Exhibition Review: Deborah Prior: On The Third Day

Personal and political crises are woven together in Deborah Prior’s powerful new textile exhibition.
exhibition of textiles work by Deborah Prior with words Lost Flock

Driving up through the vineyards and canola fields of the Barossa Valley, we are primed by this landscape for Deborah Prior’s latest exhibition ‘On The Third Day’. Prior’s textile and performance practice has often used domestic crafts to reflect on the body, and here the artist expands on a recent turn towards considering the body in place, its fragility and its impact upon environmental and political crises.

‘On The Third Day’ has been hampered by various health-related setbacks which make their way into Prior’s deeply personal works. The artist sustained an injury while embarking on her first iteration of this work, and subsequent health complications, with the COVID-19 pandemic providing further limitations to the artist’s mobility.

These events have only fed the richly interwoven narrative of personal and political crisis found here. The evolution of this body of work, and how it responds to these challenges, makes its outcome all the more triumphant.

The artworks – primarily pinned to the gallery walls – deserve close attention. Prior’s intricate and intuitive stitches swarm across her surfaces. Beads gather in fine clusters, transforming primarily found textile objects into unorthodox maps. A better space couldn’t be imagined, with Jam Factory Seppeltsfield’s stained concrete floor and golden timber panels framing the white walls. A happy accident that makes for a compelling visitor experience.

Prior combines subtle pastels with shocks of lurid manufactured colour, allowing a complex gradient to emerge between natural and synthetic. This tension plays out in the vibrant Squatter Blanket series, woollen blankets dyed in muted greens, bearing hundreds of kitsch plant labels. Each label bears a decidedly camp title – ‘Fabulous Foliage’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘Charisma’, and adds to an unsettling assemblage of plant names that impose rather than identify.

Deborah Prior, installation view ‘On The Third Day’, at JamFactory Seppeltsfield, 2022. Image supplied courtesy the artist and JamFactory.

In other works, seemingly benign pastels are laden with ominous drama, stripping found settler textiles of any perceived innocence. In one of the largest pieces here, two patchwork blankets adorn the gallery’s back wall, reordered to form the phrase ‘LOST FLOCK’. These two large words give a sense that settler nostalgia does not grant immunity from impending crisis. The consequences of settler agriculture and colonial activity pulse with apocalyptic urgency in Prior’s work.

Walking is a key element in Prior’s practice, and the trace of her walks resound as a strong thread throughout the exhibition. Walking has allowed Prior to form breathtakingly sensitive and intimate responses to the rhythms of environmental crisis.

Featured in the exhibition are works designed to be walked with, such as Pastoral Apocalypse, an orthopedic sling reworked as a backpack, and Fleece, a sprawling merino skirt which bears witness to 10 years of knitting and walking performances.

Fleece is draped over a low timber chair, spilling its varied colours onto the floor. It reflects experiments with dyeing, periods of collaborative work, and moves into layers of earthy eucalyptus-dyed tones. These recent additions were completed during Prior’s residency at Grindell’s Hut on Adnyamathanha Country in the Flinders Ranges. During the residency, the skirt was worn during short walks, restricted in length by the artist’s health.

The earthy hues of the landscape, and the devastation caused by livestock grazing on this Country, enter the work as knitted strata. Balancing two distinct time-lines – lifetime and deep time – Fleece is fundamental to this exhibition, forming a storied archive that follows each shift in the artist’s practice over time. The viewer is inspired here to see personal narratives of health in relation to the greater health of the planet.

‘On The Third Day’ is testament to Prior’s astonishing creative resilience. The artist committedly proclaims our mutual fragility and the need for change, laying bare the patterns that bind our most desperate contemporary problems.

Her processes of stitching, salvaging and repair indicate both profound reverence and critical eye towards the objects she transforms, allowing them to reveal disquieting truths.

The scale of these works, both physical and over time, demonstrate Prior’s attentiveness, with fury and sensitivity, to the unfinished business, and deeply interwoven crises, of our time and place. 

Deborah Prior: On The Third Day
Jam Factory Seppeltsfield, 730 Seppeltsfield Road, Seppeltsfield SA
30 July – 25 September
Free entry, 10am-5pm daily

ArtsHub is a publishing partner of the 2022 National Gallery of Australia’s Digital Young Writers Mentorship Program, supported by Learning and Digital Patron, Tim Fairfax AC.

Hen Vaughan is a writer and artist based on unceded Kaurna Yerta (Adelaide, South Australia). Their arts writing has appeared in Runway Journal and fineprint. Hen is a current participant in the National Gallery of Australia's Digital Young Writers Mentorship.