Joan Ross is a gleaner. She picks through things abandoned or discarded by those of us less passionate about the intrinsic worth of used objects, less outraged about consumerism’s perpetual erosion of value. Ross has a gleaner’s ethical aversion to waste — with a little imagination and a lot of empathy, nothing need be consigned to landfill — and a gleaner’s pride in the independence that creative resourcefulness brings. Sifting through piles of stuff in garage sales and council clean-ups, her eye is honed to rescue and resuscitate the least likely candidates from amongst the waste of others — used underwear, wood veneer off-cuts, moth-eaten stuffed toys. This way of working has allowed Ross to develop a unique critical sensibility: what was once deemed unwanted or unloved, embarrassing or redundant, is tenderly transformed into the archetypal object of value, an artwork.
Several years ago, Ross began sifting through junk for fur toys, in particular kangaroo-fur koalas made for the tourist market. She was intrigued by the many contradictions inherent in these objects: kangaroo simulating koala; ‘authentic’ Australiana manufactured offshore; cuddly and lovable ‘creatures’ crafted from the skins of dead animals. She was also struck by the fact that these toys were being discarded en masse, largely in response to rising anxiety about the politics of the fur trade. They were suffering wholesale cultural rejection, hence the moment was ripe for their rescue. To Ross, the waste of this valuable material compounded rather than alleviated the cruelty and disregard for life at the heart of the fur trade. It was the massing of these koalas that led to the creation of Fur Clock (1995), a key work that opened the floodgates of Ross’ fur oeuvre.
In keeping with her gleaner’s ethos, Ross only re-uses fur that has little or no market value, be it from discarded toys, from the fur coats worn by another generation that now glut op shops like dirty secrets, or from kangaroo pelts that have been rendered virtually worthless by a gunshot wound or a scar.
Yet fur’s connotations of value are impossible to quell. Not only does fur have a long history as a luxury material associated with ostentatious wealth, but the fact that its existence has cost at least one life charges it with potency. As a material it retains its proximity to that death, but also to that life. It is unremittingly desirable, begging to be stroked and tousled, promising immediate pleasure as our fingers imagine the nervy warmth of the living animal responding to this sensual exchange. For Ross, this love of fur is related to a profound human need to connect with the natural world and its ideal of unmediated, unselfconscious expression of elemental desires. Fur as a sexual signifier and object of fetish also has a long tradition in art, perhaps most memorably in Surrealist sculptures such as Meret Oppenheim’s ever-suggestive Object (1936) (a fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon).
Fur’s sensual, sexual, register is integral to Ross’ works, particularly to the large series of drawings of self-conscious misfits: fur immediately suggests intimacy, a sense that these characters have revealed too much too quickly. Such revelation is augmented in the titles that literalise the characters’ inner dialogues — ‘I am not a clown’, or ‘It felt as though only the sparrow liked me’. Yet while both the titles and the fur tufts that sprout untidily off the paper bring us uncomfortably close to others’ dramas of disappointment and longing, so they also offer comic relief from the embarrassment of that intimacy. Humour, indeed, is a vital element in Ross’ work, often the kind of humour that allows us to laugh gently at our own foibles — vanity, hypocrisy, failure — in identification with Ross’ figures, or humour that pokes fun at pretension.
Along with fur derived from tourist kitsch, Ross uses other fragments of gleaned Australiana, such as terry towelling, commemorative tea towels, and outback scenes, to construct the identity of these somewhat desperate characters. Critically, Ross never treats kitsch ironically. Rather, she feels a genuine affection for and empathy with it, for its ingenuous attempts to be cheerful and bright, for its sentimentality. The motifs and patterns on the collaged elements regularly portray brightly coloured, jolly scenes, which by contrast underline the melancholy of the figures’ countenance and body language. Indeed, the colour and texture of the appliquéd found materials often provide the only detail in an otherwise simple line drawing. Ross’ use of collage recalls child-like craft and delight in texture and serendipitous correspondences. The sheer volume of the drawings and their expressive graphic style are suggestive of a compulsive, obsessive process that migrates into the figures’ identities.
