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Marion Borgelt’s Flight from Nhill

By Laura Murray Cree

Sunday afternoon was a perfect time to visit Marion Borgelt in her Sydney studio – traffic was light, the trip flowed, parking was easy, and by the time Marion had bought milk and made us both a strong coffee, served in glasses, we were ready to talk about her art. By this time, too, I had spent a few minutes alone in the well organised, white-painted space, walking around sculptural installations and works in progress, noting a few unfamiliar glass pieces, several paintings and a small collection of earlier works, perhaps one-offs or those with special meaning for the artist.

Along one section of the studio floor six canvas panels lay end to end, painted in tones of gold from warm to (almost) black gold, background colours for Borgelt’s latest commission – a work for Macau’s ‘City of Dreams’ to be installed in the hotel lobby behind a concierge desk of polished black jade. The work will be the largest of Borgelt’s Liquid Light series, poetic evocations of nature’s cycles and rhythms first shown in 2004 at her Sherman Galleries exhibition, Sol y Sombre. The canvases will be cut and twisted to create an optical effect of sequential movement across the panels – notional waves of light that flow from negative to positive, dark to light as viewers shift their vision or walk alongside the work. This series ushered in a radical new palette for Borgelt – beginning with citrus yellow but now extending, in her Strobe paintings, to lime green, purple, magenta and orange. The Macau work, however, demands gold. We look at the maquette and a preliminary drawing on graph paper: ‘This work requires millimetre precision. I don’t need to fill in the central panels, just the beginning and the end because the template has internal logic. It’s an exacting process – I need my assistant here to make sure I don’t slip in terms of where I hold the ruler when I’m cutting.’

Borgelt’s first cut works were part of the Bloodlight series and restricted to a palette of black and red. The idea was that the red backs would be integral to the works; hung 50 millimetres out from the wall, they would cast a red glow. Since then, Borgelt has not only varied her palette but also cut or incised paper, felt, wax, canvas, Belgian linen and balsa wood. Inherent in these works is the notion of mystery, of something primal or hidden – also a factor when the artist introduced beeswax into her work, making small sculptures and paintings where the imagery is veiled and softened.

Examples of early wax paintings hung on a section of the studio wall. I ask Borgelt whether she feels drawn to return to these. “Although wax beckons I would have to go back to working in a micro-size studio – as I did when I lived in Paris [for eight years, from 1989].” She compares Baron Haussmann’s buildings to a library, with the stories of generations concealed behind homogenous façades. Such reveries inspired Bottled Histories, 2000, wax paintings like books with archetypal symbols on their covers, presented with sinuously sculpted and painted wax bottles. Cryptologist’s Memoir, 2004, includes more literal elements. Here Borgelt cut into the open pages of numerous books – on history, literature, religion and the sciences – filling the incisions with archaic and reimagined symbols fashioned lusciously in wax. Since returning to live in Sydney (she has also lived in New York, Adelaide and Melbourne), Borgelt has worked in large, lightfilled spaces. The present studio is her eighth in this city and, during the last few years, she has become increasingly comfortable with working big.

We move towards two ‘Strobe’ paintings, abstract works referencing waves of bending, twisting light whose shrill bands of colour shocked viewers on their initial showing in 2007. She explains: “The colour reflects a new way of bringing life into my work, getting it to radiate and become active on an optical level. It’s bittersweet … I like to hit that point at the edge of bad taste and still get it to work. I also like the nuances, the soft vibrancy as well as the stridency.” As we turn away from them I say that I feel as if I’m being stalked. She laughs: “They affect your periphery, the energy in the room. It’s like Brian Eno music pulsing out at you – a bit unsettling.” I think immediately of vulnerable creatures in flashy colours that spell poison to predators. She continues: “I work with extremes and contrasts … from delicacy to power and strength, from highly refined things to things that lift the lid on the emotions – the extremes of visual and psychological experience.” Later I am rivetted by a third ‘Strobe’ painting of (predominantly) red and yellow horizontal bands. It is a work in two parts, the gap between the pieces accentuated by white paint. Borgelt explains that she will over-paint this with black, hiding the gap and creating a stronger form within the painting. Talking more generally about abstraction she says: “Abstract painting has greater difficulties on certain levels than figurative painting. The elements are reduced and you have to get them right. In my case, the bands of colour, the edges, the movement, the shifts and changes and the texture all have to be right. Some bands are translucent, some are solid, some shift in a fugitive way, some in a sharp way.”

