Rita Hall. Museum Studies 1969 - 2009
The following is an extract from the catalogue essay of my exhibition, "Rita Hall. Museum Studies 1969-2009' held at the South Australian Museum in June 2009
Printmaking, and in particular etching, was my major interest and preferred medium after graduating from the SA School of Art in 1968. My teaching specialisation became printmaking and most of my early works were in this discipline. I generally printed in small editions across a range of subjects within a still life genre.
In 1979 I began to make screen prints on fabric, still a printmaking technique but on a much larger scale. Works on fabric were purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of SA, the Art Gallery of WA, Tamworth Fibre Award and many Regional Galleries for their permanent collections.
In early 1987 a variety of factors caused me to abandon the production of wall hangings. Once again I wished to move on to new ideas in printmaking.
As a transition back to works on paper I made a series of 10 linocuts of Australian birds to be printed in editions of 100 each.
By 1989 bird print production was in full swing. I was also teaching again part time at the SA School of Art. I then decided to reassess my art practice in a major way. It became a time to 'calm down' and redefine the hectic artistic activity of the previous ten years.
A grain of sand seemed a likely metaphor for this period. I began to draw on the idea on a more philosophical level, determining to find the simplicity in images which had always inspired my art. This led me again to the Museum where so many ideas had become manifest. I began to look seriously at the stones in the collections, from grinding stones to stone tools, axe heads, artefacts and other stone implements.
I enrolled in the first Masters of Visual Art programme offered by the University of SA in 1991 with a vague notion of further exploring stones as a point of reference for making art. The research project led me in diverse directions, travels throughout Australia and contact with museums across the country.
My art project has always been to find the visual imagery from the real, to develop it from that reference point into something which may be called art. To me the 'real' is already so abstract and so odd it needs no embellishment by an imagination and its banality is more than enough. For the art works, I sought to clarify or distil my first impressions and my studied perceptions. Through formal means, technical experimentation and application of learned skills I made a body of work encompassing a range of subjects.
I wanted to make powerful art from ordinary subjects. I was drawn to specimens in the Museum which had already been given some significance simply by being included in a public collection. They had their own history or 'otherness' although they were also familiar in that they often came from the natural world. Many, like the stone tools or the bird skins, had the mark of human intervention, therefore giving them another dimension of interest. Fortunately, the specimens in the museum are static, a great help in making drawings and studies, even of birds in emulated flight.
Art works emerged which embraced experimental combinations of printmaking, drawing, pastel and watercolours. I tried to suggest solid weight, texture and colour with the simple round stone forms. Gradually the forms began to change into elongated or pyramid shapes as I investigated other cultural uses of stones and I began to wrap them with decorative bindings. Some were printed from matrixes made with leather, lace and fabrics.
In 1992 I completed the Master of Visual Art degree, and continued to make art and teach at the SA School of Art in Printmaking and Drawing. Many new art works evolved, in various series relating to my life and interests at the time. Printmaking continued to be a preferred media and I purchased a new 30 inch etching press. It weighed 750 kilos and became a dominant feature of the studio.
Together, the press and I produced prints depicting wrapped horses in canvas rugs then leather rugs without the horses. As I hung around the cold manege, watching a little anxiously, as my daughter learnt to ride dressage, I found myself wanting to draw the horses in the opposite paddocks. Over time I made many more series of prints, usually unique states, of bowls, vessels, tools, landscapes, shoes and wrapped bundles of fabrics.
In 2004 a major shift occurred in my art practice when I decided to abandon printmaking as a vehicle for expression. I sold the beloved etching press, but in a panic of anxiety called 'printmaking withdrawal' I immediately purchased an 'as new' old wood mangle. .
Nevertheless, I faced a new challenge: to become proficient in painting. At this stage of my career, it was a serious endeavour. Printmaking and drawing are so direct, a mark is made and it is controlled or directed in an immediate way. To me painting, though pleasurable, was too slippery. Having always responded to the crisp graphic image, it took time to value the more subtle evocations of oil paint.
Once I got the hang of putting paint onto canvas, I again went to the Museum to find suitable 'painterly' subjects. I was attracted, perhaps by familiarity, to the bird display. The exhibits of birds were mounted specimens pretending to be alive in diorama backdrops. They were all still but the glass cases made them difficult to make detailed studies. I decided to focus on the heads and began a series of small paintings in oil on canvas of bird portraits.
Mike Gemmell in the Discovery Centre allowed me to take some mounted specimens home for more detailed studies. I soon exhausted his motley collection and I became reluctant to pursue this course as my cat had attempted to kill the "on loan" stuffed magpie.
I was directed by Mike to make an appointment with Dr Philippa Horton, manager of the Ornithology Collection at the SA Museum. This marked a turning point. When I first viewed the birds skins stacked in the collection room drawers it was a revelation. Maya Penk became my guide and for the next two years I immersed myself in a serious study of the bird collection.
This study was not ornithological nor scientific but artistic. My interest, as usual, was in their forms, the shadows they created, their colours, textures and shapes. It became my constant project to find a way to make art out of these very real objects. The notion of making paintings out of birds which pretended to be alive seemed absurd in the presence of so much complexity and beauty, and in the way they were presented as skins.
I had no wish to add anything to the bird skins, but simply present them in an honest way, as they had appeared directly to me. The liberties I did take were to arrange then into compositions, either singularly or in groups, to provide opportunities for formal art making structures. I reasoned that the skins, like many other objects in the museum, already carried their own meanings, their relevance for scientific study and their own histories. They seemed a perfect metaphor for the ecological issues of the contemporary world and had no need for embellishment with artistic symbols or devices. I wanted the graphic impact of the real just as the earlier etchings had been.
This exhibition represents four decades of constant practice, with many twists and turns. I am personally thrilled to have been given this opportunity to show a retrospective of this particular strand in my life's work, and to see the growth over the years. There are also some surprising continuities between the early and late works.
My enthusiasm for art making is undiminished. As always I need to be astonished by the subject before I can attempt to make art from it. I do not intend to stop. I hope and expect to continue to visit the SA Museum, to see where else I may find a new inspiration for my work. However the birds, I know, will always have much to offer.