Review: Evolution, the art of Roma McLaughlin

Across Victoria right now there is much to do and take part in. You can barely sneeze without having to apologise to some sort of pop-up festival or annual event or show. Yet, it is not all about Melbourne’s CBD, it’s about regional Victoria, and the suburbs as well.

Hence I visited the Whitehorse Artspace to see Evolution: Roma McLaughlin. It is an exhibition inspired by McLaughlin’s home suburb, (Box Hill): its history, population and built environment. And obviously, as the title suggest, how it has been transformed.

The design makes a picture, while shadows, & colour add texture & tone.

McLaughlin works with paper cutting, but also with acrylics on canvas, screen printing, books, and paper sculptures. The paper cut works are delicate, complex and intriguing. It is easy to marvel at their detail and their pleasing and often formal symmetry, but it was an additional satisfaction to read them as discussion pieces about my (almost) every day, environment, and fusion of cultural influences upon the population and its buildings.

Traditional domestic backyards amid busy modern apartment building.

It is one thing to think about art mythologising ancient or distant rural landscapes, or art celebrating remarkable architecture. It is completely another thing to see what can be a fairly mundane and utterly familiar locale become the locus of the same treatment.

I liked it. I was seeing my world anew.

Tis perhaps worth knowing a little of Box Hill first. It was post-war suburban growth area, and now is strongly influenced by the Chinese community. Once, it was mainly quarter acre blocks with weatherboard and brick houses. Now, apartment blocks are replacing many of the older free-standing California bungalows. In the shopping precinct, mirrored high rises are rising even higher, even to dwarf the blue stone cathedral. Thankfully, the old town hall and the high school with their neo-classical columns, are not yet crowded out.

Twas a stark & moody day at Box Hill Town Hall.

The suburb, like McLaughlin’s practice, is a combination of influences competing for space. A 1920s weatherboard with its garden is depicted wedged between new apartment towers. This artist’s intricate paper cuts physically replicate the contrasts between urban exteriors and domestic interiors.

Her works were immediately familiar as a (nearby) local, but also recognisable in other ways – with the use of symbolism for instance. Thus, her practice was enjoyable for me to ‘decode.’ I have to thank the delightful staff member who took the time to chat about the works too.

One picture was particularly successful and summed up the show. It was acrylic on canvas, of a kitchen scene, looking out into a garden, beyond which is an apartment building. The kitchen is framed by a red door way that could both be Chinese and Victorian, and the entire picture is framed Celtic-inspired knot work of entwined eggplants.

Sacred space.

The colour choices and patterns evoke a sense that this is a page out of an antipodean Lindisfarne Gospel. The outermost frame designates the interior scene as a sacred space. To cross into this space we leave our shoes outside the door, and then cross the red threshold.

Before entering the temple/kitchen, leave your shoes at the door.

Inside the kitchen, the eggplant appears again. To Chinese viewers it may symbolise officialdom, or a promotion, or perhaps it is about the security the hearth offers. Outside, an eggplant trellis is almost tree like and sits beneath a distant electricity pole in the form of a cross. Thus this domestic sanctity is extended to the backyard across cultures.

What I liked about this was how the detailed patterns had a formal resemblance to the Art Deco carpets of the Town Hall foyer:

With some local art, everything seems to resemble everything else.

After the exhibition I attended a paper cutting class run by McLaughlin. It turns out there are few mysteries to paper cutting, excepting: spend the time to look, photograph, draw, then design. Then cut with an extremely sharp, good quality blade. And course practice, practice, practice. And practice. Change blade. Pick good quality paper. Practice. Don’t forget which bit is left and which bit is cut out. Practice. Change blade. Be inspired.

Bec’s first paper cut. Change blade. 

After the exhibition, I left the Box Hill Town Hall’s interior, musing on the connection between art and the every day, what with the imposing formal portrait of a past Councillor overlooking what can only be described as a stairwell.

Nonetheless, a stairwell.

A nice one, but a stairwell none the less. Thinking about all this, I emerged into the torrid afternoon as students made their way home. Girls in school dresses and ribbon bedecked straw hats skirted the Mini Field of Women installation for the Breast Cancer Network Australia. The girls, against the dark sky, were out of a Charles Blackman painting, except for their backpacks, and excepting it was a contemporary, outer suburban part of Melbourne.

Local students are like this, but less like inner-city industrial wasteland waifs.

This moment summed up art, purpose, the environment, history and this ever-changing, ever the same city, perfectly.

McLaughlin’s exhibition is free and ends November 11. Do take the time if you can.

The moment passed, but these sentinels remain. 

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