The pleasure of making

Once known as the Queen of Kitsch, Judy Darragh is an artist continually reinventing her practice. Sue Gardiner finds out where she’s been and where she’s headed next.

At the end of December 2008, I went to visit Auckland assemblage artist Judy Darragh at her studio with a few intentions in mind – near the top of my list, frankly, was to enquire into her methods of making her famous fish pie. But, after she made me a pot of tea and we sat down in the sun to talk, I forgot all about the making of pies and became engrossed in a rich conversation about the making of art instead.

It was a good time to be talking to Darragh about her art practice – as she was thinking about her plans for 2009, including exhibiting new works at Two Rooms Gallery, Newton, and welcoming in the summer with work in The Enchanted Garden at Auckland Art Gallery. Darragh’s approach to making art has always been distinctive as she consistently works on the margins, railing against conventions and expectations. Darragh reflects that in her art practice she has always been ‘knee jerking against things’, reacting against the grain, challenging tastes. “The maxim of the Bauhaus, which I loved studying at school, was ‘less is more’. So when I started out I took the opposite approach of ‘more is more’ and embarked on making things with a passion, teaching at secondary school during the day, getting up at 5am on a Sunday to go to the markets and plugging in the glue gun at night.”

From early works in the late 1980s made from found ‘op-shop’ materials, like Christmas lights, dolls, dildoes and plastic vomit, and off-site project installations in abandoned shop spaces and artist-run galleries, through to her inclusion in major public gallery exhibitions, Darragh’s approach has always been playful and exuberant, irreverent and closely connected to a DIY aesthetic. Now she’s a mentor for a younger generation of artists who have emerged from a period of quite remarkable and substantial change in the art world, which has occurred since Darragh began making art in the mid 1980s. It’s only by looking back that we get a sense of how art practices like Darragh’s broke all the rules of taste, aesthetics and value structures at the time, and are now accepted as part of the fabric of contemporary art in all its diversity today.

One of the biggest changes has been the integration, into many artists’ practices, of the use of everyday materials and found objects – something Darragh says she has always loved. Her plunge into object making began with this quirky, and at the time, unusual use of discarded, cheap and found materials, which she gathered from markets and garage sales. Her approach coincided with a time when the art market was booming, values were skyrocketing and the debate about the definition of art and craft was gathering speed. While she was selling things at Cook Street Market, Real Time and The Blue Room in Ponsonby, she was aware that galleries were beginning to present work in an environment that was more related to ‘craft’ than ‘art’. Artist colleagues encouraged her to think about installations, which suited the way she liked to work – clustering things together, referencing the spaces of the real world, playing around with functionality and disrupting the established role of objects.

There were still active discussions about feminism and the increasingly interesting use of women’s domestic craft materials and techniques within an art context. Darragh’s work gradually shifted towards a broader context for object making and it was exciting to be challenging the expected norms of ‘museum-style’ work, archival materials and art practices with hot glue and throwaway materials. Struggling away on the margins meant taking a courageous approach to her art making, which she did with characteristic humour and fast-paced change. At this time the iconic Shrine series developed. Her 1989 work, Birth of Barbie, made from plastic flowers, penis moulds, Barbie doll, plastic embryos, lights and shells, tackled everything head on – taste, sensuality, art history, fertility, gender roles – all with, as Chris Kraus wrote in the catalogue for her 2004 retrospective Judy Darragh – So You Made It? at Te Papa, “Darraghian visual glee and excess”.

Just as Judy Chicago wanted to believe in an art that extended itself beyond the limits of the art world, and American artist Allen Kaprow, whom Darragh greatly admires, wanted to merge art and life completely, Darragh saw her art, her collecting and her making as constantly prodding the edges of experimentation and acceptability as ‘high art’.

Kaprow himself described experimental art, writing in his 1997 essay ‘Just Doing’, as being one kind of art that can “affirm and deny art at the same time”.

