Visual Art

Through a Lens of Visitation – Dale Harding’s collaboration with his mother, textile artist Kate Harding – creates a vast, tactile exhibition that challenges individual authorship. By Tristen Harwood.

Through a Lens of Visitation

Dale Harding’s What is theirs is ours now (I do not claim to own), 2018.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

When you enter Dale Harding’s Through a Lens of Visitation, you step out of the campus site of the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) into another place entirely. The scale of the exhibition creates a sense of vastness I associate with walking at the bottom of a gorge. The premise of this work – produced in collaboration with the artist’s mother, textile artist Kate Harding, and curated by Hannah Mathews – is deceptively simple. Dale responds to kin and his relationship to his mother and her Country at Carnarvon Gorge.

A Brisbane-based artist of Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal descent, Dale Harding works in painting and sculpture. At MUMA, his subdued paintings, sculptures and textiles radiate from a series of five quilts made by his mother. Together they enact a joyful exhalation, even if they sometimes draw from vestiges of violent histories.

Dale Harding’s work is concerned with formal and material lineage, the science and the social context of art-making. Here aesthetic practice is collectively produced rather than individually owned, focusing on family and the afterlives that dwell in materials and form.

Kate Harding’s work overflows with earthy colour gradients. It’s a lesson in seeing, insofar as seeing is always a physical act of experiencing an environment. You can’t look at her quilts without feeling the warmth of a blanket, carefully articulated folds, the needle’s choreographed ins and outs preserved in each stitch. Tribute to women – past, present and future (2019), hung at the entrance to the gallery, is a patchwork quilt composed of small squares of various Indigenous textiles (most often made by women). The colours range from purple all the way through to yellow, like a colour wheel indexed to the land – sea, beach, bush, gorge. Kangaroo tracks embroidered in black punctuate the patchwork field. Its use of gridding that stitches together swatches of immense Country know-how reminds me of David Mowaljarlai’s 1993 “map”, an exquisite drawing of the continent with a framework of tracts that delineate interwoven Indigenous storylines crisscrossing the continent.

Carnarvon (2020), another of Kate’s patchwork quilts, is more specific about place, comprising panels in sedimentary red tones. In the top right corner is a small rich brown square, to the left a pinkish panel, while below both is a strip in sandstone. The overall composition brings you close to the patterns of the rock at Carnarvon Gorge. Kate has stitched tiny appliqué dilly bags across the quilt’s surface which, small as they are, remain literal rather than figurative dilly bags. It signals that the process of making these objects constitutes their purposes.

The Hardings’ work is connected by a concern for aesthetics as collective, familial practice and the sharing of technical knowledge. Whether through collaboration, material research or methodological genealogy, their practice resists ascribing a singular author and rejects the authority of the discrete subject.

Dale Harding’s F1 (Saddler’s contract) 2020 is an ecru wool felt about the same size and shape as a saddle blanket, which is nailed to the wall next to a pile of neatly folded cloaks that are piled on top of one another on the floor in an act of open concealment. The felt was created by Jan Oliver and given to Harding. Two blackened scorch marks that could be wounds – outlined in yellow ochre and acacia gum – score the centre of the unbleached felt. The burns are residual events created by a hot pan and pot while Harding was camping on Country and using the felt for warmth and shelter.

With F1, painting is ritualised alchemy, transmuting memory to form. The felt becomes a material record of the social world in which it’s made and the community of practice the artist draws from.

Acacia gum on glass (2021) is a temporary work consisting of dry pigment with acacia gum. It’s painted onto the gallery window. A length of glass corresponding to Dale Harding’s height, painted in the same pigment, leans against the window. The pigment is smeared thinly, so it appears translucent as sunlight radiates through the window. The red pigment can be seen only in its full opacity against the black of night, outside the gallery’s visiting hours. There is something of the sacred in this play between colour, light, time and space, where working hours constrain but can’t fully determine how we see the painting.

Harding’s Blue ground/dissociative (2017) is a large canvas painted with Reckitt’s Blue (ultramarine) and white ochre. This blue is brushed across linen canvas – if you get close enough you can see how this action has caused pilling – so that the linen looks worn, like an old piece of clothing.

The bone-white ochre, which Harding has applied by spitting the pigment onto the canvas in a process he’s referred to as emetic painting, is a material breath that hovers like the moon at a pitch in blue night sky.

The sweeping and the spitting are gestures of legibility, an urgent need to express something that’s intuitively known: a strange utterance or familiar sign, bone deep. The spitting is a painting technique that can be traced to cave painting. There’s something in this sweeping gesture – trying to scrub a surface clean – stilled in this blue painting that echoes the coloniality of domestic labour. Reckitt’s Blue, which came packaged in muslin not unlike the canvas, was a laundry additive that was popular across the colonial “frontier” of Queensland in the late 19th century.

Harding has an acute responsibility to the history of the materials and medium with which he works. The blue is a material artefact of the colonial governance that forced Indigenous women into underpaid domestic service. Ultramarine also has an undeniable relation to Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue, the Renaissance painter Titian’s use of ultramarine and the entire history of European painting through to colour field and minimalism. Harding tells me this is his last Reckitt’s Blue painting. Sometimes the ultimate responsibility to a history is to bring it to a close.

Harding’s work gives shape to collective breath. He and his mother create a shared space in which one can envision the life-sustaining primacy of air, light and earth, making them both visible and tactile. Crucially, this tactility can only be visited in terms of experience itself – how a quilt warms the body or the feeling of paint in the mouth, the visceral force of spitting it onto canvas. It’s irreducible to mere representation.

Dale Harding: Through a Lens of Visitation shows at MUMA until June 26, before touringto the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Exhalations of joy".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.