Texture is particularly important in Borgelt’s three-dimensional cosmological works. Her singular ‘Lunar Warp’ sculptures are made from hoop pine ply with various surface treatments, including satin-smooth polyurethane in black or white with a depth and sparkle that is practically impossible to photograph. The curved surface of a new work is being laminated with broken duck-eggshells that will be grouted, sanded and waxpolished. It is the most labour intensive work she has ever done: “I’m working with my loyal assistant Mia. We’ve gone through eighteen dozen eggs on this work [and the latest twelve-piece ‘Lunar Circle’]. It will be a slightly more raw piece but strong and subtle.”

The surface warmth of the polished shell invites touching – the moon made flesh. Borgelt’s fascination with the moon – its phases, reflected light and tidal pull – has been the impetus, since 2004, for multiple works attuned to these moods and changes. Her curvilinear discs and spheres employ a range of materials from polyurethane and mirrorpolished stainless steel to granite, marble and glass. The idea for using duck-eggshells came after having the timber spheres in her studio for over a year: “The beautiful grain of the laminated pine was so appealing that I didn’t want to lose it. It occurred to me that duck eggshells would have sympathy with it. Both are earthy materials but the eggshells have been transformed into something else, something unique.” For Borgelt, however, the spheres she made in 2006–07 in collaboration with Berengo Glass Studio on the

Venetian island of Murano are without comparison: “They have a mystical quality. As you look into them you see the depths. Everything is layered. The outside surfaces have been treated with a mix of sand and porcelain that is sheered onto the glass while it is still liquid. They demand so much of hand-worked skills.”

It is not surprising then, that Borgelt admires Anish Kapoor – not only for his vision, focus and understanding of materials and scale but also for his ability to work creatively with suppliers and designers who have never engaged in this way before. I linger beside the Murano spheres, set on plinths of French polished Victorian ash, incredulous that I am seeing them in the artist’s studio rather than an art-museum collection. Visual profundity matches their material density: each sphere weighs six to seven kilos, with misty shadows that take them from light to dark across the entire sequence. This movement within the stillness has an aura of yearning and melancholy, as if they are made from tears.

We approach the more delicate, spherical glass objects that I had noticed earlier. Made in collaboration with Australian glass artist Andrew Lavery, they could develop into a new suite of works. “But,” says Borgelt, “it’s early days. This dusty gold piece is inspiring me in a particular way …” Nearby is a colourful cut work in black, red and magenta. Borgelt calls it her “Christian Lacroix piece – very Spanish flamenco – I’m still interested in the optical effect, that sense of change.” It resonates with an open fan of black lace in a vitrine, each rib inscribed with a line of verse hand-written in silver. Borgelt admits that the verse is hers, written in praise of Mother Nature – a youthful testament, perhaps, to the artist’s creative passion.

Marion Borgelt grew up on a farm at Nhill in western Victoria where life could be messy and unpredictable. She saw lambs torn apart by crows and foxes, and sheep dispatched by her father with a precise slit of the throat. Her site-specific installations include Round-

Up Maze, constructed in 2005 at Hay, New South Wales, a collaboration with Andrew Crick ignited by a photograph of sheep circling during a muster. Is her art a flight from Nhill? “Good wording”, she says, “I did take flight – to Paris, to New York. After matriculating I couldn’t stay there any longer. I was accepted into a number of universities but art school was where I wanted to be. I travel a lot. This year I’m going to Sicily. Last year I was in Morocco and India – the third time I’d seen the Taj Mahal, probably the most moving building in the world as it floats into the sky. It’s magnificent, the bluish shimmer of the marble and that incredible finish. I think that’s the challenge.

