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— Exhibition Essay by Lisa Gorton

KRISTIN HEADLAM, THE UNIVERSE LOOKS DOWN

 

‘And all our dreams are merely timid knocking

On the one mysterious door, the tabula rasa…’

 

A modest undertaking, on the face of it: to illustrate, in a series of etchings, her partner’s zig-zaggy book-length poem The Universe Looks Down. Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s poem plays with the story-telling machinery of medieval romances, their contiguous short adventures, sudden landscapes, gaps and marvels. Angelica, Diana, Hope, Jinksy, Orlando, Apollo, Arsene, Horn, Polo: the poem’s characters are its framing gods. As characters in an allegory, they have no inner life. Their lives are quests; their quests are held within the meaning of their names. What they find is what they are and mean, and every landscape is a state of conciousness. They ride in the ‘off-green Forest of Forgetfulness’, trudge through ‘predicamental desert’ or sail past islands, ‘day after coral day’.

 

‘Each one reads differently what all this means…’

 

But their names bring in great drifts of half-remembered story—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Spenser’s The Fairy Queen, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Byron’s Don Juan, Marco Polo’s Marvels of the World, alongside glints of The Tempest, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Biggles. This makes the poem The Universe Looks Down into a kind of inside-out allegory, at once deranging and exhilarating. It takes, for its setting, all the world and time, as these live in fragments and jumbled images inside a Western history of stories. It tracks what the memory of such stories sets in play in the mind of a reader—characters who are what they mean, encounters that bring an end to story, bright pictures afloat on the mind’s dark sea of forgetting. So long as you are its reader, The Universe Looks Down makes you its writer, folding what you remember into its story, abrupt as a dream and as fantastical, with a surface patterning of world.

 

‘Their gaze turns inward, reaching further out

For the meaning of what meaning’s all about…’

 

A modest undertaking, on the face of it—which has unfolded, over years, into a major work. These etchings are not illustrations of the poem so much as responses to the vertiginous questions that it poses—the poem keeps a great tolerance for abyss inside its genial manner. Its allegory makes space and time inward—a dream of themselves, which its characters cannot wake out of. Spectacles, binoculars, telescopes, maps, zodiacs, theatres, newspapers, doorways, screens—even in the act of ‘reaching further out’, these frames and contraptions turn the gaze inward. Over years, the poem itself has become, for Headlam, a contraption to see with, and see herself with, and see outside herself with. ‘Milena is the scribe’. Milena is that self within the story who embodies in it that self outside the story—outside all stories—who is puzzled, generative, thingy, elusive, searching through the varied world-views, seeing what she can see with them, which is partial, insufficient, and everything.

 

‘She turns to the tabula rasa…

She tries again, noticing that she thinks…’

 

‘Language is the language of languages,’ the poet wrote once, and the poem delights in showing how its landcapes are drawn out of that mise en abîme of language, which has no centre or periphery, closes distances at a word, and floats on vacancy—‘Milena simply thinks the plain of sport / And it appears’. Headlam has set the poem’s collapsing landscapes inside a sequence of frames, created by looking: a self looking at herself with spectacles of bright blankness, a self looking at herself looking back and away, a self looking at herself looking at the blank bright rectangle of a canvas, a self vanishing except for her spectacles into off-green leaves, a self looking at herself looking at herself running away into the light of a backlit doorway. Frame by frame, Headlam has used the poem as a device for stepping back from her waiting canvas, from her studio, from the marks that she has made, towards the poem’s second question—

 

‘How this concept of making a mark?’

 

Headlam sets that question to work as lines of perspective—down into, across, diagonally back, lines of reverie, doubt, hope, escape, regret—which cross, before and after the act of making a mark. These lines of perspective cut jagged depths, shaped like the peaks of the etchings’ backdrop islands. They invent off-centre vanishing points and a studio afloat on that dark sea behind the picture plane, leaving the far peaks dark and separate, but there.

