Essays

‘The deadly drama of the family’ is the phrase Drusilla Modjeska uses to describe Katherine Hattam’s art In her catalogue essay The Vocabulary of Chairs for Hattam’s solo exhibition at the Geelong Art Gallery 2000. She goes on to talk about Hattam looking at Louise Bourgeois – an artist who has a particular resonance for women and whose art grapples with the imponderabilities of working from and with her own interiority. Modjeska sees the drive behind Hattam’s art as the ‘search for an idiom and the self which is neither too definite nor indefinite.’ She refers to Hattam’s ‘private iconography’ where ‘the autobiographical is entwined with the symbolic’. Similarly, Graham Little in Seashores and Porcupines points out that, contrary to common assumptions, the domestic is not tame, but fraught and intense, as is seen in Shakespeare, George Eliot, Christina Stead and the Bible. Morag Fraser, in her essay Layering, sees Hattam as giving memory and psychological exploration a linear form. ‘Drawing’, she writes, ‘is the vascular system of Katherine Hattam’s work. It is what she did for years before paint came into the picture’.

In his catalogue essay Bookworks for the exhibition held at Deakin University’s Stonnington Stables, Rob Haysom gives a compact biography. ‘The Hattam house in suburban Canterbury’ (and later at Cromwell Road, South Yarra), ‘include works by her father and an impressive collection of both figurative and abstract works by prominent Australian artists, sometimes acquired in exchange for delivering babies [see Patrick McCaughey, Art and Australia, Melbourne Humanism in the Hattam Collection Art and Australia vol 6 no 1 Winter 1968 & Hal Hattam Heide Museum of Modern Art, The Landscape of Longing 2003]. Such an environment created a distinctive exposure to art for Katherine. However, at the University of Melbourne she did not study art, rather English Literature and Politics. Books and reading were a passion for Katherine’s mother, who read Freud as a young adolescent. Freudian references abound in Katherine’s work…some of the books used in the artworks are from her mother’s extensive collection whilst others are scoured from second-hand stores…the recurring image of chairs was one… explored by Katherine since the mid 1990s. Her obsessive large black and white charcoal drawings as a sixteen year old incorporated domestic settings and representations of family members symbolically portrayed as objects. Much of this work was lost in the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983 in the Adelaide Hills…Hal Hattam died in 1994. Two years later Katherine’s mother found four of the early drawings that featured symbolic representation of the family, the interior of the Canterbury home and, in particular, the motif of the chair became the focus and still resonate in Katherine’s new work’.

Hal Hattam painted regularly with Fred Williams in outer suburban Melbourne such as the You Yangs or the mouth of the Yarra. Both artists used gouache on paper, with Williams often hosing down or reworking back at the studio – Katherine recalls being taken on some of these trips. Years later, she began using gouache in Bookworks, a series of collages where charcoal and gouache were put down onto a grid of book pages, both concealing and revealing text. After a trip to New York in 2009 where, at NYU Grey Gallery, she saw an exhibition of 1970s early Papunya board paintings and again in Alice Springs at the Araluen Centre and later again in the collection at the NGV, Hattam decided to revisit her Bookcover works exhibited at John Buckley Gallery in 2009, collage, pencil and oil works on board, replacing the oil paint with gouache and removing any collage.

In the current works Hattam has moved away from the chairs as subject matter. Landscape looms larger, yet the table and the domestic persist. Kirsty Grant’s description of Hattam’s The unassertive colours of soap and postage stamps (acquired NGV 1994) in her catalogue essay for a recent exhibition of works on paper from the collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, This and Other Worlds, suggests this particular work depicts Hattam’s family home, ‘absent of people but full of the mundane stuff of everyday life…Hattam’s work alludes to the reality of maintaining an art career and a family. It is a testament to both the difficulty with the numerous distractions and responsibilities as well as the possibility.’

Equally apt are Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s comments in his essay for Line, an exhibition of works by the three generations: her father Hal Hattam, herself and son William Mackinnon. He puts it this way, ‘Katherine Hattam is above all a painter of interiors, even if they are interiors yearning to look out through a window. Her world’, he writes is ‘that of the bright, overdetermined room, the space of one’s life’. Sophie Cunningham, ever novelist and story teller, in Innocent Works is interesting about Hattam’s depiction of hairbrushes – ‘on many of Hattam’s tables there lies a hairbrush. Do brushes suggest something to Hattam – as they do to me – a childhood scene in which a mother brushes her young daughter’s hair…a scene in which she tells her daughter that if she wants her hair to be beautiful she must pull the brush through her hair one hundred times…that she must repeat the process every day? Repetition is both a comfort and a curse. It speaks of a desire for beauty but also a desire for connection. In Hattam’s work this is the connection between the generations’. Cunningham refers to the teapots, chairs, scissors, pegs, hairbrushes and even mobile phones and describes the work as ‘being full of the inanimate intimate objects.

Tony Ellwood, now Director of Queensland Art Gallery, in 1998 as Director of Bendigo Art Gallery wrote in his introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition Perfect Day that ‘Katherine Hattam reinvents the space of the domestic interior, mapping the lines of energy which connect inside and outside. The connection between inside and outside, the porousness between the two spheres is taken further in the current work. Whereas Graham Little in his essay Seashores and Porcupines refers to ‘the Freudian eye for detail and complexity, for over-determination. For substitutions and displacements, images that stand for one thing then another, that contradict themselves, play games with us’.

