Barely Wearable Exhibition
8 August 2020 – Jervis Bay Maritime Museum and Gallery

Ruth Downes’ work is witty, inventive, entertaining. It is driven by a sophisticated approach to design, craft and making, and an unusual talent for titling the works that extends our appreciation of them.

But behind the visually striking, cleverly ironic and seemingly effortlessly constructed objects and small sculptures that characterise Ruth’s work lies a wealth of ideas, references, skills and commentary.

Barely Wearable – can we bear to wear these adornments? They are literally barely wearable…. Take A Very Close Shave for example – a necklace formed from disposable razors… humorous, yes, uncomfortable, certainly. Not just because wearing a razor seems awkward, even potentially dangerous, but because suddenly the casual way those razors are disposed of, a new one bought and used just once, becomes all too apparent.

Over several decades of artistic practice, Ruth has been consistently drawn to a great diversity of materials, and she has an amazing ability to discern the patterns and shapes that those materials inherently possess, and how they might be accumulated, shaped and assembled to achieve new visual outcomes that can be stunning, startling or simply beautiful.

This facility with materials, and the challenges and questions that their use in artworks provoke are not without cultural and artistic precedent. Australian colonial settlers became known for ‘making do’ – necessity being the mother of invention, when materials were scarce all kinds of creative leaps were made, perhaps best known being the once ubiquitous kerosene tin, which in the hands of outback settlers morphed into baking trays, ice chests, meat safes and letter boxes. ‘Bricolage’ is another term for this kind of adaptive re-use – there’s a striking drawing in the UOW Art Collection by artist Rod Moss, of an Indigenous family group in central Australia in the early 1990s gathering to watch TV in the bush with a coat hanger standing in for the aerial. I bought a beautiful basket a few years ago created by craftswomen in Kwa Zulu Natal woven from telephone cable, reminiscent of older traditions of shell and beadwork.

And of course there’s the elephant – or should I say the Fountain – in the room, Marcel DuChamp’s famously infamous work of that name. In 1917 DuChamp brought a urinal into the exhibition of the newly formed New York Society of Independent Artists. Although it wasn’t exhibited to the public, the work’s reputation survived through a photograph taken by
Alfred Stieglitz, and formed a cornerstone of twentieth century art history’s challenges to what comprises a work of art, and what the viewer might make of it.

Ruth’s confident and striking adaptations of materials reference wide-ranging creative and cultural practices, and situating her small sculptures and decorative objects in these historical and art historical contexts expands our view of her artistic endeavour or enterprise. This exhibition follows two previous touring exhibitions that have been shown across Australia over nearly 20 years – Lunch for the Trades and Tea Party in the Mayoral Garden. Tea Party was awarded the People’s Choice Prize at the NGA exhibition it was launched at.

I wish we had a slide show of these works to look at today – both exhibitions explored some of the rituals around eating and drinking – the taking of tea and the modernist efficiency of the cafeteria, with eye-catching and thought provoking fabrications drawn from all kinds of sources. The idea of art beyond painting, sculpture made from the everyday, has captivated audiences and inspired workshops and I suspect many imaginative creations at home over the years…. But today we’re here to consider Barely Wearable.

In this body of work Ruth focuses us on a different, urgent context – arguably the greatest challenge of our era – that of consumption and its relationship to environmental issues. This body of work brings that issue home to us on a personal level. Consider Caffeinated. A gloriously coloured, elegant necklace and earring set, comprised of multiple coffee pods.
How many days’ consumption went into this one necklace, we might ask, when faced with the fact that 3 million of these pods are consumed each day in Australia, and each one takes 150 to 500 years to break down. The necklace is a drop in the coffee pod ocean… but its presence in this exhibition, as a bodily adornment, addresses us, the users, at an individual
level. And this cuts to the heart of the environmental issue: if each consumer changes behaviour, great change is possible at a global scale. It’s barely tolerable that we consume in the way that Ruth’s art gently, even playfully, exposes. Using bodily adornment as the metaphorical and literal vehicle for these works underlines how vain we can be in our mindless consumption, but it also reminds us that body art reaches across cultures and genders and has always been something that drew on available materials as much as the rare and precious.

Behind the apparent ease and often quite polished surfaces of these works lies years of hard work and persistence. I should mention here that Ruth has a long record of public art commissions as well as small sculpture works. She’s clearly an intensely productive artist and perhaps somewhat of a perfectionist – at each venue she seizes the opportunity to refine a work, or add something new and to her mind better. Her critical eye clearly can’t leave the work alone! And most impressive is the fact that Ruth, with assistance from her husband Geoff Webster, has organised all three of her national tours herself. Together Geoff and Ruth install each show, making each iteration of the exhibition something rather special.

These are times in which we are all having to consider the concepts of self-reliance, adaptation, restriction and restraint. Perhaps Ruth’s insightful and joyful works in Barely Wearable have landed here right now to show us some ways forward, suggest that we find beauty in the little things, in the unexpected, and take the time to think through what we do and how we do it.

Congratulations Ruth, this is a wonderful achievement and I’m delighted to declare the exhibition open.

Amanda Lawson
Honorary Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage
University of Wollongong