In recent works, Ross has begun to explore the conjunction of fur and Australian identity more directly. A particularly striking series comprises the silhouettes of eucalypts and bottle trees cut from a single kangaroo pelt. The dusky tones and gentle colour grading of the fur, from grey, to silver, to white, merge perfectly with recollections of the soft, muted colours of gum tree bark. Fur’s power to immediately evoke a sensual register connects us with the feel of the bark, with the living presence of the tree. At the same time, the graceful beauty of the image invites the viewer to consider the disturbing aspects to the conflation of these two icons of Australian identity. Kangaroo and gum tree: elements of pre-colonial Australia integral to Aboriginal life, elements that while once alien to European sensibilities were eventually domesticated to signify ‘the outback’, an ideal unpopulated by indigenous inhabitants who proved much more difficult for the Europeans to negotiate. That these trees are cut from the fur of a kangaroo killed to meet the commercial needs of pet-food manufacturers and trinket-makers serves as a reminder of the violent history behind the construction of these seemingly benign signifiers of ‘Australia’.
The visceral quality of fur is also strangely apposite to Ross’ reworkings of iconic figures from Australia’s colonial past such as James Cook and Caroline Chisholm. Fur’s paradoxical evocation of life and death creates a rich stream of allusions that allows these official portraits to be creatively reread. Images whose meaning has been leached out by over-reproduction are reconnected by fur with the material world of real bodies, real skin; moreover, the European respectability that these images construct is compromised and enlivened through contact with a wild, native animal. Once again, Ross’ comic sensibility is at play to deflate the pretensions of these larger than life Founding Forebears. On the other hand, the animal pelt insists that these portraits as metaphorically dead, relics of an embalmed history of no further relevance.
Fur can only be painted in the direction it grows; it is intractable, insists in telling its own stories, and literally bears the life history of the animal it once was. Its ragged edges, at times reminiscent of the irregular indentations of a coastline, trail off in inconclusive gestures. Throughout her practice, Ross has experimented with materials that offer an alternative to the preciousness of the blank canvas, materials that bring another register of associations to her paintings as well as highlight their sculptural aspects. Ross is particularly intrigued by the way the materiality of her found surface sets up limits and comes to dictate the way she paints it, so that the surface becomes almost an active participant in the process.
Ross has also used as a readymade surface amateur landscape paintings, again gleaned from the scrap heap. Ross selects these carefully, guided as much by intuitive aesthetic decisions as by empathy for those whose earnest attempts to connect with nature, to represent beauty, have ended up instead as representations of failure and objects of self-disgust. Ross rescues these works, transforms them from unsightly rubbish into compelling collages, harnessing the genuine sentiment and creative optimism that one can imagine accompanied their conception. Adding silhouettes cut from fur that evoke a head of hair or a pair of sideburns, she renders these landscapes portraits. The painted scenes thus become elements of a face, offering insights into the figure’s psyche in a manner that recalls certain paintings by Surrealist Rene Magritte.
Ross’ gesture also necessarily brings to mind the late works of the seminal Australian conceptualist Ian Burn, whose Value Added Landscapes (1989-1993) comprised of found amateur landscape paintings that the artist had overlaid with text about the nature of looking at art. Burn saw these works as collaborations and a way of rethinking the border between the Sunday painter and the ‘real’ artist that the art world so carefully polices. As Burn put it, Value Added Landscapes ‘hold professional spaces and identities hostage to amateur values’. In honouring the creative endeavours of unknown amateur painters, in valuing genuine artistic sentiment above institutionally sanctioned definitions of fine art, Ross’ work could also be said to impugn that border.
Combining the resourcefulness and ethical responsibility of a gleaner with the aesthetic sensitivity and erudition of a long-practising artist, Ross has created an emotionally charged series of works. Her art of rescuing and transforming the unloved and discarded, of embracing the less attractive and marketable aspects of human life, brings to mind the phrase Agnes Varda used to describe gleaning: ‘joyful mournfulness’. Ross’ work could be seen to memorialise that which would otherwise be buried — psychically, metaphorically and literally — as worthless. To return to Varda (the French avant-garde filmmaker whose recent film The Gleaners and I poetically documented the gleaning ethos): she compared herself as a filmmaker to a gleaner, for ‘When you realise life is racing past you, you want to hold on to every last scrap’. But what scraps!
Dr Jacqueline Millner