Glen Skien: Bird in Hand
by Penny Peckham
Brisbane-based artist, Glen Skien trained in Townsville as a printmaker, but his oeuvre includes much work that falls well outside the realm of the pristine editioned print.
Skien is possibly best-known for his hybrid artist books/box works – small divided boxes that hold a range of mysterious treasures; bundles of tiny prints bound in red thread and fragmentary found objects – though works from across the range of his creative output, from large-scale multi-panel prints to small cut-paper globes reminiscent of old-fashioned dioramas, were acclaimed as far back as 2010 at the extensive exhibition, Room, Letter, Window, Map at Redland Gallery in Brisbane. Oh Bird, a much more intimate exhibition mainly due to the size of the venue, followed soon after, showing at Hand Held Gallery in Melbourne in June 2010. Hand Held was a tiny gallery in Paramount Arcade, off Swanston Street, which specialised in artists’ books and small works. Thus the exhibition showcased a series of Skien’s exquisite tobacco tin works from the series All of the things I could have told you about birds, a title suggestive of the nostalgia that is a constant element of Skien’s work.
Simple forms and objects are repeated throughout Skien’s body of work: a black gentleman’s umbrella, boats, rendered in the simplest terms, and birds. This iconography of simplicity is based upon Skien’s belief that “objects may define us,”1 and in Skien’s hands the simple objects he works with are imbued with nostalgia and layered associations. Birds have become particularly common in Skien’s work, and it seems that their symbolism is significant and personal, as metaphoric expressions of self, perhaps. A large scale multi-panel etching from 2008 bears the delightful title Biography with Spangled Drongoes, and in 1997 he established a print studio in Mackay called Silent Parrot Press.
The birds represented in All of the things I could have told you about birds include North Queensland sunbirds, honey eaters and crows. In recent years collage and assemblage have overtaken printmaking as Skien’s primary mode of practice and his raw material is the books, postcards, tins and other objects collected from second-hand shops. He is interested in these objects for the history they embody as well as their time-worn aesthetic.
“Nostalgia is an inescapable layer of meaning that it is embedded in any materials that have past histories and one could say that the degree of nostalgia is gauged by how old the materials are. Connected to this is the fact of these objects having been discarded. For me, the use of material with existing histories leaves an awareness of the connection to the transient nature of all things.”2
Skien’s method of working is intuitive. He allows the creative process to suggest connections and juxtapositions of fragments and imagery and has compared it to literature’s ‘stream of consciousness’. This results in works that have a sense of mystery as to their meaning and allows each viewer to bring their own interpretations and associations to the works. In All of the things I could have told you about birds old tobacco tins contain fragile birds, cut from old maps, postcards and book illustrations, and sewn or tacked, suspended in resin with the large threaded needle and other fragments. Of the series, Skien has said, “I’m not certain what came first – the bird or the tobacco tin – but somehow they seemed to meet in the studio one morning along with fragments of etchings, piano keys, shoe tacks, old photographs, and other things … perhaps what they now contain is that space between the reflective moment and endless possibilities.”3
These endless possibilities are one of the most appealing aspects of Skien’s work, evoking in the viewer an intense curiosity about what the details might mean, their histories, the artist’s intention, but finally allowing a personal response imbedded in one’s own history and memories.
Marginalia: print & assemblage works by Glen Skien, Bosz Gallery, Shop 4/9 Doggett Street Fortitude Valley (QLD), 3 – 22 March 2015 – boszgallery.com
Artist site – silentparrotpress.com
FOOTNOTES: 1. Glen Skien, artist’s talk, Artists’ Book Forum, Mackay 2008. 2. Glen Skien, quoted in Louise Martin-Chew, Room, Letter, Window, Map 2010. 3. Glen Skien, quoted on handheldgallery.blogspot.com