Deborah Klein: Tattooed Faces and Figures Australian Galleries, Melbourne, February 1998 by Juliet Peers

Storming the White Bread Castle

Feminist interventions in the fine arts have a respectable two-decade long history in Western visual arts. Thus Kate Daw in writing a catalogue essay to an exhibition at RMIT First Site Gallery, Wash n’ Wear, can invoke “the great and noble tradition of modern girls and the domestic in contemporary art...a chance to examine the baggage that we are all socialised with. All those years of being a girl as a child, and all the things we knew”. (1)  Deborah Klein unmistakably addressed this body of experience in her meticulous and intense exhibition at Australian Galleries. Female experience was articulated through the metaphor of various textile crafts.

Since the publication of The Subversive Stitch (2) the idea that “women’s history” is written on cloth rather than paper has become something of a feminist truism, and one that still comes as second nature to studio textiles. By representing textile images on paper as prints, Klein immediately plays with the diktat that has in the past condemned women to the trivia of social history rather than the heights of the fine arts pantheon.

By using calico and interface as the support for her prints, Klein further moves her new work into the crossover between textiles and the print, not to mention the fact that many early commercial textiles shared certain techniques of fine art printmaking, woodblock and copperplate engraving.

Granted that this project had a well established context, Klein’s starting point justified her action. Amongst all the modernisms in Australia, that of the print is particularly dedicated and pure, still alert to technical and formal issues frequently jettisoned or evaded by other media. Klein, supremely literate in the aesthetic and means of the print, respected by a printmaking audience, then injected the feminine subjective and subversive into this sometimes most rational of media. Yet ironically, and one gathers unconsciously, Klein reinforced the history of the print as well as women’s traditional crafts.

Amongst the earliest printed books circulated for a female audience, apart from devotional works, were the volumes of ideas for cutwork and embroidery from 16th century Italy illustrated with exquisite woodcuts and engravings  of sample designs, sometimes in reverse, dark upon light, as in Klein’s Daughter of Time. Thus the emergence of women’s fancy work and lace making, those media where the characteristic design vocabulary was constantly evoked by Klein throughout  this whole selection of prints, was contemporary to one of the early “golden eras” of printmaking. Klein’s own formal skills links her to those patternmakers of the past generations. In the reappearance of the characteristic effects of these media in Klein’s prints, both splendidly trompe l’oeil and surrealist, the fact that supposedly female and meretricious media can be a repository for the skills in formal repetition and patterning that are as adept in non-representational art as any 20th century “modern master” is also asserted, through Klein’s use of these motifs as a basis for contemporary artworks on paper.

The mannerist fancy that appears equally in the high arts and the female crafts of  the late 16th century is echoed through Klein’s surrealist device of constructing faces though disparate subjects which recalls Archimbaldo. Yet the “surrealism” employed by Klein is up to date as well. The Juxtaposition of toughness and lacy, flowery nostalgia, a delicacy of touch with dark sardonic observation, recalls Jane Campion’s inaccurate, yet extremely popular take on the Victorian era, and also the interpretation of women’s history as tempestuous and sexually fraught by the French film-maker Agnes Merlet. Klein’s femininity is not only that of hearts and flowers, folksy crafts or the intricate interfacing of sixteenth century design, but of the capable, feral womanhood of  today – her faces are tattooed, they reference ethnography as well as the Victorian pallor; her  women suffer for love – the eyes f the repeated faces were wise, knowing and experienced. In the gallery they assaulted the viewer with such an intensity that the space was transformed into an installation as well as a display of skilful printmaking. The Gallery was besieged by that much discussed force – the female gaze.


1.             Kate Daw essay to Wash n’ Wear, Lee Agius, Nadia Angelini, Phoebe Douglas, Fleur Summers, First Site Gallery RMIT 4-14 August 1998

2.             Rozsika Parker The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, The Women’s Press 1984.

IMPRINT, Volume 33, No. 3, 1998

Copyright Juliet Peers, 1998.




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