Ateliers Orsini

Art & Design

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Exhibition Playing with Light - Chrissie Cotter gallery

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Opening speech by Paul Donnelly,
Associate Director, Museum Content, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney

Exhibition Playing with Light - Rita Orsini - Chrissie Cotter gallery, Camperdown (4-14 Feb 2016)

3 February, 2016


I am greatly honoured to have been asked by Rita to open her show – ‘Playing with Light’.

I have been fortunate to have known Rita as a friend and museum colleague for many years but I am privileged to say this is my first time this side of one of her opening crowds.

In considering tonight’s words I began writing my notes when handling these two examples of Rita’s resin work purchased by me in recent years. One is this sea-green osso buco bracelet edged with white spray . . .  the other an orange bowl of differing intensities of streaked fiery colour. I must say it was refreshing to have examples available to hand that could be considered at length prior to this opening occasion.

During my examination of the pieces I recalled the times of purchase and remember choosing them primarily on the basis of colour. The blue-green bracelet for my wife Tiffany seemed appropriate to her maritime origins on the Sunshine Coast. The orange bowl appealed because the asymmetrical footless hemisphere was strikingly reminiscent to me of Bronze Age Cypriot pottery from around 5,000 years ago. In common with the resin’s form, such pottery is handmade (rather than wheel made), and burnished to a high polish.

Oh – and also because I like orange!

Even at this initial and relatively superficial level my motivations and the artist’s intentions merge – inevitably becoming something else. But this wasn’t enough for me! I had to go deeper and so upping the ante in my Orsini explorations I took a magnifying glass to the bracelet and bowl. A magnifier is something I have with me at all times – and a tool I can recommend to you all! Through it I was able to quite literally submerge myself in the material. The now greatly-enlarged bubbles in the bracelet seemed even more appropriate to the watery evocation – with the magnified fissures in the resin refracting the light to dark streaks conjuring seaweed, or sea creatures.

Moving from the watery bracelet, the orange bowl illuminated between a light bulb and the magnifier became – a flaming sun – a dangerously close snapshot of lava

– or a Voyager spacecraft photo of Jupiter’s atmosphere riddled with elliptical storms.

From my perspective as a curator and practising archaeologist, objects are the raison d’etre of my world – and so unquestioningly assumed in importance that I have to remind myself that their innate qualities and worth are not evident to everyone. Tonight, however, I am confident that you – the audience standing in this gallery – are on the same page.  

We all have your own responses to Rita’s work that makes meanings specific to us. Rita schemes this for us too in her painted work by adding the motif of the window and its infinite possibilities of what lies beyond in our imagination and past experience.

As may be seen from some of my interpretations of the resin, my qualifications more specifically are in the prehistoric archaeology of the Mediterranean world.  In archaeology looking at artefacts is fundamental – they are the primary evidence in lieu of the written word from which we can interpret ancient society. By necessity this interpretation draws upon context and prior knowledge of the familiar language of forms and style that are the tools of an archaeologist’s trade. My mind is filled with a dictionary of forms and decorative approaches.

Which brings me to the painted parts of Rita’s delightful work, and specifically the cylindrical lamps.

Other commentaries on Rita’s work, including her own, understandably talk about the colour and light that are so critical to their success. The ‘playing with light’ that is such an identifying feature of Rita’s work – be it resin or painted lamps. I love that for Rita her illuminated pieces conjure stained and painted glass and anything that can evoke memories of the like of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is a conduit to be welcomed.

However, informed by my own experiences I see in them different connections – specifically – ancient Greek pictorial pottery of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. You have probably seen examples of the red figure style on which figures such as Dionysus party for eternity surrounded by lusty satyrs chasing through the grapevines groups of understandably panicky Meanads – Dionysius’s female attendants. A quick image search incorporating the words satyr and red-figure will bear out the reasons for their speedy exit! Alternately there are examples to be seen in the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney.

Other examples depict narratives as diverse as scenes from the Trojan Wars to quiet domestic scenes. In common with Rita’s work perhaps it is the mystery of what is happening on the unseen portions of the cylindrical forms that is so intriguing - a journey requiring exploration around the vessel in just the same way Rita’s lamps invite speculation on what is happening on the other side. But there are other types also from classical Athens whose transparency is especially relevant to Rita’s lamps.

This is a technique known as White Ground which was almost exclusively applied to tall cylindrical oil containers known as lekythoi. Such examples are acknowledged today as our best insight into Classical fine art which we know from written accounts existed, but has not survived. Instead of the more familiar red and black decoration these vessels are a flat white background with its added details of figures and their activities transformed by thin washes of added colour - a transparency exacerbated by age that seems to allow light to pass through it – just as with the lamps. Because these vessels are not as stable as more conventional fired pottery their fugitive nature means they often wear away and become patchy creating an even closer parallel to Rita’s impressionistic patterns.

I have tried to share tonight the impact Rita’s work has in my life. I wonder what yours are? The works at the initial level are an insight into the artist and their world – but our responses framed by our own world and life experiences create new narratives. As Rita herself notes, ‘she is interested in multi-dimensional narratives and the theme of transformation’. I can only imagine the pleasure Rita’s warm personality gains in brokering this relationship.

It is both a gift from, and a reward to, the artist.

Please share with me in congratulating the artist and her work.

Dr Paul Donnelly