Kate Just, 'Paradise'

Artist Kate Just’s knitted works

Artist Kate Just (BFA Painting 2002), Lecturer in Painting at the VCA, is well known for creating tactile sculptures and installations reinterpreting historic, mythic and iconographic objects and figures often linked to women’s histories. Her knitted artworks are currently on show at the Ararat Regional Art Gallery. 

By Alice Blackwood

It’s a major textile work – life-like in size and form – depicting a woman in denim cut-offs, and a t-shirt carrying the word ‘Paradise’. She seems almost as if she’s being swallowed by the crevice of soil and sea of lawn lapping at her legs… or is it that she’s growing from it?

‘[It’s] an ambitious work emblematic of the era in which it was made,’ comments Anthony Camm, Director of the Ararat Regional Art Gallery. ‘It references the story of Persephone and her descent into the underworld.’ But, Camm says, the work can be read in different ways: ‘Is she descending into something dark and unknown, or escaping from a prison of suburban conformity?’

Located in regional Victoria, the Ararat Gallery is the proud new owner of this beautiful piece by the American born Kate Just, now very much a contemporary Australian artist, having moved permanently to Melbourne in 1996. This important acquisition is being celebrated via a survey exhibition of Just’s major textile works, entitled Kate Just: Knitted Works 2004 – 2011.

It’s quite a unique exhibition, and for a number of reasons. Just is probably more widely known for her contemporary art practice, rather than her textile work.

‘It’s exciting for me to have this textile exhibition,’ she comments. ‘I really haven’t existed in a textile art realm, and it doesn’t bother me – I do operate primarily as a contemporary artist.’ But the survey is exciting and flattering all the same – Just has a strong affinity with textiles (of the knitted variety) and this is clearly present in much of her work.

Just’s technical abilities, the life-size format of her sculptures, and her tireless attention to detail speak for themselves – and in fact many of her knitted sculptural works have taken up to a year to produce. But where Just’s knitted practice differs from other textile practitioners’ is in her unique focus. ‘Kate seems to pursue knitting as a culturally resonant medium for sculpture; as more of a conceptual than material investigation,’ reflects Camm.

In this sense, textiles play a particular role (or function) in relation to the other mediums she uses. And you come to realise that her knitted fibres often take the form of skin. Just is quick to agree – ‘I always turn to knitting as one of the tools I have to deal with the body. It mimics skin, and comes together almost like pores, tissue, and texture. It’s an emulation of the membrane.’

The use of fibres to denote such visceral things is a natural choice as well. ‘Cloth is connected to our bodies all the time. In a sense it’s this material in our skin always…’ Here, yarns and fibres are knitted into porous surfaces which act as a soft, tactile armour; a penetrable shield which protects vulnerable layers hidden beneath.

Among the works being exhibited at Ararat Gallery is a bright pink, hanging fountain (‘The Garden of Interior Delights’, 2008), which conjures the lush fecundity of Heironymous Bosch’s painting, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (c.1500). There’s ‘My Daphne’ (2007), which re-imagines the myth of Apollo’s unrequited love of Daphne with a large green bush and an anonymous arm stretching out of the foliage to feel around in (what could be) blind bewilderment. And of course, ‘Paradise’ (2006), with its texturally rich, life- like woman, her hair snaking around her shoulders in thick tendrils, her emotions shielded behind closed eyelids.

Ararat Regional Art Gallery owns the largest textile fibre art collection in regional Victoria, with works dating from the early 1970s to the present time, so Camm is understandably excited about the acquisition of this piece. For the gallery, Paradise represents a new frontier in contemporary art practice, with strong historical references and socially resonant themes of feminism, society, nature, and the female body. ‘The acquisition of Paradise signals a reinvigoration of Ararat’s collection development,’ comments Camm. ‘For our collection to continue to be relevant we need to boldly acquire the art of our times.’

Viewed within the spectrum of Ararat’s full collection, Paradise carries strong references to past eras. ‘[It] makes some powerful connections to earlier fibre art acquisitions,’ says Camm, ‘such as Ewa Pachucka’s life-size crocheted sculpture, ‘Women with Python’ (1978), and Sue Walker’s soft sculpture, ‘Afternoon Tea in Horse Hair'(1975).’ Here, the undercurrents of 1970s feminism are brought alive again. ‘Paradise helps us look at these works with fresh eyes.’

There are other themes at play here too, including the reclamation of domestic craft practices – ‘and the repositioning of textiles in a gallery context as art; [these] were key ideas pursued by earlier feminist artists, and Kate’s work is connected to this history,’ says Camm.

Kate Just: Knitted Works 2004 – 2011 pays important homage to the knitting and textile component of Just’s practice. ‘I think it’s really great to do a survey of that work. [It] imprints that period and records it.’ Just’s more recent and upcoming works encompass making methods which aren’t quite as time consuming, and there’s been a recent shift in her focus to now encompass motherhood.

Just has recently completed a three-month Australia Council residency in Barcelona. At the time of writing she was knitting a delicate ‘armour’ for her daughter, which she described as a ‘soft textile version of chain mail, letting the world in, but totally self protecting’.

This work, by now completed, will be included in Kate Just New Work at the Daine Singer Gallery in Melbourne from 24 May – 23 June. This is a solo exhibition of Just’s most contemporary work to date, which juxtaposes nicely with the definitive retrospective of her early textile works, also currently on show at the Ararat Regional Art Gallery.

This extract from Textile Fibre Forum magazine reprinted with permission from ArtWear Publications.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.