Joan Ross: 20-50% off all plants & animals

Joan Ross’ works are sharp witted satires, addressing issues of ownership, surveillance, collective anxiety and public and private boundaries. This exhibition focuses on key works from the past decade, reflecting on Ross’ dynamic repertoire of drawing, sculpture, fashion pieces, installation, digital prints and animation. Employing her signature materials of high visibility (hi-vis) fluorescence and Kangaroo fur, Ross reflects the dual and changing nature of culture and community.

The exhibition title, 20-50% off all plants & animals, evokes the degradation of Australia’s natural resources by multinational companies at the expense of Australia’s long term wellbeing. With little regard for the environment or local communities, corporations are being rewarded with “wholesale” prices for what is priceless: water, land, plants and animals are rapidly being destroyed in the name of free enterprise. Ross’ depiction of the all-pervading drone is a symbol of our times and our ever-watchful, paternalistic government.

The reappraisal of, and apology for, colonialism has become sub-genre in contemporary art practice. By highlighting the similarities of the treatment of Australia, then and now, Ross brings an edge to the colonial debate that provokes our consideration. In her unique way Ross takes 19th century paintings of artists such as Glover and Lycett and revitalises them. She transforms static landscapes into modern day satires on our way of life. Using animation she is able to re-script the pictorial imagination and, as in the tradition of the cartoon, defies the logic of things – gravity, mortality and even history.

In satirising Australian colonial culture, Ross spotlights the predicament of consumer society and inadvertently, challenges contemporary art practice itself. These quasi-outdoor frolics are not some innocent, happy family gathering, nor a quaint recollection of the Australian bucolic-pastoral that will perform as passive décor. These are stories that expose the cruelty and self-centred, destructive nature of colonisation.

At first glance her works are aesthetically pleasing, quirky and satirical, easing the viewer with the familiarity of hybrid appropriations. We enjoy the visual parody, the colourful palate, the baroque excess and the discreet soundtracks. Critics have acknowledged her seamless marriage of the art historical and the contemporary. However, on closer inspection the works are confronting, provocative and disarming. Layered with meaning, criss-crossed with conceptual tangents, Ross reminds us of our colonial history and the ongoing repercussions of that history.

These themes are not limited to her animations. Ross’ intentional excessive use of fluoro throughout her practice creates an overwhelming experience that is simultaneously like a dance party and a council work zone. Used as a metaphor for colonisation the hi-vis insists on a stance of authority and yet in its excess there is a sense of celebration that causes a disruption to our typical viewing experience. Ross’ deliberate use of fluoro is a direct comment on our societal values around power, control and authority. We are conditioned to unquestioningly trust the authority of hi-vis fluoro.

Another recurring element in Ross’ practice is her use of Kangaroo fur. The Kangaroo is an internationally recognised symbol of Australia – it is on our coat of arms and was intrinsic to Aboriginal life and culture. This culturally charged material is at once alluring and repelling. There is a sensual attraction to the feel of fur: soft, warm, enticing, and yet we cannot escape the animal’s death that allows us to come in such close contact with its pelt. Ross re-purposes discarded animal skins, breathing new life into these once prized but now unwanted objects. She expertly incorporates these layers of meaning in her works creating fur wearables in the form of underwear, a gown and a suit. She has fashioned oversized replicas of luxury designer handbags and creates incongruous domestic objects with sexual overtones. Fur protrudes from her collages in a kinky depiction of intimate body parts. Here the divergent qualities of extravagance and degradation sit side-by-side making the viewer extremely uncomfortable, particularly with regard to our own ethical choices.

Ross’ installations pay tribute to the baroque. She creates pseudo-domestic interiors with fluoro wallpaper, Kangaroo fur flowers in kitsch vases, human hair sculptures, inflatable fluoro ornaments and reclaimed mundane objects charged with meaning. Ross’ brilliance lies in her knack for deftly juxtaposing contradictory themes while embracing these contradictions. This flamboyant style is apparent throughout her practice. Her approach is theatrical, sometimes ostentatious and has a sting.

This is evident in Ross’ drawings. They provide an outlet for an emotional understanding of everyday events – curious reflections of personal experiences, with some clues to the artist’s feelings in the titles: I thought they were all laughing at me, I only wanted to kiss him, I brushed your door handle or Fighting for crumbs. As with most of Ross’ oeuvre there is a sardonic tone to her drawings, however they are accessible and stirring as they reference individual yet universal concerns.

In researching Ross’ practice and working with her on this exhibition I have come across certain complexities that lie in the multiple layers of meaning inherent in her work. This is partly because the territory she covers is contentious or problematic in one way or another. But mainly it is because of the way she goes about it, her mode of operating is so intensely personal it is often mistaken for mockery, when in fact she is deadly serious. Her experience of the world is acutely emotive and she intuitively channels this directly into her art practice.

Rilka Oakley, curator Blue Mountains City Art Gallery