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The art of Gillian Mann

The following is an edited version of the introduction to 'The Art of Gillian Mann', an honours thesis in Art History researched and written by Anthea Gunn at the Australian National University in 2004.

The art of Gillian Mann is primarily concerned with the different visual languages used throughout Western history. Her use of iconography and mediums is informed by an awareness of the meanings they hold within art history and the ‘collective memory’ of the West. Her practice has been imbued with a social conscience, molded by a childhood in post-war England, and the social activism of the 1960s. Feminism in the 1970s informed her deconstruction of gender and power in the West and has shaped her practice ever since.

Immigrating to Australia in 1971 gave her a perspective on the culture she knew, allowing her to perceive other possibilities. The artist was at her most productive from the late 1970s to the early 2000s and has created a significant body of work. Her works are now found in collections both in Australia and internationally(1) and in 1990 she was the first artist to be awarded the Blake Prize for Religious art for a print.

Working as a lecturer at the Canberra School of Art gave her a role in contributing to the development of artists and art of the region, this in turn financially supported her as an artist and gave her a professional standing. Within this institutional setting, Mann had the opportunity to develop a varied practice, as a printmaker, glass, and digital artist. This also made her hard to categorise as an artist – each of these areas have their own communities of artists, curators, writers, dealers and aficionados through which an artist builds a network of support. Not working solely in one area has fragmented this ‘critical mass’ – one factor as to why there has been so little sustained critical response to Mann’s work.

From the late 1970s to 1989, the most influential factor in shaping her work during this time has been the impact of feminism. Early feminism is characterised by protest and the struggle to renegotiate power structures. One of the most influential thinkers to analyse the relations and techniques of power in the twentieth century was Michel Foucault. The Professor of History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France from 1970 until his death in 1984, his insightful analysis centred around the myriad ways in which the individual is placed, and places themselves, within society. Thus Foucault’s thought will be helpful in opening up how Mann critiques the power and violence she sees as inherent to Western patriarchy.

Her digital works (1993–2007), the medium Mann employs is central to the message of the work, and how her flexibility in moving between mediums is essential to the process her work takes. The digital works are composite images constructed using Photoshop software and printed onto paper or canvas. Process is particularly important, as the journey the images take from the original source, through time and various technologies, to their incorporation into an artwork on a wall, is a vital aspect of these works. Although appropriation is not new in art, modern technology brings unique possibilities to synthesise source material into wholly new works. Mann uses this iconographic development of material to full effect; deconstructing images from their original context and recontextualising them with a different message.

Over the last three decades, Mann has developed a postmodern strategy of appropriation that borrows imagery and reinvests it with meaning. In appropriating a form, be it a religious icon or a reproduction of a famous painting – the quotation is made apparent, thus emphasising the different context and meaning. The mediums she has used and her source material have changed, as has the object of her critique. From an explicitly feminist protest, phrased in mythology, she turned to a critique of power, built out of the imagery of violence and suffering from throughout the Western art historical tradition.

A large cross section of Gillian's art can be viewed at her online gallery.

1. These collections include the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian National
University, and Canberra Museum and Gallery collections in the ACT, the City of
Waverly Art Collection, and the Print Council of Australia in Victoria, the Centrum
Frans Masereel, in Kasterlee, Belgium, the Druckgraphic H. Katelhon, in Germany,
the Municipality of Krakow collection, and the Bureau of Art, in Poland, the
Administratione Provinciale di Vercelli, in Biella, Italy and the Sigma Escritorio de Arts,
Sao Paolo, in Brazil, as well as private collections.