17 C
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
HomeAustraliaHow the sculpture and 'knitted paintings' of Renee So explore colonial legacies,...

How the sculpture and ‘knitted paintings’ of Renee So explore colonial legacies, male authority and women’s bodies


At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the artworks in Renee So’s retrospective are from a different time and come from distant shores.

Her impressive busts and figurines and large textile tapestries tell stories of ancient civilizations or adventurers who sailed the seas in search of new lands.

However, there is a twist. So’s ceramic objects and ‘knitted paintings’ not only look contemporary, they also challenge orthodoxy about our colonial history, male authority, gender representation and female bodies.

Provenance, now at the Monash University Museum of Art, brings together more than a decade of So’s artwork. Inspired by art history and collections in museums, So draws from the visual language, origin and acquisition histories of figurative vessels and objects from Assyria, Egypt, Iran, Latin America and China.

Many of these antiquities were stolen and looted as colonizing forces attempted to seize control of these lands. Some are on display in public museums in London, where So has lived since 2010.

Read more: Stolen cultural objects: what is the role of Australian galleries?

Long beards, boots and booze

In the first rooms, So’s flat-knit paintings and spherical figurative clay forms mock the fragility of male authority figures. Repeating motifs of beards and boots are used to explore outward symbols of masculinity, entitlement and military power.

However, a series of grand, knitted motifs of male dominance are humorously subverted by the introduction of booze.

Renee So, Nightfall 2019, knitted acrylic yarn and wool, and oak frame, 154 × 154 × 6 cm. Courtesy of the artist; Kate MacGarry, London; and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. Photo: Angus Mill.

In Nightfall, the initial threats of the goose step boots embellished with caricatures of bearded faces are neutralized by repeating, inverting, and folding a mirrored set of legs.

In Sunset, large figures collapse against an oversized moon. Only one bottle remains: a decadent and pathetic end to wasted power.

1683162474 935 How the sculpture and knitted paintings of Renee So
Renee So, Sunset 2016 knitted acrylic yarn and oak frame 154 x 154 x 6 cm (framed) Courtesy of the artist; Kate MacGarry, London; and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Beards and booze also support So’s long-running interest in Bartmann (bearded man) or Bellarmine jugsmanufactured in Germany in the 16th and 17th century.

These ceramic vessels were decorated to look like bearded men – the neck of the bottle their heads, with their bulbous bodies below – and were used to transport wine and other goods across Europe.

Translated into clay by So, the large beards threaten to take over the face and the puffy trousers, adding a satirical edge.

1683162475 995 How the sculpture and knitted paintings of Renee So
Renee So, Bellarmine Holding Bellarmine (version II) 2020, earthenware, 49 × 22 × 27 cm. Powerhouse Collection, Sydney, Barry Willoughby Bequest Commission, 2020. Photo: Stuart Humphreys.

In Bellarmine Holding Bellarmine (version II), the blocky head, shell, and bulk of the body are contrasted with spindly arms cradling a wine pitcher, offering a critique of masculine archetypes and entitlement authority.

In Steatopygous Bellarmine, the bravura of a man in a hat and beard is completely undone by skinny arms that connect to a body immobilized and emasculated by the weight and solidity of a pair of slacks – which can also be read as a magnificent pair breasts.

1683162475 297 How the sculpture and knitted paintings of Renee So
Renee So, Steatopygous Bellarmine 2022, glazed stoneware, 2 parts: figure 69 × 60 × 34 cm; hat 27 × 27 × 15 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London. Photo: Angus Mill.

Drunken Bellarmine describes the disgrace of a drunken fall where a wayward pair of slacks has separated the party from the body dangling from the edges of what appears to be a stand or pedestal.

1683162476 615 How the sculpture and knitted paintings of Renee So
Renee So, Drunken Bellarmine 2012, knitted acrylic yarn and wool, and oak frame, 174 × 124 × 6 cm. Arts Council Collection, United Kingdom. Photo: Andy Keate.

Internal symbols and female bodies

In stark contrast to the externalized trappings of body hair and bad behavior that So uses to parody and mock male figures, she emphasizes agency when working with the female form.

Thus combines a visual language developed from past figurative representations with new visualizations of the female anatomy borrowed from the Australian urologist Helen O’Connell’s work mapping the hidden shape of the clitoris using MRI technology.

So this knowledge of the clitoris connects to ancient depictions of Venusoften equated with fertility.

1683162477 829 How the sculpture and knitted paintings of Renee So
Renee So, Woman I 2017 black stoneware 44 x 28 x 23 cm Buxton International Collection, Melbourne.

While similar in size and shape to her male objects, her female archetypes have more agency. The unglazed ceramic figures, many augmented by representations of this “new clitoris”, have a fleshy fluidity and sexuality. The firmness of their three-legged buttocks give the figures gravitas.

In Woman XI, So’s interpretation of a pre-Columbian artifact has breasts shaped like the invisible clitoris.

1683162478 531 How the sculpture and knitted paintings of Renee So
Renee So, Woman X 2021, stoneware, 60 × 31 × 24 cm, courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London. Photo: Angus Mill.

In Woman X, So draws on the resemblance between the tip of this pleasure center and an ancient Egyptian “Bird Face” figurine dated 3500 to 3400 BC. In a belated act of defiance, So dresses her bird’s head figure, Woman Sans Culottes XV, in the liberty cap and culottes worn by French Revolutionariesa movement that did not welcome women.

Depictions of the clitoris also appear in new two-dimensional works in which So exchanges her soft, flat-knit wool “paintings” for the stiffness of clay. The “bird’s head” and other translations of the clitoris are interpreted graphically and segmented on hard glossy surfaces of glazed tiles.

Read more: Why the clitoris doesn’t get the attention it deserves — and why it matters

Old with the new

So’s retrospective follows the development of her complex visual language and illustrates how she draws on the origins of new and old cultural objects to convey her messages.

Figurative ceramics, one of the oldest forms of art making, contrasts with the creative results of the new technology of a knitting machine. Here, So has also added images from MRI to her library of references.

Her reflections and discoveries on colonialism and gender stretch across time, offering new insights into overlooked histories and injustices past and present.

Renee So: Provenance is on display at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) through July 9.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

Latest stories