My home is like that too: pared back to essential items so that the whole space reads as a sculptural experience of furniture, artworks and objects.”

I ask her if she prefers collaborative work or the solitude of painting in the studio. “I love both very, very much. The large works where I’m heading a team don’t feel so emotional and personal but they give me a thrill when so many outsourced components come together in the final installation and the work materialises just as I imagined it. Painting is more of a prayer. It’s about you with the medium, teasing the medium to do as you wish, hoping it shows you some magic you didn’t know was there. It makes you far more vulnerable.” She recalls an Agnes Martin exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2000: “There was a suite in the softest pinks and greys and lead pencil – it was mesmerising. Something that slows you down in a moment that has a deep poetic resonance.”

Marion Borgelt is, as she says, an artist of extremes. Interiority and design, the sensual and the analytical are equally found in her work. She creates artworks for wall and floor, city and country, church and corporation. Her forthcoming Sydney exhibition ‘Moonlight in my Veins’ at Dominik Mersch in Waterloo’s Danks Street complex will comprise some ‘Liquid Light’ works, several ‘Strobe’ paintings, lunar works with duck eggshell surfaces and, possibly, some new glass works: “I see myself somewhat as a couturiertype of visual artist. People see what I’m doing, the range, and then they order something specific for their particular needs and environment.”

BORGELT’S OEUVRE: 6 KEY WORKS

Venetian Tsukimi No. 1, 2007 Borgelt considers this collaborative work to be significant “because it opened the door to exploring further the medium of glass … not an easy process because of the exceptional craftsmanship of Murano’s Berengo Glass Studio.” The work is shown here with early paintings from her ‘Liquid Light’ series, cut works introducing a new palette and the artist’s fascination with optical effects and a world in perpetual motion (‘Flux & Permanence’, Sherman Galleries, 2007). (pic + detail)

Moonlight Tsukimi, 2009

Borgelt says this lunar sequence “calibrates pure digital change following a 360-degree sequence from full moon to new moon”. The earthy warmth of the materials – despite the transformation of duck eggshells to a highly refined surface – give the work an alluring tactility. Some of the moon shapes appear like bowls waiting to be held or offering the gift of potential. (work + detail)

Liquid Light 54 Degrees, 2008 acrylic on canvas, timber, nails 130 x 282 cm

Borgelt twists concept and the canvas as she develops her ‘Liquid Light’ series of cut paintings, setting up a constant visual play between artwork and viewer. The regular wave motion creates additional interplays of positive and negative space, flow and containment, the finite material world and intimations of infinity. She says: “I don’t have the patience for making narratives because I want to get to a deeper, emotional place – maybe hitting an instinct or a chord inside the viewer as it hits me.”

Strobe No. 13, 2008 oil on canvas

The ‘Strobe’ paintings have an animal strength and edge that challenge the viewer to keep on looking. The coloured bands of light have a basis in science, suggesting “the schisms and warps in the space-time template of our existence … but you can’t be entirely empirical or rationalist about a painting. You have to swing with the instinctual and emotional feelings of the work. That’s when you have to be in touch with yourself.”

Lunar Warp No. 8, 2008 MDF, silver leaf, bitumen lacquer, polyurethane 100 diameter x 22 cm Private commission for Quay Restaurant, Circular Quay, Sydney In response to the beauty and changing appearance of the moon as it orbits the earth Borgelt creates sculptural ‘moon shadows’ configured as lunar arcs, circles and warps. The gently curving form of the Lunar Warp is an imaginative recreation of “the hidden edge” in the shadow of the crescent moon. Put another way, the shape displaced by a full moon is suggested by the dark nether side of the sculptural warped curve.

Crytologists’ Memoir: Generation II (detail), 2007 books, bees wax, pigment, satin ribbon, Perspex boxes, dimensions variable

With her ‘Cryptologist’s Memoir’ installations, Borgelt moves from the cosmology of the universe to that of ‘the Word’ or language: its mysterious origins and symbols; meanings lost in antiquity or beyond the grasp of contemporary minds. Perhaps the “hidden” language of computer technology will be equally baffling to generations of scholars in the distant future.

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