This seems an apt description of Darragh’s early works, made around the time she was labelled by commentators as the Queen of Kitsch. Then, as the 1990s progressed, other artists became equally absorbed in the craft aesthetic – moving seamlessly between the art and museum environment. Artists like Ani O’Neill and Ronnie van Hout for example, and in Australia Kathy Temin and Mikala Dwyer, had altered the climate again. As Judy says, it felt like “the conversation was over”. It was the end of an era, which, writers Natasha Conland and Tessa Laird both noted in their 2004 essays on the artist, saw the abdication, happily, of the Darragh Queen of Kitsch title.

Taking stock then, Darragh reassessed her practice, ramping it up, taking new risks and carrying on with her experimentation into making while continuing to challenge art hierarchies. In the late 1990s she began a number of 2D works, such as the black and white One Wonders series. Other works were created from 1970s posters that Darragh reworked with acrylic paint and rolls of coloured stickers. Developing this new body of work offered the artist a moment of clarification, as she thought about her role as an artist, shifting between 2D and 3D, continuing to experiment and becoming again a ‘mistress of many’.

“No one could pin down what I was doing, which was exciting but sometimes problematic too, especially as far as the market was concerned.”

After this she went back to exploring 3D work again. Although the intense fluorescent colours she was using added to the debate about reproduction, artificiality and ‘anti art’ aesthetics, Darragh was also moving towards a more formal approach to materiality in projects such as Laser Bloom, 2000, the Weeping Wall projects from 2003 and recently works like Untitle and Plastic Stacks from 2008, made from glassware and plastics. In all these works, aspects of site, installation, verticality, repetition, shape and form reflect on formal sculptural principles. Commenting on the new works in particular, Darragh says she is becoming more refined, “more focussed on the formal aspects of the work”.

Central to all these works has been the concept of multiples, of bringing families of objects together. Flowers, beads, corks, bottles, ping pong balls and stacks of found objects are all energetically transformed. A key work to note here is Arts Society, 2006, a site-specific, immersive, exuberant project at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga. This was an installation of tables, stacked with a myriad of strange objects, which was set up to create a space for the viewer to walk around and explore.

Last year Darragh began to experiment with photography. Working in collaboration with Haru Sameshima she created a series of large-scale colour photographs for her recent show at Jonathan Smart Gallery in Christchurch. Like the turn to the 2D works in the 1990s, photography was a challenging process that took Darragh out of her comfort zone and once again challenged perceptions of her work.

Currently in the studio she’s building up a collection of corks, which she dips in paint and installs on plinths or directly on the wall, creating an installation of painterly spots that build up to create an overall optical effect. These works were inspired by a trip to France in 2008, when she drank local wine and collected the corks, and they’ve brought about a nostalgia for organic materials coupled with a renewed interest in recycling. “There is so much art in the world, why add to the pile?” Darragh asks. “Ultimately, I would rather rescue stuff and re-make and recycle it than make new things.” This method of thinking links her practice with contemporary artists such as Eve Armstrong and Simon Denny who re-use existing materials in their work.

“This new work with corks and beads and pins is very small scale. I guess I’m very aware of the ‘wow machine’ in art at the moment; being overwhelmed by the big scale of art. So I’m knee jerking again. It’s kind of adolescent and juvenile I suppose – always reacting against and niggling at things, but it means at the moment I’m interested in making little works. For me it’s important to keep working in a reactive way.”

Darragh has always enjoyed working collaboratively. She’s a member of the artist initiative Cuckoo ( and was a founding member of Teststrip Gallery in the mid 1980s.

“I naturally gravitate towards collectives and enjoy that casual mentoring as a woman artist to other younger women artists. It’s still really hard for young women artists today. They’re going through very similar issues to those I went through 20 years ago.”

“Sure, it has been hard to keep going sometimes as an artist, but 2008 I feel was a year when I took a leap of faith – taking leave without pay from teaching to concentrate on art work full time. It has been a time for an intense flow of ideas, achieving things quickly in the studio; a time of critical thinking and a more strategic appraisal. A lot of good has come out of it as I’ve questioned what I’ve been doing. It’s a process of understanding your own creativity and the pleasure of making something – I’ve always loved that. That keeps me going; I’m thinking ahead for the next 20 years.”

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