“I can’t do just one thing. I like to make things and I’m drawn by the challenge of getting out of my comfort zone and bringing different things together,” Di Longley says. This simple statement sums up her approach to art — throughout her long and distinguished career, she has explored and combined techniques for making art and representing ideas visually, and has continuously developed new techniques. She takes artistic risks and she challenges viewers artistically. She used to see this approach as a flaw in her work but has developed it into a compelling oeuvre, even a genre of her own.
Longley developed her strategy in art school, the Newcastle College of Advanced Education (NSW) in the late 1970s, where she studied painting, photography and printmaking, rather than focusing on just one medium. It came naturally to her to work across these art forms rather than to devote herself to just one form or to work with them separately. The result of this approach is that each body of artwork comprises carefully layered media that combine into a unique synthesis.
The prints in the series “Apperception, a Symbolic Narrative” (1991) embody four layers of material: screenprinted checkerboard as the ground, a small cast and printed plaster layer set over it, a print inserted in the plaster, and a glass front which bears text and other markings and which, being suspended slightly away from the imagery by the frame, turns the frame into a window and acts as a semi-detached commentary on the imagery beneath. The series offers a story that invites close reading. This work neatly exemplifies the compositional approach she has developed and is itself a metaphor for viewing — we perceive objects and ideas through the densely layered media of our own experience, attitudes, feelings and predispositions, and our reflexive labelling of objects and ideas betrays our own subjective viewpoint. In addition, the choice of constituent materials is powerfully symbolic. Disaggregating Longley’s work is a little like psychoanalysis, but a much more joyous and engaging experience.
Whether in book form or in print or another form, Longley’s work is typically small in scale — it’s about subtlety rather than spectacle. It often appears at first glance to be teasingly playful, but it can be hauntingly powerful. It does not emerge from doodling or observational drawing as one might suspect. She invents her visual language for each opus to portray her ideas. The trigger for the conception of a work is commonly a word or phrase she has heard, such as the ironic ‘teacup in a storm’, which conjures a sequence of thought that in turn becomes a story and then flowers into visual form.
The combining of text with imagery is as central to Longley’s oeuvre as printmaking. Her finely crafted artist books are perhaps her most significant and characteristic achievement. She is a writer as well as an artist, and many of her books are illustrated parables or poems of her own invention. The book Compass of Change (1996, revised 2007) contains pages of poems and adjoining illustrations that express her philosophy as well her approach to visual language and formal composition.
The book as an object is distinct from the paintings, photographs or prints from which it might be constructed, in that it unfolds with reading and opens a path of guided contemplation like no other form. The balance of text, materials and imagery is crucial, as each amplifies the other, offering wildly imaginative possibilities to the reader with an active, open mind. But the delight is not only intellectual — her books offer deliciously tactile pleasures. The sheer beauty and physicality of these handmade books is powerfully seductive, and the choice of materials, which can include the richest papers and exotic fabrics such as silk, is a crucial element of the work.
Longley creates fantastical worlds. Her parables are marvellous fairy-tales or theatrical scenes or mystical dreamscapes that play out as sequences from life. The absurdity of human existence is shown in the cartoon-like characters and the mad stories they enact. The actor in an exotic architectural space is a central dynamic. She creates characters to whom we can relate and, in many cases, whose roles we can imagine ourselves portraying, variously beset by antagonistic tricksters, wicked witches, monsters and devils, false prophets, suitors and clowns. Sometimes her figures alarmingly suggest the nightmarish characters of Hieronymus Bosch in a garden of earthly, or unearthly, delights.
Beneath the humour is a serious message. Her carefully calculated selection of figures and her style of representation recall a wide range of imagery and iconography from past art and contemporary culture. As they seem to emerge from her subconscious, they have the authenticity of felt experience, rather than being didactically directed, so that her work becomes a portal to our cultural history. The titles she uses are significant, influencing the readings we make. A cat is not simply a cat, but a ‘good-fortune’ cat, the maneki-neko of Japanese welcome. Her Wagner prints convey the story of the Ring of the Nibelung and were developed for an exhibition that coincided with the staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004.
Over the course of her career, her choice of media has broadened to include encaustic, bronze, pewter, pokerwork and porcelain, and potentially any medium that suits her purpose. She is not experimenting for the sake of it, but in order to produce a particular effect — a cast bronze of a succulent plant is about the binaries of permanence / impermanence and representation / reality, offering both a beautiful object and a profound conundrum.
The boundaries between high and low art, and between art and craft, collapsed long ago, and Longley’s work establishes an aesthetic that bridges these poles. The use of photography, found images, representations from popular culture, digitally-produced imagery and the framing and physical form transcend Pop Art. In objects, such as books, ceramics and bronzes, and in the multiples, her aesthetic is based on intricate design, a complex conceptual or narrative framework and the highest production values. Longley’s works are carefully balanced and nuanced compositions that draw together histories, values, ideas, disturbances and resolutions.
Printmaking has often been a marginal activity within the world of visual art, but it is rich and evocative in the hands of a master such as Longley. She published her research into photopolymer printing processes in Printmaking with Photopolymer Plates (Illumination Press, 1998) and she is a committed teacher, passing on to new generations what she sometimes refers to as an ‘alchemical process’. She feels rewarded as a teacher when students use art to think through their own lives and when they can solve technical and conceptual problems in making work.
Longley runs The Print Studio, teaches at Adelaide College of the Arts, has demonstrated photopolymer printmaking in Australia and overseas, and was convener of the South Australian Printmaking Forum 2009. In 2000 she completed a Master of Arts at Flinders University and is currently completing her PhD at the Australian National University on the history of South Australian printmaking in the 1950s and 1960s. She has held solo exhibitions all over Australia and has also shown in Japan, Spain, Mexico, UK, Hungary, India, Italy, Canada, NZ, USA and Sweden, and has held residencies in the USA, Japan, Belgium and Scotland, as well as Australia. She has won numerous prizes and her work appears in collections throughout Australia and overseas.
Her webpage is at http://www.diannelongley.com.au/ and her work is available from:
Adelaide Central Gallery and Beaver Galleries.
Chris Reid is an Adelaide-based independent writer on art and music. He has written extensively on South Australian art and artists and is a regular contributor to Real Time Magazine.