In her essay,This Side of Paradise, Helene Sommer sees the work as suggesting rather than representing, one step ahead of abstraction. She argues that the works contain a juxtaposition of signs that create a singular language. Leigh Rob in her essay Making History Present for the exhibition Not Anxious, Cut and Paste, a collaborative with her son William Mackinnon held at the Pickled Art Centre in Beijing, China in 2005, describes the surface in Hattam’s works as a ‘palimpsest’. Similarly, in her essay Layering, Morag Fraser states, ‘Hattam is an adept at layering. She layers surface upon surface, literally until the works have a nap – inviting touch…there is psychological layering…and other layers of influence, of the interconnection between arty conversation, literature, life and thought’. Related to this, Sophie Cunningham points to Hattam’s use of repetition. She argues ‘that while Hattam’s individual works have a calming influence, put together her work is interrogative. Books do not simply mean what their words might suggest they might or what their authors hope they might do – inanimate objects become inanimate. Hattam uses repetition to consider an object from every angle and give it the opportunity to speak to us. Her use of repetition is insistent. An attempt at revelation.’ The current works continue to depict Hattam’s immediate surroundings with what Patrick McCaughey [ex-director of the NGV, Wadsworth Athenaeum and the Yale Center for British Art] describes as an ‘inventory’ of objects: on the table, on the wall alongside the window, objects significant as triggering memory in artist and viewer. In these works Landscape of the Walking Track, people exercising in public spaces (Merri Creek, Princes Park, the Tan, the Yarra) coexist with that inside world.

Jenny Long in her essay Perfect Day talks of Hattam ‘mapping the world flowing through her home’. She describes the work in the language of a geographer, stating ‘what gives a place its specificity is not some long internalised history but the fact it is constructed out of a particular constellation of relations, articulated together at a particular focus…instead of thinking of a place as areas with boundaries around them, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings.’ Long writes of the paintings as ‘describing the space we live in as exactly this sort of loose network of connecting parts’ and that ‘there is also a sense in which each work is a meeting of place, a constellation of relationships made visible’. For Hattam, she continues, the works present space that is lived in – untidy. It’s a ‘world folded into rooms dense with colour, where space flows through windows and doors…’

DESIRE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE: HARRIET KATE MORGAN FOR INVENTORY

In choosing to represent something, you become a part of it, even after the fact of re-presentation. To depict something from life is to positively obsess. Katherine Hattam reflects the want and confusion in life that so many people as artists choose to repress. She includes the minutiae that many exclude to communicate a point and in doing so shows a sense of a life having been lived, marks having been practised repeatedly for years – as well as an exacting compositional schedule.

For those pre-disposed to any mania, anxiety, or just obsessive qualities be they good or bad, Hattam’s paintings should appear like a normal projection of thought/thoughts at any given time, just like making a list. As her daughter, I can see her desires so clearly as we operate similarly on many differing levels. I see something and it inspires me and I wish I had been its creator. For instance, I wish i had been Ozzy Osbourne from Black Sabbath in the seventies, who thought it might be a good idea to make scary music, now known more definitively as the genre Metal, but in this day and age it’s harder to be an absolute creator. There’s always so much that comes before you and what you do have left after being exposed to so much – choice, a myriad of choice.

Hattam has chosen to be a mother and a dedicated artist and nothing has or will come between these two things. Family is an overriding feature to someones' life and has absolutely everything to do with how they operate. Hattam’s work can not escape the concept of family as this is a central obsession and always will be. She transfers the everyday into something worth being depicted as if you are a visitor in the Thornbury house. It’s her unstoppable need to draw, to put pen to paper or to just do something that has kept her art as her profession since she was a young girl.

As family friend and artist Alex Vivian would say, I love how you’re Mum just does stuff. She doesn’t talk about it, she just does it and that has inspired me to stop talking and just do…

My friends involved in art comment to me constantly comment, ‘saw your mum last night at this exhibition and then she was going to another’. Her dedication to art and all it embodies is exactly what her work is about. Here, her desire turns into the actual. She has captured her obsession and anchored it so that her heavy consideration and thought can rest and then perhaps mean something later. Her ideas formalise and come together out of trial and error, looking and constant experimentation. this combined with her constant hunger to achieve what she wants from art. It proves that there’s something to be said for being a generational artist who relates and looks at what those younger than her are doing as there is a irreplaceable freshness to be found in their visual language. Looking and doing as two modes typical to her process has made the paintings sustain their original idea and then progress towards wholeness.

My friend commented on the fact that Rock'n Roll and Metal, are mens' worlds. This is particularly hard to swallow when you are a woman and you want to play metal, like myself. Through perseverance though, this becomes a non-reality for any woman in a musical genre such as metal i.e if you don’t go away then people eventually have to take notice. This is not to degrade the position of a female within anything that’s predominantly a mans' world, such as art or music at any particular time in history and this as an idea could easily be argued against. As a female though, it’s as undeniable as anything displacing is to any kind of minority. Things have changed dramatically within art and literature but career-wise, Hattam, being a young female-artist in her time, faced a similar and deterring mood.

This mood no-longer exists today in contemporary art but it wasn’t always as inclusive by any means. Instead of accepting defeat, Hattam looked to something more relevant, such as what young people think and how they see things. In doing so, her work has benefitted in ways indescribable and she has be come a more confident and brilliant artist from pure and sheer determination- null and void of any complacency. This is why her work is so intense and absolutely her own.

In Inventory all of these things within Hattam’s life come together to represent desire in life and how to express and attain it. The reoccurring imagery from past paintings, hair and paint brushes, Rodchenko’s tea-pot and scissors still remain as reminders of what it is to be her on a day-to-day basis or familiarity. The new inclusions, family pets, Jon Campbells' and Sidney Nolan’s paintings and her sisters' Brooklyn windows all push through and take-over to include new desire over old. Thoughts replace thoughts and ideas emerge without the artist consciously knowing how they got there. It’s inexplainable as much as it is literal and it’s basically just life encapsulated in a visual language representing mood, change and drive.