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'green line'
'green line'

green line

review

eyeline 46 spring 2001 p 43

PIP MCMANUS: GREEN LINE

Review by KIM MAHOOD

The thing that first strikes you on walking into Pip McManus's exhibition Green Line is its beauty. The luscious ultramarine, viridian and cobalt glazes, the delicate intaglio leaf forms, the textures, the exquisite details. The leaves of fig, fern, bauhinia, olive, oleander, jacaranda, float beneath the glazed surfaces as if glimpsed under still water. These perfect burned negatives of the original vibrate with presence, the temporal leaf transformed into the permanent symbol.

For many years McManus has worked as a professional ceramicist, making commercial domestic pieces and executing a number of local commissions in Alice Springs and its environs. She is a consummate craftswoman, with the knowledge and skill to push and risk her medium. Her exhibition Green Line, is evidence of her recent shift towards using her craft as a vehicle to explore the ideas which have been subtly implicit in her work for some time.

The seduction of texture, colour and detail, on closer examination, reveal an intention to address the big issues of our time, the weighty themes of genocide, displacement and dispossession. It is interesting that as a long time Centralian McManus directly addresses the local issues of white/aboriginal relations only once, in the final panel of a series. It is as if the years of living at the heart of the country, where the evidence of dispossession is a constant presence, have produced in the artist a poignant sense of its impact as a human phenomenon.

McManus first began to address these themes in The Poisoned Well, a work which evolved over a period of several years. The title is drawn from the writing of Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces. 'History is the poisoned well seeping into the groundwater.' The work, which consists of one hundred hands arranged in the shape of an eye, is at first glance a serene, almost meditative piece, the shape suggesting the all-seeing third eye, the hand echoing the hamsa, the symbol to ward off bad luck and protect against evil. In the green depths of each hand glimmers the tracery of a leaf, unique, perfect, sacrificial. The symbolic strength of The Poisoned Well is in its lightness of touch and its aesthetic appeal. The viewer is seduced into a contemplation of the work which allows its less obvious meanings to emerge slowly. A fragment of text hints at these larger meanings - 'a forest shares a history which each tree remembers even after it has been felled'. The multiple image of the hands, all sharing a common form but on closer examination proving to be unique, speaks both of the importance of the individual and the implication that we are all contaminated by the poisonous events of history. The meaning of the work is made explicit by a book which sits unobtrusively on a shelf nearby. Printed on Japanese hand-made paper, it too is a beautiful object the contents of which are a shocking record of the large scale murderous acts people have perpetrated on one another over the last century. Each hand represents such an act, and the work continues to grow.

The talismanic hand, or hamsa, is also a central element in the multi panel piece which makes direct reference to the exhibition title. The Green Line, the invisible zone which separates the present day Israeli and Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem, is a powerful metaphor for the divisions which fracture cultures all over the globe. Echoes of The Poisoned Well resonate in this more recent work, in which nine clay tablets are arranged in a grid formation, and imprinted with texts which refer to the city of Jerusalem as a Jewish, a Christian and an Islamic city. The central tablets bear the imprint of the oleander, whose leaves, as every Centralian knows, are deadly poisonous. (Ironically the oleander is one of the most successful migrant plant species in Central Australia, commonly grown in the past as a handy flowering hedge which survives the rigours of a desert climate.)

The blade-like leaves slash the image, bleeding over the text, vaginal forms which hint at a savage fertility, suggesting the possibility of a bloody rebirth. The remaining tablets bear the hamsa, some of them with the eye embedded in the palm, laid over texts, both Jewish and Islamic, which describe the city as place built out of destruction and fury.

Another multiple panel piece leads circuitously from Cairo to the Todd River in Alice Springs, through the vehicle of a small Romanian boy called Valentine, waiting with his parents in a cramped room in Cairo for migration papers to Australia, which ultimately are not approved. The text which accompanies the final image in the Valentine series, of a group of Aborigines in the bed of the Todd River, is from the artist herself.

For twenty years now I have lived five houses removed from the Todd River. There are always people down there in camps. Strictly speaking. camping is illegal. Sometimes on passing we exchange greetings The campers have never questioned my being here.

In this exhibition one sees the fusion between the mastery of a craft and the integrity of a vision, a passionate and sensitive exploration of the issues which divide and contaminate our shared humanity. The inherent constraints of the process, with its implication of transformation through potentially destructive forces, creates a finely tuned tension and ambiguity, particularly in the less explicit works. For me the pieces which distill the multiple readings of this body of work are the twin intaglio plaques of the heart and kisses. The leaves of Banksia Dryanroides curl towards each other like loaded springs, vibrating with a radiant tension which suggests that were they not held in perpetual stasis by the medium they might at any moment spring apart. And the crossed leaves with their sawtooth edges might be crossed swords. Through both heart and kisses runs the central vein, the green line through which the sap flows, showing sharp as a knife cut in the gleaming reflective surface.
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