Margaret Ackland


April 16 - April 30 2011

Margaret Ackland's exquisitely rendered paintings of antique garments embody ideas of personal and cultural identity. Although clothing might be thought of as a mundane necessity, throughout history garments have provided a potent means of visual communication.  Conventions change as a consequence of the zeitgeist of an era, new technologies and fashion trends, but the clothes a person wears inevitably prompts suppositions about ethnicity, social status or occupation.

Garments hold symbolic import in that they can both mask and reveal aspects of our physical and psychological selves. "I am interested in the way garments shape the human form and construct identity," says Ackland. "Wrapping and concealing the body, they exist as a barrier between public and private space. My works explore the interconnectedness of personal and collective memory, craftsmanship and tradition."

"At a very basic level," continues Ackland, "I am interested in the sheer pleasure of looking at things. The garments themselves also function as objects to be viewed and admired. Being quite interested in sewing, I love to investigate the structure of the pieces. Some of the garments immediately spring to life evoking memory and thoughts about those who had previously wore them. The clothes we inhabit retain something of our form and essence - a trace of self that imprints back into the garment."

The imagery in Ackland's previous bodies of work primarily alluded to her own family, for example the Christening robe that had been worn by five or six generations and the iconic floating wedding dress. The new paintings now also include historical pieces from the American Civil War. Ackland's interest in these garments was kindled when a longtime friend who has a vintage clothing store came into possession of them. "I was amazed by the dresses as I looked at them in my studio," she muses. "I imagined the young woman who wore them all those years ago on another continent half way around the world. How different our lives have been and yet so many of our concerns were probably the same."

Ackland was particularly intrigued in a lavishly trimmed, grey silk jacket and skirt outfit. The 150 years old fabric was in a condition termed 'shattered' and so arranging the fragile garments in the manner she wished to portray them was a very delicate process. Ackland depicts the costume as if inhabited by an invisible body. The sensuous, almost flesh-like colour of the lining lures our attention into the vacated form. She made two major paintings of these beautiful clothes. In the work Civil War the garments are stationary, their fringes, frills and ribbons bespeak of a genteel ‘southern belle' lifestyle. The other painting, Gettysburg, is altogether more active. It shows uplifted arms and the billowing garments are reminiscent of a woman is in full flight.

Further imagery relating to the same period includes a ruffled silk jacket that Ackland has painted blue in an oblique reference to the colour of the coats worn by soldiers from the North, as well as a 'steel and bone' corset, an elaborate lace collar, red shoes and a pair of ankle boots. The dense blackness of the backgrounds allows no distraction and serves to heighten the colour and sumptuous textures of the fabrics. While the exhibition offers insight into the mores of bygone times it also invites a pause in our busy daily schedules so that we might more fully appreciate the present.

Margaret Ackland has won and been a finalist five times in the Portia Geach Memorial Award. Thrice a finalist in the Blake Religious Art Prize, the preparation for her 2008 entry was the subject of the ABC television series, Compass. Ackland's work is represented in a number of important collections including Artbank, the Holmes a Court Collection and the Deakin University Collection.


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