Heather B. Swann | Karen Woodbury Gallery

Heather B. Swann, Cheaper Labour, 2014
Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

On a residency in Paris several years ago, Heather B Swann spent days on end at a folk art and craft museum (since closed), doing sketches of curious artefacts in one of her many notebooks. Some of the items that caught her attention included old bobbins and mechanical looms, devices that had once been used for mass manufacturing textiles in the early industrial period. Initially Swann liked the bobbins simply because they were lovely objects. They have a curvey, feminine shape (instantly appealing to an artist with such an anthropomorphic tendency). Lately though, Swann has begun to think more and more about the women who were once tied to the other end of those machines, labouring to manufacture clothes they would likely never wear themselves. Women’s bodies making material to dress other women’s bodies using tools that resembled women’s bodies. It all has a looping, repetitive quality to it, rather like the labour itself. 

Heather B. Swann, Casual Labour, 2014
Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

What finally emerged from Swann’s reimagining of those 19th century Parisian sewing bobbins is Cheaper Labour (2014), and it’s the centrepiece of a new series of large drawings - rendered in generous swells of black and blood-red ink and wash - which are about work and the working body. In Casual Labour (2014) a figure appears on their knees in a prayer position as if, says Swann, “bowing down to their landlord or their boss at the 7-11.” While in Production Line, Commuters and The Working Body (all 2014), the figures resemble mannequins or mechanical parts. They're all ball-sockets and no body; their knees, shoulders, elbows and ankles daubed in big welts of ink.

Heather B. Swann, Commuter, 2014
Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

The drawings in the Workers series (at Karen Woodbury’s Flinders Lane gallery until 28 March) reflect what Swann describes as an “abstract anger” at working life. Pick your grievance: there's the tedious and increasingly precarious nature of contemporary employment in Australia; the way we outsource our worst jobs to developing nations; and our tacit acceptance of labour conditions that are just as squalid and dangerous as they were when those old sewing bobbins were still in use. (Or even worse – at least in scale; the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York killed more than a hundred mostly female garment workers while the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than a thousand). If it all sounds a little didactic, it isn't. In keeping with Swann’s kinky sensibility there is a grim comedy to the drawings, a kind of cathartic pleasure in the macabre.

Heather B. Swann, The Working Body, 2014
Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

Swann is best known as a sculptor and to date her ink drawings have primarily been a way of brainstorming new works. She tends to draw fast and loose and messy, with minimal planning and as little conscious thought as possible. More recently, Swann has started making much larger and more considered pieces – like those in the Workers series or last years’ winner of the Paul Guest Award for contemporary drawing, You are a Balloon (2014). The reason, says Swann, is because she's simply exhausted, “I’m 53 and I wanted a change from big heavy duty sculptures”. She was tired of toiling with hard materials and wielding an angle grinder in safety gear for days at a time (though for the record, Swann strikes me as a very spry 53 year old). Swann assures me that she doesn't think of making art as “work” per se, instead she describes it as intensely pleasurable, “pure joy”. Nevertheless, looking at all those swollen knee joints and shoulder sockets in the Workers series, I wonder whether Swann's "abstract anger" might also extend to the effects that repetitive physical labour have had on her own body. Swann's eyes light up at the suggestion, "Oh yes, the idea of the body being used up and worn out has a very appealing melancholy.”

>> Maura Edmond
>> 12 March 2015

Heather B. Swann
4 - 28 March, 2015
Karen Woodbury Gallery
Level 1, 167 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Tues - Sat 11am - 5.00pm