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Tiersmen to Linenfold
9 JUN - 22 JUL 2007
JamFactory, Adelaide

From Tiersmen to Linenfold

...[D]on’t be drawn too far into attempts at flight, into mere swiftness – look how rested all things are: shadow and fall of light, blossom and book.

Rainer Maria Rilke

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From Tiersmen to Linenfold

...[D]on’t be drawn too far into attempts at flight, into mere swiftness – look how rested all things are: shadow and fall of light, blossom and book.

Rainer Maria Rilke1

On a recent visit to Europe – in the planning stages of the Tiersmen to Linenfold body of work – Khai Liew carried with him a small digital image of two aristocratic Japanese deities from the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Carved from camphorwood using the ‘one-cut’ or itto-bori technique, they are a rare male/female pair of Shinto figures from the Kamakura period (1185–1333), in which ‘the carving is reduced to an almost calligraphic-like essence – each cut is essential to the composition and striking in the effect it invokes.’2 It was not only the sense of tranquility exuded by the two figures, but also their expressiveness that Liew found so compelling – motivating him to uncover a similar presence within his own work.

Developed through his trademark origami-like process of folding sheets of paper, the new designs for Tiersmen to Linenfold represent a subtle, but nonetheless emphatic shift in his practice. Liew says that the folding process (evocative of linenfold) began to take on a life of its own and the austere de Stijl-like angularity of earlier works has been softened, as surfaces and components are discreetly altered, tapered, chamfered. He is an orchestrator of shadows and the use of traditional decorative linenfold3 techniques – wherein ornamental panels are carved to resemble folded linen – as well as Liew’s own extrapolations on that method, permit an enhanced interplay of light and shade. It seems appropriate – given the monastic palette employed for the majority of the works in this exhibition – that one of the earliest examples of the linenfold technique is in the twelfth-century Infirmary Chapel, adjacent to the Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire. Hitherto, decoration within Liew’s oeuvre – even in opulent pieces such as the Jian cabinet (2000) – has been invariably integrated with utility.

In an equally unprecedented foray into asymmetry, the Portia chest of drawers features three-dimensional, triangular handles (part-functional/part-decorative) that are wrought from a single piece of limewood, which is then opened out to extend the width of the chest. (The motif derives from a carved, early eighteenth-century chest discovered in the Marché aux Puces in Paris.) Underscoring Liew’s unwavering attention to detail, the unexpected, skewed quirkiness of the legs that form the base of the chest mirrors the asymmetrically-angled handles.

Like the exquisitely finished Linenfold and Gillian sideboards and the Dancing Girls cabinet on a stand, Portia has a delicate and almost papery quality – awash with pale light and soft shadowy effects, conferred by the lime-washed limewood and decorative carved (low relief) panels. In a now familiar strategy, Liew elects to foreground form through the lightening of an already pale timber. The repeated bow-tie motif of the Gillian sideboard (especially effective viewed in profile) has surfaced in several guises – in the woven Sally (2004) light shade and notably the interlocking forms of Liew’s stylish award-winning structures that shade the& Jeannie (2004) series of public bench seating. It is interesting that Rand Castile – who arranged the first American exhibition of Shinto art in 1976 – noted the ‘fine, Brancusi-like abstraction of form’4 of the carved Shinto figures, since a number of forms in Tiersmen to Linenfold take as their point of reference Brancusi’s sculptural works – in particular the ‘bow-tie’ (rhomboid) modules of his soaring columns.

Central to the sculptural form of the Nichole bench – a formal exercise in intersecting planes that is a folded reworking of the Jeannie bench – is the play of light, the creation of captured shadows. Liew, who has a conjurer-like ability to diminish mass, describes the Nichole bench as ‘light and airy’; its structurally innovative economy of design is a development facilitated by the pliable potential of Danish laminated eco-plywood.

With the introduction of a sloping backrest, the similarly sculptural Dakota bench is based on an eighteenth-dynasty Egyptian chair in the collection of the British Museum (characterised by the distinctive void or open triangular space between the sloping backrest and the vertical back support) – a form of construction also apparent in an Aesthetic Movement chair by Edward William Godwin in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having adopted this configuration for his Egyptian Chair (1949), Danish designer Finn Juhl observed that ‘...I have been and am more captivated by the most simple and elegant furniture from Egypt, than by other furniture of the past.’5

Liew has often stated that his primary frame of reference is ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and China; in a fecund meshing of influences there are also echoes of Scandinavian modernism and in a unique regional twist, the rustic nineteenth-century furniture of the Barossa region. The vigorous, strongly grained Harvey chair is a case in point, since its distinctive, ‘open-jawed’ cantilevered arms that incline upwards are clearly influenced by Hans Wegner’s Bear chair (1951), yet there is also a charismatic trace of vernacular Australian furniture, such as an eccentric nineteenth-century chair (from Booleroo in South Australia’s mid-north) with arms that metamorphose into carved timber hands. Other sources of inspiration – the architecture of Shigeru Ban, the fall of a kimono sleeve for example – remain more veiled.

Refined, sculptural, impeccably finished, the structurally inventive Spoehr chair (with finely attenuated splat) offers a remarkable counterpoint to the comparatively raw exuberance of the& Harvey chair, while the Brooks chair – with woven paper-cord seat and central splat with chamfered detail – might be viewed as belonging to a lineage of interpretations of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Chinese chairs that includes a succession of Wegner’s refinements of the form.

