After making abstract acrylic paintings for around 25 years, in the early 2010s Sydney artist Elizabeth Pulie started to see her works as textile objects. Her painting continued, but entered into dialogue with sewing and embroidery techniques, adopting hessian and jute fabrics to fashion capes, carpets and frieze-like paintings. Working with tropes that artists such as Miriam Schapiro and Faith Ringgold helped to legitimize in the 1960s and ’70s, Pulie’s practice nevertheless remains difficult to categorize. Whereas pioneers of the women’s art movement risked being dismissed as ‘feminine artists’ for introducing sewing, weaving, knitting, ceramics and pastel colours to the domain of postconceptualism, Pulie is less interested in contesting art-world power dynamics than in the philosophical question of what art is. Ornamental and conceptual, personal and highly abstruse, if her work seems contradictory then it also hints at contradiction as a productive asset, forever tying up her painting practice into conceptual knots, developing it in belaboured, quixotic ways.
At Sydney’s Sarah Cottier Gallery, Pulie’s exhibition is split into two: ‘The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard’ and ‘Decorative Paintings 1990’. In the former, six textile works composed of raw hessian and black fabrics and threads ruminate on Baudrillard’s titular, 2005 collected essays on the waning energy – and redundancy – of art. ‘Ruminate’ is, admittedly, a stretched description here. While recalling the sophisticated designs of the Bauhaus Webereiwerkstatt (Weaving Workshop), Pulie’s numbered works, each subtitled after Baudrillard’s chapters, look less like commentaries than postmodern puzzles. In #89 (Art ... Contemporary of Itself) and #81 (The Matrix Revisited) (both 2018), the artist’s purposely austere treatment of folds, bows and trimmings underscores what she stated, in a 2016 online artist talk, as her intention not to communicate anything at all. Projecting something of a blank mystery, this quality was famously denounced by Baudrillard (once the darling of the postmodern art world) in his 1996 essay ‘The Conspiracy of Art’ as the ‘perverse aesthetic pleasure’ that occurs when nullity is raised to the level of value.
Concurrent with Pulie’s interest in traditional crafts in recent years is her practice-led doctoral research (at the Sydney College of the Arts) into the end of art and contemporaneity theories, where art’s pluralism, commodification and institutionalization are believed to have weakened its authority to expose, describe or change socio-political realities. Claiming, in an interview in the catalogue, that it is difficult to pursue a critical art practice because ‘everything is art’, Pulie, like Baudrillard, leaves herself vulnerable to accusations of merely performing a dance of opaqueness. That anything can be art does not diminish the fact that some representations, like social relations, dominate others and that to counter such appearances is, indeed, to be critical of them. Pulie might be wary of theoretical rhetoric but she is also strangely captivated by it. Looking beyond her conceptual hooks, what comes to the fore in her works are the studious processes involved in their construction, and the pleasures of working ‘blind’ – without an overarching socio-political cause as a guide.
Wherever they came from, the works themselves are stunning. If the installation in the main gallery poses secrets – conspiracies about emptiness – ‘Decorative Paintings 1990’ is all about surface. Comprising four pulsating, ornamental acrylic paintings that the artist made in 1990, it is hard to believe that nearly 30 years have passed since they were first realized. With its thick black geometric lines and decorative floral motifs, TWENTY THREE (1990) is like a cross between Peter Halley’s pedantic conduit paintings from the 1980s and Laura Owens’s pleasant clip art graphics. Juxtaposing old and new work, the exhibition allows Australian audiences to take stock of one of the country’s most thoughtful abstract painters. A lot may have happened in Pulie’s practice but, thankfully, not much has changed.
Elizabeth Pulie,‘The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard & Decorative Paintings’ runs at Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney, until 29 September 2018.
Main image: ‘The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard’ & ‘Decorative Paintings’, 2018, installation view, Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney. Courtesy: Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney
First published in Issue 199