Awkward Beauty

Exhibition  /  06 Oct 2011  -  31 Oct 2011
Published: 09.09.2011
Midland Railway Workshops
Elisha Buttler

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(...) Awkward Beauty is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Munich-based contemporary jeweller Helen Britton, Perth garment designer Justine McKnight and Perth photographer Michelle Taylor. The exhibition takes the complex notion of ‘beauty’ and spins a multi-layered, multi-material narrative around this (...)

Artist list

Helen Britton, Justine McKnight, Michelle Taylor
Awkward Beauty is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Munich-based contemporary jeweller Helen Britton, Perth garment designer Justine McKnight and Perth photographer Michelle Taylor. The exhibition takes the complex notion of ‘beauty’ and spins a multi-layered, multi-material narrative around this; a narrative which is imbedded within the vast physicality of a 17 hectare historic railway workshop site on the outskirts of Perth, on Australia’s isolated western coast.

Each artist has created a body of 10 works (jewellery, garments, photography) as a direct response to the work created by the others. In some instances this process of exchange, reaction, interpretation and collaboration has occurred across continents: some of Britton’s works were made from her studio in Munich, Germany and shipped across seas to McKnight’s studio in Perth, Western Australia.

The work of all three artists is informed and inspired by the aesthetics, spatiality and suggestions of identity encompassed within the Midland Railway Workshops. In the heart of these workshops lies a modern creative enclave called Midland Atelier, managed by FORM, and this is where the project came about, when Britton was a visiting artist-in-residence in 2010-2011 and where Taylor has a permanent studio.

The railway workshops are in themselves an awkward beauty: at once majestic, fragile, industrial and domestic. Largely untouched and unrenovated, the historic workshops are poised in a rare and fleeting space between a crumbling history and a tangible future. As an artist Taylor has captured this space, creating a visual narrative through her placement of Britton’s jewellery and McKnight’s garments among walls, floors, cornices, windows, shadows and shafted sunlight.

A complex and dynamic dialogue has emerged from the direct and reflexive process of exchange that has been ongoing throughout the making of this work. This artistic response to one another’s work creates a layering of garment, jewellery, body, space, light and architecture, as textures are built up by the juxtapositions and contradictions between materials, surfaces and forms. Awkward Beauty is a quality that enters each artist’s practice and work at many levels, and as such has become a point of commonality and convergence.


Venue: Midland Atelier, at the Midland Railway Workshops, Perth. Enter at security gate on Yelverton Drive.

Opening night: Thursday October 6, 2011 from 6pm

Exhibition runs: October 7-31, 2011

Contact: Elisha Buttler, Curator, FORM
T +61 8 9226 2799

Awkward Beauty is designed and delivered by FORM, a Western Australian cultural not-for-profit which develops and advocates for excellence in creativity across communities, disciplines and sectors. 


Helen Britton, Munich Germany
It started with the t-shirts. Justine and I discussed this primal piece of clothing, it’s relevance to our experience of clothing, how it is worn, the traces of life that a well loved t-shirt carries in its fibres. Justine’s understanding of process in relation to stain and mark left in garments was played out on t-shirts, and these shirts resonated with the graphic, flat, light shapes that I was developing in the form of brooches and necklaces. This was our first ‘stepping in’ after years of knowing each other, enjoying eachother’s work and discussing the possibilities of putting the work together. The next phase of the dialogue was Awkward Beauty.

Clothing, jewellery, body: how these things work together, that’s the point of interest. The obsession almost. Working directly with a garment, in response to a garment, on a body, or at least on a tailor’s dummy. The weight of cloth and metal, the relationships of all formal elements. Then the content: deconstruction, process, mark, structure, materiality. Transience. Processes at times industrial, demanding, harsh, awkward. Beautiful. A step outside the usual field of departure into a practice of responding to the other maker’s works, or into making works with the intention of challenging the other into new extensions of their practice.

Then the photos. I met Michelle Taylor during my residency at the Midland Railway Workshops in (Midland Atelier) 2010-2011. She was documenting the stay and already knew Justine. We wanted the work photographed on the body and after looking at Michelle’s photos it all fitted. I conceived and/or made the jewellery at the site where the photos are taken. The photos place the jewellery pieces within the context of their making, and then also place the wearer of the works in this remarkable site, with its simultaneous disrepair and renewal and in between all the traces of industrial production that are still so present. There were no perimeters set around the photos; they were not to be a documentation of the work in a classic sense. The only request was to respond to what we had made in the context of the Midland site. I was curious about how the work would be seen and worked with from the perspective of an experienced photographer, to see the layering up of garment, jewellery, body, space, light, architecture. 

Justine McKnight, Perth Australia
The pour
The poured mark has been an important part of my work since past Master’s investigations where I was investigating the nature of fluid (in this case dye). The way that a poured mark evidences the containment through its edge is something that has interested me as it speaks of a wholeness and yet at the same time a vulnerability and tension as the edge may at any time break and spill over. With the t-shirt work, the dye mark is used in a painterly way to evoke a sense of place, particularly the road or footpath in summer, where traces of things spilt and squashed may be encountered. I am interested in kinds of marks that are read like stains on garments. Such marks set up an inherent contradiction, being both beautiful and at the same time abject. Hence my garment label title: stain. My application of the poured mark has also extended to some of the garments for Awkward Beauty. Observations on the marks found on roads or paths have influenced the drawn yellow lines on the road dress, reminiscent of how information for road works is mapped on the street and footpath. This was also influenced by my response to Helen’s necklace, (which sits with the Road dress), with the slightly industrial nature of the silver and the paint and pen marks that Helen added to parts of her components. The direct drawing with paint markers also occurs in other work pairings in the show, most notably the Cream Kimono garment with the grey necklace.

