Review: Anita Johnson Larkin at Wollongong Art Gallery

Anita Johnson Larkin has the capacity to transform the autobiographical into the multi-biographic, sharing intimate stories through objects discarded by others, reconfigured into sculptures.

We are living through a moment when, more than ever, the objects that populate our domestic lives are heightened expressions of our humanity; of notions of safety, restistence and even of trauma.

The opening comment by Anita Johnson Larkin, in her catalogue for this exhibition, Come to me without a word, states simply: ‘All things are prone to brokenness.’

She continues, ‘It is perhaps the natural state of everything to be only fleetingly “whole” and the rest of the time to be interrupted, fractured, in chaos or the slow process of decay.’

While this body of sculptural works was made prior to COVID (it was originally scheduled to open in May), it has an uncanny resonance to our current moment preoccupied with self-care, the domestic space, and even domestic violence.

Larkin’s work has long celebrated that ambiguity and state of change in the domestic, as her works jostle in a place between the logical and illogical, familiar and yet teetering on the edge of believability.

Walking into the gallery space, one’s eye kind of skittles across an eclectic field of sculptures, not knowing where to land first. But it is a pair of chairs suspended between the gallery’s columns – held only by tension  – which offers the initial anchor.

Installation view Anita Johnson Larkin Come to me without a word, Wollongong Art Gallery 2020. Photo ArtsHub.

Titled The could within me (suspended) also comprises an extension ladder that hovers, tethered to the chairs. The partner component of the ladder is in an adjacent gallery, its length measuring the paired height of Larkin and her former husband as the foundation of a marital bed – now empty, and protected by cricket leg pads.

Larkin speaks of the ‘gesture of repair’ across this exhibition. This new body of work has charted a period in her own life that has presented deep personal challenges, and yet, her work has the capacity to seek out conversation with a lightness that allows others to join in.

Across the gallery – and indeed much of Anita’s work – we see her play with coupling or duplicity: paired violins, crutches, hot water bottles standing in for deeper narratives. These are not perfect pairings, but rather celebrate the anomalies of difference.

Installation view Beneath the weight of the sheets (2019), and behind (L) The bridge between you and me (2018), (R) Comfort me, soothe me (2018). Photo ArtsHub.

A great example is the work Beneath the weight of the sheets, a pair of chair facing each other, their shared spindle legs a hint to their entwined relationship.

Upon one chair is a lead box – a material that is often associated with toxicity – on the other is a bundle of sheets held in place with bandages, and within their folds a book of love poems. The sheets have been sewn to match the 4-meter length of the bed of their joined heights. Our beds are the sites for restorative sleep, intimate conversations, love making, and convalesce. As Larkin adds, they are the place ‘where relationships fall apart and mend, and where our bodies physiologically restore themselves each night during sleep.’

A lot of the works speak of this balancing of domestic life – a challenge close to many of us at this time.

Viewing any exhibition, I am always alert to the sight lines – how the narratives weave between works. This is something that Larkin orchestrates with great care. For example, sitting as a strong visual moment in the exhibition is a trilogy of photographic portraits of Larkin breathing into a felt lung. From it the eye drifts to a nearby work that has the artist’s own lungs presented in an X-Ray.

Aside it is the work Memories of wounds received and mended (2018), a dissected X-Ray that has become the pattern for repair of a broken chair, found alongside the road and standing in for a body.

‘I sew my own x-ray back into the object,’ explains Larkin. It is a vulnerability that gives her work a raw emotional impact.

And across the room, a pair of hot water bottles sutured together – lung-like – the soft scent of cloves permeated into the felt object.

Viewing this exhibition with social distancing measures in place, one can’t not but feel the magnitude of these works, and the many ways our breath connects us to the environment and to each other.

Larkin is an incredible technician. Her capacity to breathe energy and life back into the discarded objects – without being too poetic, too quirky, too familiar – is a joy. And that subtle tension she creates is so key.

Her work is filled with the very sense of humanity and empathy that – as a collective society – we so desperate reach out to in these times. It kind of softly shouts to us all, “it’s ok”.

★★★★  4 out of 5

Anita Johnson Larkin: Come to me without a word

Wollongong Art Gallery

29 August – 11 October 2020

The gallery is open to the public following strict health and safety restrictions and regulations.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina