The Republic of Bees

Reviews Oct 07, 2011 1 Comment

Remember Kazakhstan? Maybe, thinks Sharne Wolff

Lucy Griggs studied art in Brisbane and completed a Masters Degree with Honours at the Victorian College of Art. For the past year she’s been living in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The Republic of Bees is her first solo show with Milani Gallery although she’s been exhibiting in Brisbane and Melbourne in various ARI’s and galleries since 2000.

I tried to think about what I knew about Kazakhstan before visiting this exhibition and couldn’t come up with much. Perhaps a couple of bad jokes – and I’m sure I’ve heard about its vast supplies of oil and natural resources. Of course I knew it was a state in the former USSR but I had to double-check the spelling and it’s exact location on the southern border of Russia. I’m not sure if it’s the minimal look of the Gallery, the pictures themselves or the scent from the old exercise books on which Griggs has painted her pictures – it’s probably all three – but once inside the Gallery you feel immersed in a complete ‘other’ culture. There’s a sense of time warp too.

The Republic of Bees consists of over 50 watercolour paintings and an installation piece on the upstairs floor of the Gallery. Despite being large in number, the support for each of Griggs’ small & intricate paintings is a school exercise book left over from the Soviet era in Kazakhstan and which Griggs has collected. The books themselves are green and yellow – the covers faded in colours that have long since lost their brilliance. Most are covered with Russian writing that neatly references the fact that Kazakh language and culture was suppressed during the Russian Empire (and into the era of the Soviet Union) with the Kazakh’s forced to learn Russian.

Griggs has used watercolours to paint her schoolbook series of small pictures. She is interested in everyday goings on in the country – and has painted people she observes on the streets – the shoppers, old people and children. The artist paints most of her subjects either from behind or from a distance. The photos used by the artist for reference are required to be taken that way – providing an effective metaphor for illustrating Griggs position as an ‘outsider’ in an ancient culture. Life in this city is a mix of the old and the new and of the three ‘ism’s of the twentieth century – communism, colonialism and capitalism. Street balloon sellers, women in mini skirts and men in fur hats holding garish shopping bags (marked with the names of chain stores) mix with traditional wedding scenes and ladies wearing long overcoats negotiating a ride. In her paintings of minute details Griggs has given her subjects a sense of dignity and pride. You somehow get a sense of her fondness for them.

The series also has a darker side – pictures of the military, of soldiers, drug dealers and the police. They serve as reminders of Russian colonialisation but also of everyday life in a large city which, although officially a presidential Republic, is only slowly emerging from its recent history of oppression. With so many pictures in this show they have been arranged in an order that, if not strictly chronological, has a sense of story. You turn to the next sequence and see that Griggs has also painted several compositions of geometric abstraction referencing the Russian and German avant-garde and the constructivists. Colourful shapes float on spare backgrounds creating a sense of depth. But is this the beginning or the end?

The most evident part of these small paintings when seen en masse (and a major part of the installation imported specially by the artist from Kazakhstan) is the colourful balloons – apparently sold in the streets and something Griggs clearly enjoys about her adopted city. Balloons with all their colour and whimsy are symbols of joy and magic that transgress all languages, cultures and national borders. They are a gift and a chance to celebrate the small things.

All images courtesy Milani Gallery.

Lucy Griggs
Milani Gallery, Brisbane
Until 8 October 2011.

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Sharne Wolff

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