Curator’s Radar: Donna Marcus

A round up of artists who have recently attracted significant curator attention by way of commissions, acquisitions and inclusion in major public exhibitions.

Words: Joanna Kitto

“The quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels.” So wrote Roland Barthes.

Donna Marcus has been gathering domestic materials for 35 years. The Brisbane-based artist is drawn to objects for their inherent narrative qualities, their social and cultural histories, and their formal possibilities. Her items of choice: post-war kitchenware, with a deep interest in the conceptual and material properties of aluminium, Bakelite and plastic.

The most widespread metal, aluminium domestic wares boomed in the early 20th century for their ability to be mass produced at low cost. Plastic has been on an unsustainably exponential incline since the 1960s. This leaves a proliferation of objects for the artist to re-home and re-purpose.

Making for Marcus is driven by intuition, guided by the meeting point between the humble and the grand. She spends hours in the studio, sorting through materials, arranging and rearranging, until patterns emerge. Marcus draws on the critical mass of her collection to create refined objects that hold visual intrigue through patternation and the combination of palette and texture. The sense of time echoes through Marcus’ practice, time spent in the studio, and also the lifecycle of each object and material through fashion, industry and application.

There is a curious transformation that occurs to objects in Marcus’ hand. She says of the vegetable steamers, knobs, handles, tea cups and fry pan lids, “they stay themselves, but become something… other”. Works such as GABO, 2022-23, Pallet, 2022 and Waist, 2023 hold personal stories, small private moments relatable to the viewer, and an abstract wonder familiar to the modernist period from which many of the objects belong.

Marcus’ affinity with a modernist sensibility extends beyond form and material. Pulse (Synchromy in green minor), 2023 is a standout work in Radiate, Marcus’ major survey showing at Queensland’s HOTA until April 2024, and signposts a direction in her practice that explores the links between sound and visual art. Pulse speaks to Australian artists Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre, whose paintings (most notably Syncromy in orange major and Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor, both 1919) employ their theory of harmonisation between colours of the spectrum and notes of the musical scale.

The aural qualities of Marcus’ work are observed by curator and writer Samantha Littley in her essay accompanying Radiate, titled Alchemy and Assemblage: “Marcus’s sculptures evoke sounds: the crash of cymbals, the crunch of defunct cars being compressed, the clatter of steel chains rattling onto a ship’s deck. The effect is produced by the tactile quality of the aluminium objects she manipulates, which suggest the mechanical (and musical) processes through which they were forged, as well as their narrowly averted fate as scrap metal. What is at play is a kind of alchemy, a magic act in which the dinted and dented, the scratched and the scoured, assume new life.”

Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney, which represents Marcus, will present her solo exhibition Pallet from 21 March to 5 May 2024. Marcus’ publication Radiate is available through HOTA bookshop or Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert.

Featured image above: Donna Marcus, Stride, 2023. Stainless steel, dimensions variable. Tivoli Forecourt, Kambala School, Sydney. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney.

Featured image below: Donna Marcus, SYRUP, 2022. Anodised aluminium, aluminium and adhesive, 130 x 93cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 107, January-March 2024. 

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