This catalogue essay was written for the exhibition ‘Fractured Dwellings’ by Rosi Griffin at St Heliers Street Gallery, Abbotsford Convent, 2 – 24 June 2017.
Melbourne’s urban landscape is rapidly changing. As Australia’s fastest growing city, we see signs of Melbourne’s future in the fast-paced developments and constructions taking place around us. From new apartment buildings to the creation of entirely new suburbs to deal with growing population demands, it seems that every week there is a new construction on the block; But with this construction comes also an inevitable destruction, a demolition of the old to make way for the new.
In her newest exhibition Fractured Dwellings, artist Rosi Griffin turns her attention to these developments and considers their broader psychological and physical ramifications on personal experience and memory. Griffin grew up in Germany but has called Australia home for the last thirty years, and during this time she has personally witnessed the ongoing gentrification and changes affecting her local neighbourhood in Melbourne. This body of work continues the artist’s ongoing interests in mapping places as well as exploring ideas related to home, memory and belonging.
On first impressions, Griffin’s paintings read as layered excavations that reveal the physical frameworks and underlying structures at the heart of houses. They are geometric compositions, made up of overlapping shapes and vibrant fields of colour. Griffin works in layers, the physical process itself translating layers of space into layers of paint. The works operate on a cusp between three-dimensional space and a two-dimensional plane, creating overall impression of depth and interplay between perspectives. As viewers, we are drawn into the works; Griffin’s paintings revealing what was previously private and intimate to the public eye.
There is an evident artistic lineage to European modernist movements of Constructivism, but also connections to Surrealist approaches in Griffin’s use of collage and pastiche techniques. The artist works from photographs and collected images of demolished houses to create new scenes, piecing together disparate houses and backdrops to create new and imagined structures. Small clues reveal the origins of the houses, such as the inclusion of a graffiti tag on the side of a wall. Otherwise, they are anonymous entities.
This depiction of houses half-demolished can also be regarded as a contemporary expression of ruins, a topic that was popular during the Romantic era of the 18th Century. Ruins in this tradition were chosen for their aesthetic potential, their ability to convey a picturesque sense of decay. By contrast, however, Griffin’s works operate less as love letters to ruins but instead ask us to consider what is underneath the surface, or how we got here in the first place. The great ‘Australian dream’ of property ownership is dismantled in these paintings, which show the emptiness or fragility of physical shelters.
The notable absence of the human form in these works is highly potent, as the absence makes the impression of loss felt even more strongly. Houses are not just places of shelter, they are also an extension of the self in that they come to embody memories and carry the traces of the inhabitants. Therefore, the demolition of a house is not just a structural destruction; it also marks a break with this intimate narrative and association. In this regard, while the human narrative is never shown explicitly in Griffin’s work, it is heavily implied in the very absence.
Reading beyond the merely destructive narrative in these works, Griffin’s paintings can also be considered as a testament to new beginnings and a sense of rebirth. Whereas Griffin could have depicted the ruins in muted shades of grey and brown, much like the rubble of real demolition sites, the artist has made a conscious choice to use vibrant primary colours to draw our attention to this potential for the new. It is also interesting to consider that all the sites Griffin paints have been demolished by human actions, not natural causes; in this way, the hand of human intervention is laid out plainly. With human intervention also comes new creative capacities. When viewed in this more optimistic manner, these demolitions contain the possibility for new futures.
With continued discussions in mainstream media around housing development and affordability, Griffin’s exhibition Fractured Dwellings asks viewers to consider the familiar relationship between human narrative and our need for shelter. While casting a critical eye to the speed of development, Griffin’s works also contain a spectre of hope for a future. Whether this future is one within reach is a question to be answered by time.