Squashed things
Crushing or squashing garments and fabrics is another action that has been an important part of past work as well as some of the works in Awkward Beauty. There is a wholeness to the flattening of a form that I enjoy and the action of the crush also has strong connections to the road and the array of items (paper bags, wrappings) that may be encountered. These objects also contain the tension of being sometimes beautiful yet abject and to me there is a beautiful sadness in this. I am intrigued by the dramatic shift between states when a garment form (such as the sleeve in the Diamond Ring dress, or the squashed ink bodice) is flattened. With such actions, I consider the relationship between the two different states. One full and the other flat … yet equal.

The space between things
In other garments, I have applied mark through drawing directly with artliners to fill areas between spaces. One of the garments that I have made for Awkward Beauty (the ‘Green’ or Burst dress) has areas on the upper part where I have blacked out part of the cloth to make the floral images on the upholstery cloth drop in and out of focus. This was done to divide areas yet at the same time bring elements together and is a tension that I continually play with as I make my work. 

Held elements
With each of the works for Awkward Beauty I have found myself looking for balance, yet at the same time trying to find or create an edge or a tension. The way that elements of my work are integrated into the whole garment has become increasingly important part of this process. I use draping to construct and collage or assemble the garments, opening and re stitching at points to integrate different parts of the cloth such as with the lower part of the squashed ink bodice. My response to Helen’s Orange brooch is a dress that was very much collaged or assembled two-dimensionally and then draped and adjusted to fit the body, with parts that interlock and overlap all integrated into a complete dress form. The way that elements are captured or held between layers is a strong part of Helen’s work that I have responded to, while have also been interested in previously with my own work. This is most obvious in my response to the pair of diamond rings, where I wanted to respond with an elegant dress form with seamlines that encased small elements (like the ring constructions) that was at the same time conservative yet somehow eccentric. The Burst dress is another instance of captured elements where large areas of cloth have been pulled together and incorporated into the left side of the waist seamline. The large bundles of fabric unbalance the garment physically, yet provide visual balance or wholeness through their colour relationship to the main cloth of the dress. 

Essentially I am always looking to make work that through poetic in its internal contradiction. The tension between a wholeness and a threat to break into parts (not literally but felt). I find a beauty in such states that is fragile and awkward. As, similarly I find beauty in the vulnerability of spilt and squashed things. 

Michelle Taylor, Perth Australia
The unusual artistic collaboration between photographer, contemporary jeweller and fashion designer rather than the commercial relationship between them as client and supplier opens up a new creative dialogue through artistic response to one another’s work. I first met Helen during her residency with FORM at Midland Atelier where I was working as a photographer and I already knew Justine, so like pieces of a puzzle we all fit together. 

Moving away from the traditional commercial fashion photo catalogue, my visual interpretation is concerned with images that reflect people in a real context of imperfection, even if in an imaginary and created world, through the use of fashion imagery while focusing on the idea of displacement. My use of fashion images are comment on the conflicting notion of pre-conditioned ideas, such as the typical use of the digitally perfected fashion photograph in magazines, catalogues, billboard advertising and the distinct imperfection of daily displacement and straight photography. Through the use of natural light and the imperfection of film, the images are just as much about what’s not there as what is, allowing speckles of light to play with the real. This is the real life of the poetically unbalanced, the awkwardly beautiful. 

I have responded to Helen and Justine’s work by seeking out the balance of hard and soft lines in urban spaces and between the model and her surrounds, where light plays within the frame and dissects the body, referencing both Helen and Justine’s use of inserts and the adding of components within their work. Dissecting and cutting, piercing and folding.
The location is an urban landscape which bears the imprint of its cultural pedigree. It is a representation of human values and actions imposed on it over time. The workshops represent the regeneration and renovation of space. The light and silence within the space of the images are developed through the idea of displacement and a new reality within the landscape of the abandoned workshops. The workshops hide time and stories in its folds, its corners and the sense of abandon. 

Photographically Awkward Beauty for me has been about finding the tension between the perfect and imperfect. Allowing the softness to shine through the cracks, it is not about being weak or under threat, but the journey of the vulnerable. The workings of the clothing and jewellery on the body, the softness of the fabric and its muted colour palette contrasts with the constant lines in each image where the eye moves through each space, taking the viewer on another journey and telling yet another story of the workshops. 

I use traditional photographic practice, by using colour film, a square format camera, natural light and the use of full frame images as a response without any limitations placed on me by either Justine or Helen. The stylised becomes sculpture and they now become part of my urbanscape of the workshops, and just like the clothes and jewellery it both promises and threatens the future with new ideas and shifting fragments of expression. 

In my work I always come back to the idea of non-fashion, where the idea of identity and beauty are in awkwardness. The union and uniformity is undone by the suggestion of something a little off within the image. This can be a pose, the surrounds, an element in the background, the light, a bright flash of colour. But it is always something that keeps you looking back at the image and keeps the eye travelling within the frame. Yet at the same time I find comfort in luxury.
Imperfection. Awkward. The model never looks at the camera and if she does it is uncomfortable for the viewer. Her stillness is restrictive and she reinforces a stillness. She becomes part of an artwork, a treasure, still and to be gazed upon dressed in clothes and jewellery that mimic her surrounds of muted colour. 

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