Family Trees
, 1995, oil on board, 62 x 46 cm


Arboreality, 1995, installation shot at ether ohnetitel


Gallery: ether ohnetitel, Fitzroy, 1995

The use of topiary as the subject matter for these paintings, was initially inspired by travelling in Mexico in 1994 and reinforced by a recent trip to Indonesia. Having previously considered this practice a curious European custom from a bygone era (mostly kept alive at stately English mansions for the benefit of tourists) it was surprising for me to discover how much more prolific topiary is in the so called 'developing nations' of the world.

Comparing countries such as Indonesia and Mexico to eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe is a tenuous position to take in many ways, yet it is possible to make connections regarding the class structures of these societies, where the extremes between rich and poor are vast, and where public infrastructure struggles to keep up with accelerating population rates. These factors produce, among other (arguably more important) things, topiary. The labour intensive art of continuously clipping and training plants into decorative or representational forms can only really thrive on such a large scale, in an environment of cheap labour paid for by a class of people of considerable affluence.

However as these warped and twisted trees grow out of the cracks between the classes, it is possibly more realistic to argue that in Australia, topiary has really become a symbol for the middle or aspirant classes. The scale of topiary here is limited on the whole, to small specimen trees in pots and less elaborate, neatly trimmed bushes and hedges throughout the suburbs. In most cases it is probable that these plants have been cut by their owners, not their owner's gardeners. Such manipulation of nature reveals a desire as well as the confidence in being able to control one's environment, and like long red fingernails, car phones and ski-tans, topiary conveys the appearance of 'establishment', without the necessity of actually owning a mansion and bestowed titles.

At a more intimate level, topiary also symbolises grooming and pampering to excess. These fastidiously kept shrubs are cherished so hard they risk losing their 'planty' essence. In this exhibition the fourteen trees flanking the side walls have been given human names to suggest that they have been 'adopted' by a middle class family. The dimensions of the works more closely resemble portraits than landscapes, and in fact they could be seen as representations of types, the results of growing up under particular conditions or conditioning.

The pictures at the end of the gallery are arranged in the studied clutter of Victorian times above a doily- adorned side table. While each of these works has been inspired by different sources, together they are suggestive of a family grouping. The intent of this work is to explore some ideas surrounding families, both at an intimate level and on a macro scale where class conforms to a similar hierarchy as the single unit.

Lastly the work in arboreality is about the intriguing, enchantingly laborious process of cutting a tree into something other than a tree.

Penelope Aitken 1995



Penelope Aitken's Isabel and Josephine explore the highly stylized world of topiary. Strange and exotic shapes are evoked via the medium of the tree or bush, creating ambiguous beauty in which the natural is replaced by the unnatural, the real by the illusory. Symbolic, as the artist notes, of 'grooming and pampering to excess', the two topiaries depicted reflect on a macro scale the wider hierarchy of class from which they evolved within a European villa garden. Eastern parallels, including the Japanese bonsai tradition, can also be drawn, while the individual naming - 'Josephine' and 'Isabel' - personifies the bushes, like pets to be adored and stifled by the owner.

Rachel Kent, Aesthetic Illusions, catalogue essay, 1995

Cameo, 1995, oil on board, 17 x 12 cm


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