lasting as geological time?

Margaret West writes poetry ― the true domain of answerable questions. . . I do not was she ‘also writes’ poetry. For the best way to see her jewellery and her poetry is as two facets of the one broad shifting enterprise. This is not, however, the expressive project memorialised by artists’ biographies . . . I wish rather to draw your attention to the transformative potential unlocked in West’s work by am ongoing dialectic between apparently contrary materials and methods: obdurate stone and insubstantial words.

The history of writing, especially poetry, helps us to prospect beneath the surfaces of these works. Stringent limitations, eagerly embraced by West, recall the deliberately sparse means of the English sonnet or Japanese haiku . . . But Margaret West’s jewellery, is after all, the product of Modernist rather than a Romantic or Pantheist sensibility, delighting not in florid elaboration but in a creative economy that sets the reductive refinement against their expending potential for multiple, and therefore paradoxically rich, meanings. The poetry of her practice comes precisely from this creative tension, between rampant sensuality and stringent simplicity.

From Wide (true) blue yonder, by Julie Ewington, curator of Australian Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. First published in Object, 1/2000

Click on an image to view an enlarged version, or click on the first image to view the series as a slide show.