‘In the nascent stages of a creation, be it a piece of visual art, a new novel, a new melody . . . spending time with friends or strangers often proves to be invaluable.’
‘Co-creating brilliance: Famous artistic collaborations’, Artfervour, May 2020
One of the first pages that caught my eye in NightLadder’s recent collaborative excursion into artists’ books — where they’ve taken over randomly selected pages from diaries of the 1970s — is headed 15 June 1973, a Friday. On the next day it states ‘Full Moon’ and the day after, ‘Trinity Sunday’. (Now I think I know that on those days 48 years back I was in Munich having just purchased an old Renault van to travel and sleep in around Europe but I cannot be sure unless I can find my own little diary of the time.)
Apart from a basic ‘where was I then?’ nostalgia there’s something else at play with old printed diaries, notably those with personal inscriptions from someone, known or unknown. Even a diary with minimal notes may offer a lot about the writer. Having worked regularly with similar art projects the NightLadder group puts these qualities to good use. In the B4-size diary pages that the group have on this occasion appropriated for their art, the majority, apart from the standard ruled blue lines, are blank although some pages have handwritten entries. Mostly simple lists by the look of the obscure, cursive pen.
There are seven handsomely bound olive-green books each with 12 pages; 84 in all. On each double page we see three subtly interwoven occurrences: the original diary pages with their printed dates, some penned inscriptions, and the subsequent dominant overplay by two or more artists from NightLadder, sometimes hiding what has gone before.
The added images, drawings and markings have been executed in several ways: delicately marked out with pen and ink or brush and watercolour, rubber-stamped words, some sgraffito images (drawn and scratched through the top surface to reveal a colour beneath), and several pages combine pen and brush with collaged sections including photocopies and images cut from magazines. Some of the compositions are minimal, barely covering the old diary pages or leaving the printed dates, while other pages have been completely painted with impasto or collaged over.
There’s also a certain nostalgia in the titles of the seven books that NightLadder has produced to make up a cohesive enough set: The Road to Anywhere, Nocturne, Mandarines from Egypt, Moveable Feasts, Verboten, Tone Deaf and Symplifying as Sumptions. Origins of the random titles can be found in a line of writing from each book. For example: on a page dated October 1977, Friday 21, an artist has stamped ‘VERBOTEN’, and on another (July 1976, Friday 16), ‘nocturne’ has been nonchalantly added with pen and wash.
NightLadder consists of mixed-media artists Angela Gardner, Gwenn Tasker, John Doyle, Lisa Pullen and Maren Götzmann. While all five artists have an established individual practice, in recent years, the genre of the Artist Book has become an integral part of their collaborative art. It allows them to explore a synergy between individual practices creating a site for conversation, both formal and spontaneous — and fun. Götzmann has said that the group regularly ‘inhabits a communal workshop characterised by unified energy, learning and researching, bursts of quiet activity, loud conversations and disputes, banter and lots of laughter’.
There are numerous images — many intriguing, some puzzling — including pervasive ones such as human figures or parts thereof and animals of the field or jungle, sometimes just being there, surreptitiously. There are architectural segments, flowers and plants and abstract shapes and markings. And liturgical themes, angels — a retro-angel for example floats over an ink-dark sky and nearby, another more full-bodied angel hovers in puffy pale-blue watercolour clouds — a cross, and brushed words including ‘priest’, ‘bishop’, ‘cardinal’.
In the books none of the diary pages are chronological and neither is the story, if there is a story. There is, however, a guiding light, an engaging flavour to the collected small paintings and entries. The pages link through a deftness of touch, of colour, texture and rhythm, an understanding perhaps of what each artist was doing or how each artist thinks, yet not fully deferring to that either; but happily allowing for some staccato-like juxtapositions. Intuition is at play and maybe even incorruptible chance. Occasionally an artist will see a phantom limb or architectural structure they contributed but in most cases individual contributions are submerged by the collective whole.
The series of altered postcards — also part of NightLadder’s recent collaborative artwork — employ similar processes to the diaries but include erasure and addition as a dominant technique. Erasure, the act of removing parts of the original image, creates space to activate subsequent drawing, revealing a dialogue between the original and the new composition. Addition, using glued-on images or coloured papers, stitching and drawing allows a departure from a ‘real’ (postcard) experience into a representation of a fresh, often surprising, world.
These small art pieces, the diary pages (which make up the seven books) and the postcards, are improvisational. Like a jazz ensemble with each musician performing in some way their own music — at intervals taking the lead — yet at the same time controlled, maintaining a harmony with the others, even if the coherent whole goes close to the edge at times. Perhaps, at its best, perfect imperfection.
Like all such performances and experiences the results work better at times than others. What is clear though is that the closer a collaborating group works together and the more they work at it, the more they understand each other’s capabilities and nuances and the more compelling and evocative the result is.
NightLadder’s exhibition titled SWAY is at the Brisbane Institute of Art from 19 to 26 November 2021 – Open daily 10 am to 4 pm
Address: 41 Grafton St Windsor QLD
The artists will be present on the weekend, 20 and 21 November.
Cover images, NightLadder.