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Pip McManus

Contemporary Territory 2004
Catalogue Essay

Reproduced by permission Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

Allison Gray
Pip McManus has sustained a practice in Alice Springs since 1981, having earlier completed her Diploma studies in Ceramic Design at the then South Australian College of Advanced Education. The central Australian landscape, its flora and fauna, became a signature of her earlier work, which she explored with earthenware slip and underglaze decoration beneath a clear glaze and lustres. Thylacine days is indicative of McManus's oeuvre of the 1980s and early 1990s and was acquired in 1994 for the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory (MAGNT) collection through the 14th National Craft Acquisition Award. In the much later work entitled iron-bearing hills, ewaninga, 2003, Pip reflects upon her first impressions of the landscape surrounding Alice Springs of twenty-three years ago. An image of the artist can be observed in the work however it is the geological and mineral essence of the land that has the principal physical presence.

From 1995 McManus's practice extended to architectural and public art commissions at sites including the Cultural Centre at Uluru, the Desert Park in Alice Springs, the Darwin Botanical Gardens and the Darwin City Mall. These commissions included ceramic tablets, friezes and signage that sympathetically convey the message or purpose for which the work was commissioned. Amid the ongoing discussions surrounding the relationship between craft, design and art such collaborations and commissions, offer enormous benefits. They not only broaden the potential for craft practitioners to extend their practice into commercially viable production and heighten public profile, but also foster innovative shifts in their research and gallery work.

In the period 2001 to 2003, McManus maintained an intense schedule of solo and group exhibitions. Most notably 'green line' at NEXUS (Adelaide) Watch This Space (Alice Springs) 24HR ART (Darwin) and Craft Victoria, Melbourne. From this exhibition the MAGNT acquired the title work green line which reflects on the ongoing conflict in the city of Jerusalem. Like much of her recent output, this work consists of wall mounted ceramic tablets. In Jerusalem, green line, subtle leaf intaglios encourage the viewer to focus on the luminous details and beauty of the imprint. As with the plant intaglios, an imprint of a hand possesses a unique impression. The repeated motif of hand and leaf suggests individuality yet sensitively champions humanity's shared veins, channels and histories.

In her own search for understanding, McManus became absorbed with the psychology and power of ancient myths at the heart of people's search for meaning. She noted on travels in the 1990s the ubiquitous symbol of the hand in the Middle East. The imprint of the hand is widely understood to symbolise universal humanity. Increasingly the artist's practice compelled her to research the provenance of archetypal and religious iconography and the use of shared symbols across cultures.

In more recent work, behold, 2003, the artist employs a collection of cast ceramic hands she found at the Palmerston tip. McManus was attracted to their arresting form, which she observed 'reaches upwards with a strong sense of both testimony and warning'. In this recontextualisation of found objects, the smooth fine porcelain surface acts as a sculptural canvas for transferring her further exploration of the religious and mythological imagery of the Middle East.

In applying fragments of ancient texts and illuminated manuscripts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the artist intentionally muddies the contemporary and historical reading. Arguably in the same way that the historical and cultural ramifications of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are being played out on a global scale today. As an example, the artist's fragmented image of an ornate chair can be interpreted as 'the seat of power'. Such chairs are commonly used for formal occasions in the Middle East and were recently seen repeatedly on television when looters raided the palaces of Saddam Hussein. However the seat as presented by the artist is vacant and worn.

Behold, originally envisaged by the artist as a large group of an indeterminate number, was later named individually according to the image each holds. The method employed by the artist involves applying a reversed copier print onto the porcelain. When fired the iron content in the toner transforms to a beautiful red or sepia colour depending on the exact temperature. At a particular temperature the residual ash from the paper fuses to a lovely golden residue. These tonal qualities work perfectly for the reproduction of ancient texts and maps and although Pip could readily apply other oxides and washes, she is satisfied with this austere red oxide palette.

The power of ancient myths at the heart of people's search for soul or inner reality is often reinvented and invested in the landscape in which they live. Each culture creates its own visual stereotypes and invents its own vision of the landscape. In some regards the land inertly reflects the aspirations of many cultures, religions and ethnicities. In the work unpromised land, McManus unites the bizarre aspirations of long-forgotten Critchley Parker junior, with those of the longstanding Jewish vision of 'the Promised Land'. The work was commissioned for the exhibition Haven as part of the Tasmanian Ten Days on the Island Festival, April 2003. All artists in this exhibition were asked to respond to stories of individuals who had envisaged Tasmania as an isle of refuge rather than a place of dark convict history. Parker (1911 - 1942), a wealthy eccentric with an abiding passion for the development of the Tasmanian frontier, proposed a fanciful scheme for a major re-settlement of Jewish refugees in Tasmania's wilderness. He died in pursuit of this dream in the Tasmanian wilderness, in isolation. Unpromised land, by means of the tragedy of Critchley Parker articulates the artist's observation that 'sacred land cannot miraculously deliver refuge'. Indeed in a collection of contemporary individual, local and international contexts that are confused, there is urgency in McManus's assertion that 'sacred land cannot miraculously deliver refuge as long as shared histories and common needs are not acknowledged by all parties'.