Fran Callen’s practice was recently drawn to the attention of a wider audience when she was awarded the Fleurieu Food and Wine Art Prize 2016 for a painting, Tabletop 1. This distinctive image was a ‘table-top’, a table cloth canvas in fact, which bore the imprint of sustained, domestic usage, interwoven with drawn interventions by the artist. The result was an enchanting palimpsest of small domestic moments writ large by the artist’s imagination.
Callen is now developing a new series of ‘table-top’ works as part of The Collections Project, a collaboration between Guildhouse and Flinders University Art Museum which provides artists with unique opportunities to engage with the Museum’s collection to create new work. Callen is particularly interested in the Museum’s collection of works by the botanical illustrators Ferdinand Bauer and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and by contemporary South Australian artist, Brian Callen. The Flinders Investigator Garden of native plants has provided complementary points of reference and inspiration. Callen has come to the business of responding to Bauer’s botanical illustrations in particular, from the vantage point of someone, who throughout her life, has been fascinated by plants. Callen says that she comes from a family of native plant enthusiasts. For the Collections Project the artist is presenting a number of ‘table-top’ canvases complemented by individual drawings formulated in part by using a ‘pouncing’ technique (powder such as ground charcoal) forced through paper which has been pricked according to a prescribed design).
The compositional structure of the canvases is an emphatic reference to Bauer’s formidable method of creating a visual data base by aligning drawings of plants with a series of colour codes. Using such a scheme, each square within the colour code chart has a nominated number which is allocated to the relevant position of the line illustration. Callen has adopted the spirit of this methodology in defining not only the visual features of a native plant (in this instance the ‘Golden Wattle’) but co-opting the surface of the canvas as a graph of events. The resultant image resembles the pentimenti of successive states of realisation. A partially articulated drawing of a Golden Wattle branch floats in a sea of stains, colour charts, calligraphy and numerical annotations. Closer examination reveals the outlines of domestic items such as bottles and notations contributed by her young daughter. This and other works can be read within a number of contexts which includes Callen’s likening of Bauer’s botanical drawings to the structured compositions to be found in Italian Quattrocento altarpieces as well as a personal sense of sharing common ground with Bauer in honouring nature in its multitudinous, fecund and visual glory. This is art for the god of ‘dappled things’.