If the pale limewood pieces and the two benches exist as ghostly, sculptural and (paradoxically) ethereal works, then the four distinctive chair designs collectively present a divergent, but equally compelling (and diverse) statement; a spatial dialogue between mass and void, between restraint and playful assertiveness – introducing darker grained timbers, such as walnut and oak, in which the subtle form of decoration is the figured surface of the timber itself.

Providing a link between earlier work and Tiersmen to Linenfold, the Lavis chair is based on a primitive Barossan chair from Alistair McAlpine’s collection of early Australian furniture. Affectionately referred to by Liew as the ‘fat-chook’ chair, it was constructed from a packing case (of the sort used in the packaging of heating and lighting oil),supported by a rudimentary form of backrest and legs, cannily improvised from branch timber. Liew’s contemporary reinterpretation is a sophisticated chair with curved seat and backrest. Eliminating a section of the all-too-substantial box-form and rotating a segment back on itself as a perceptible fold (conversely, mass is added where it is most efficacious in the form of a sleekly curved backrest), Lavis therefore becomes – in its striking transformation and use of materials – emblematic of the theme of the exhibition.

It is notable that the rectilinear, upright legs of earlier tables have made way for the implied movement of the JK table and Sama’s bent or angled legs, which are even more animated, almost zoomorphic – seemingly arrested mid-movement. Recalling Hans Wegner’s Y chair, JK’s ‘Y’ form or wishbone legs appear to move and almost twist, forming (in profile view) an inverted ‘Y.’ Although the universal motif of the hexagon is one that Liew has used previously in a 2004 ceiling design for a private commission, a visit to the ornate nineteenth-century refreshment rooms at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (and specifically the high-ceilinged, central room designed by James Gamble), galvanised his desire to incorporate the form into a furniture design. Decorated in the classical revival manner (friezes, ionic columns, multiple archways) the magnificent Gamble Room is entirely covered with glazed and intermittently patterned earthenware Minton tiles – many of them hexagonal.

It is an understatement to say that a number of the designs for Tiersmen to Linenfold were challenging – necessitating inventive structural solutions. Requiring exactitude rather than resourcefulness, the applied decoration for the Minton cabinet was extremely labour intensive, as Liew and his assistant meticulously cut and secured the numerous hexagons that wrap around the cupboard’s austere 1940s French form. Since each three-dimensional triangular component (more than 2600 in total) is graduated from 3 to 10 millimetres, the surface that is created is a Vasarely-like (albeit limewood-coloured) facade of optical effects – a multi-faceted landscape of undulating planes; of proliferating cubes generated through nuances of light and shade; of wavering, yet precisely irregular corners. According to Liew the cabinet is ‘busy, but also light and soft’.

In the early days of settlement in the first half of the nineteenth century, the tiersmen laboured in the Adelaide Hills – referred to at that time simply as the Tiers – clearing land and felling the forest of stringy bark eucalypts that covered the terrain, in order to provide timber for the new colony of Adelaide. The title of the exhibition, Tiersmen to Linenfold therefore represents an ongoing allusion to Australia’s evolution from a frontier settlement to a sophisticated multicultural society. For it is a point Liew has made in the past by exploring the metaphorical potential of furniture (and specifically the symbolism of materials). But this polished new body of work also signals an evolution of his idiom, as Liew embraces asymmetry, softness, movement and playfulness, new materials and construction methods, as well as an interruption of flatness of surface through elegantly articulated, applied decoration. Wearing their complexities lightly, the resultant works – in which a new expressiveness is filtered through Liew’s characteristically rigorous aesthetic – reveal heightened rhythmic and poetic possibilities.

© Wendy Walker, May 2007


Endnotes

1. This fragment from Rilke’s 'Sonnets to Orpheus' is cited in Jim Ede, A way of life: Kettle’s Yard, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984, p186: Also an architect of shadows, Ede established the numerous collections of art and artefacts at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge – a highlight of Liew’s recent trip to Europe.

2. Dr Rand Castile, cited in Dick Richards, Art Gallery of South Australia Board Report AGB 98/5, 24 August 1998:8, Items for ratification, Adelaide: AGSA, p. 14.

3. Linenfold is a form of carving in low relief that imitates a folded piece of linen cloth. Used to decorate furniture and wall panelling (frequently in an ecclesiastical context), it was prevalent in Europe from the 14th –16th centuries and persisted in Britain for another century or so.

4. Richards: ibid.

5. Esbjorn Hiort, Finn Juhl, Copenhagen: The Danish Architectural Press, 1990, p. 44.

6. Interestingly, another of the pieces of packing crate furniture from the McAlpine collection is stamped 'Grimwade Felton & Co' (a Melbourne-based chemical company). After the death of businessman/philanthropist Alfred Felton in 1904, his generous bequest – instrumental in the building of the renowned European collection of the National Gallery of Victoria – was managed by a Felton Bequests Committee of five members including in succession his business partner Frederick Grimwade and his sons Norton, Harold and Russell. See Graham Cornall, Memories: a survey of early Australian furniture in the collection of the Lord McAlpine of West Green, Perth, WA: Aust, City Properties Ltd, 1990, p. 90.

 

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JK 2007
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Lavis 2007arrow

Lavis 2007
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Lavis 2007
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Art Gallery of Western Australia

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Linenfold 2007arrow

Linenfold 2007
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Powerhouse Museum

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Linenfold 2007
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Powerhouse Museum

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Brooks 2007
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Minton 2007
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Otto 2007
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Portia 2007
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Portia 2007
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Spoehr 2007
American black walnut, upholstered
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Spoehr 2007
American black walnut, upholstered
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Art Gallery of South Australia