 

‘Like videos, the islands glided past…’

 

A studio that is also a stage, set up with an easel, backlit by an open doorway—Headlam at once abstracts and domesticates the Velasquez painting Las Meninas. If, out the other side of the picture, a door opens into a garden, out this side, the picture comes frame by frame down through the history of its representations. Headlam dramatises, on its stage set, that still moment, like a threshold, between looking and making a mark. The garden world is there, beyond the picture’s full-background dream, as if to say: Art is that dream of reality which makes reality more real to us. Outside the poem’s frame, taking a break, the artist is sketchy. Dressed in wavering parallel lines, she sits inside the grid of the chair, leans over the grid of the computer keys—at ease inside the materials of vanishing point perspective, which, outside the frame of the dream, close in no landscape.

 

‘The dog of hope swallows the horse of memory…’

 

The artist places herself between a fox and a hedgehog. Archilocus wrote: ‘a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing’. Isaiah Berlin in his essay on Tolstoy distinguishes fox- from hedgehog-writers: those who entertain many ideas without trying to fit them all into one system; those who see the world through one defining idea. Here again, in Headlam’s bestiary, is the question of how to fit the multifarious world into a frame. Perhaps she is also making a wry joke. The light shines on the pelt of the fox, which is smiling, about to dart off elsewhere; the hedgehog makes to tuck itself under the artist’s arm. Digressive, sudden, made of loose ends, shining descriptions, jokes and terrors, The Universe Looks Down is the work of a fox-writer, albeit one who might wish that there could be a dream complete and true enough to merit a hedgehog’s devotion to it.

 

‘Will Roger or Diana,

Angelica or Horn achieve some goal

Worth a cracker, worth a whole life…’

 

It is remarkable, how this series is at once intricately inwardly patterned, and feels free. The artist stands looking at a bird, her apron wrapped around her like folded wings. And then the biplane, and then Icarus tumbles from the picture. ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters’. Through the door that opens at the back of the studio, the artist is looking at windmills, which in the history of quests belong to Don Quixote. The structure of their base resembles the base of the easel; a little bolt, shining there, recalls their turning spokes. Here is Don Quixote’s impossible dream and also his author Cervantes’ intention: ‘derribar la máquina mal fundado de estos caballerescos libros’. Horn, would-be knight, with raised sword charges at the guns; the artist sits watching as the boats row in over black water to the beach at Gallipoli; and Hokusai’s wave claws over this era’s refugees. The silhouetted men step into the shadows that they cast, and the dreams flood with world.

 

‘Joy is the pastoral that disappears…’

 

The poet sends his cast of characters out into the fields of language. Headlam too has her cast. She has built another kind of self-portrait into these etchings. Here are certain motifs, which, over a life’s work, have made her vision visible to her through what she loves: Piero della Francesca’s drapery, in the curtains that fold mysteriously into solid seeming; Dürer’s animals, pricklingly alive; Holbein’s telescope; Morandi’s quiet vessels. Beautiful, scratchy, these things bring an intimate feeling for reality into the etchings’ ontological space of light and shadow.

 

‘Cross-twigs, weird birds, a configuration of stones

And features glimpsed in childhood through a dream…’

 

The poem’s second question, ‘How this concept of making a mark?’ becomes for Headlam a pinhole, which a lifetime’s work pours through. A self-portrait in bed with an animal; a doorway with world glimmering the other side of it; a shadowy green that grows for itself, and into dreams, also; moonlight along the edge of things, and blue-black night; a courtyard garden in winter, its weakening lattice; explosions of smoke, stilled images of newspaper violence; someone at the kitchen bench, making coffee; chairs, and that rectangle, sometimes a doorway, sometimes a blank canvas. In little, in glimpses, in new forms, Headlam’s past work is here; and this is part of what makes this series a major work. It returns to the first place of all her making. It is a universe, which folds back into a box.

 

‘We should have diaries that go on forever…’

 

Lisa Gorton

Lisa Gorton is a poet and novelist, essayist and critic.  Her first poetry collection Press Release won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry; her second, Hotel Hyperion, was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.  She is the author of the novel The Life of Houses (Giramondo).


Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.