Posted: 16 Jun 2012 | By: Andrew Nicholls
Jeweller Helen Britton is among the most significant contemporary artists to have emerged from Western Australia and has spent the past decade based in Munich at the international forefront of her industry.
Known for her audacious material ingenuity, Britton will set real jewels alongside plastic ones or daub precious metals with acrylic paint in the creation of her wearable objects, which nonetheless are always exquisite, each operating as a self-contained miniature world.
Luckily for the West (and unlike the majority of WA-born creatives who attain comparable international success), Britton regularly returns to Perth to undertake projects, most recently residing for three months at Midland Atelier, a ‘creative hub’ located in a vast, crumbling Victorian railway workshop site on Perth’s northern outskirts, at the invitation of FORM, Western Australia’s fine craft and design organisation.
An unanticipated outcome of Britton’s residency, the Awkward Beauty collaboration grew from her interactions with friend and garment designer Justine McKnight, and photographer Michelle Taylor, inspired by the ‘awkward beauty’ of the dilapidated workshop site. Britton produced five jewellery works and McKnight five garments; they then swapped and created another five each — in response to the other’s. Taylor then documented the ten jewellery/garment combinations via a series of photographs of a female model in various locations throughout the workshops, which also served as the venue for the resultant exhibition in October 2011. This was FORM’s first use of the Atelier as a gallery space and, though somewhat difficult to locate (my interception by the site’s security patrol only added to the gothic ambience), the stylish installation provided striking contrast to its ramshackle setting.
Given that the process, rather than the works themselves, was collaborative, the most intriguing aspect to viewing Awkward Beauty was tracking the influence of each maker on the others. The angled bodice seams of McKnight’s grey dress, for example, were neatly reflected in the settings of Britton’s matching diamond and sapphire rings, while hideous plastic bollards glimpsed in the background of one of Taylor’s images echoed the same shade of fluorescent orange featured in Britton’s best work from the show: a stunning neckpiece comprising orange plastic disks contained in silver sheaths. For me, the strongest works were indeed the more ‘awkward’, such as McKnight’s simply tailored green dress with a tumour of black and white fabric inexplicably rupturing from the waist seam, and those of Taylor’s photographs most evocative of the workshop’s decrepit ambience: the winsome model perched on an industrial-scale light fitting amongst dusty pine veneer, or foregrounding an askew louvre window that echoed the angled checks of her grey tartan bodice.
The more conventionally ‘beautiful’ elements of the show were perhaps less memorable, and while Britton has always straddled the two sensibilities with flair (the smaller scale of her works perhaps allowing her more freedom to do so), McKnight and Taylor seemed less willing to embrace their inner ‘awkwardness’ (it would take a more discerning eye than mine, for example, to appreciate how Taylor’s images differed from standard commercial fashion photography, despite her artist’s statement to the contrary). While this is more an observation than a criticism, the result was that in this collaborative context, Britton’s works tended to steal the show.
Exhibiting with Awkward Beauty was Building a Steak of Creativity, an equally accomplished series of jewellery objects by Britton’s partner, David Bielander, who undertook his own Atelier residency alongside her. Displaying Bielander’s trademark humour (the title playfully parodies FORM’s oh-so-earnest tagline, for example), a shrimp-shaped necklace and obscenely protruding silver banana were among the highlights of a charming collection. For further information, go to www.form.net.au.
Images from top:
Awkward Beauty, installation view, 2011. Image courtesy FORM.
Helen Britton, Rings, silver, diamonds, sapphires, 2011. Justine McKnight, Dress, wool, silks, printed cellulose acetate, Petersham ribbon, 2011. Photograph Michelle Taylor.
Helen Britton, Brooch, silver, paint, plastics, wood, brass thread, 2010. Photograph Michelle Taylor.