Hanging in Sarah Contos’ living room is a taupe-coloured tapestry, imprinted with a double-headed figure in black and white, and adorned with crystal beads and fabric piping, knotted and strung in subtly phallic shapes. This screen print collage is a work in progress Contos explains – but it will eventually take the form of the Sydney-based artist’s submission for the Redlands Konica Minolta Art Prize this month. The living room of Contos’ Elizabeth Bay art deco apartment doubles as her full-time studio, and is filled with the ornaments, materials and parts and pieces she uses to build her multifaceted, multidisciplinary works.
Beginning her career in stage and costume design, Contos’ art practise incorporates sculpture, painting, craftwork, collage and installation – and she boldly intertwines mediums to create and style each finished piece. Propped up on the living room table is her well-worked sewing machine; she’s used the bathroom for ceramics and dying, and has constructed wooden sculptures in the kitchen. “At the moment, this isn’t an ideal situation,” she says of her home-studio. “But when I’m doing sewing, I like to be at home. It’s nice to just switch on a series or some kind of radio station and just start making or sewing and just be in the comfort of my home.” She does admit however, that the sunny, one-bedroom apartment has its drawbacks as an artist’s studio. “Obviously wood work is not desirable here!” she laughs. “And when it gets busy, I mean you can imagine, this place has just been covered in stuff, pins everywhere!”
The annual Redlands art prize involves a host of nominated, established artists selecting one emerging artist to be added to the roster of nominees. Contos was chosen this year by London-born, Sydney-based sculptor Caroline Rothwell who, like Contos, plays and experiments with different materials. “I like to work on lots of things at the one time, so I guess I’ll always do everything very hands on,” she continues. “Some ceramics, some sewing and then the assemblage that happens between those two disciplines, and then the kind of installation and play once I’ve brought all the pieces together.”
Laced with rich cultural references from found objects, Contos creates exotic and fantastical characters and creatures out of things that have been left, forgotten or devalued. An elaborate green-and-gold sequin mask sewn onto an Olivia Newton John record cover, or circles of African Maasai beads affixed onto the eyes of ancient-Greek marble figures – there are layers of new and old, opposites are entangled and identities are melded. “I am interested in creating a new kind of mythology,” Contos explains of the near-complete prize submission. “The two heads are Barry Crocker, they’re taken from an album cover that I embroidered a few years back, and then they’re juxtaposed onto my body.”
“I think now a lot of my work is about identity, and trying to work out my own identity, which is always a shifting thing,” she says. “At the moment I’m drawing on a lot of classical-Greek sculpture and Greek mythology.” There are also elements of where she grew up, Kalamunda in Western Australia. “It’s quite crafty there, like gumnut babies with googly eyes,” she laughs. “Now I’m drawing from that and putting other ideas onto it, like fetishism; bondage, the sexual kind of fetishism, or more of the magical.”
A thick chain crafted from soft, black vinyl and webbed with black, glass beading hangs beside the couch – an usually rigid, unimaginative object that Contos has made playful, unusual and striking. Indeed, reversing elements with a sense of wry humour is very much a part of her artistic gambit. “It’s opposites,” she explains. “So the masculinity of a car, with the femininity of the fabric and beading, or the heaviness of the ceramics against lamé fabric, where the image can be scratched off, while the ceramic will last hundreds of years.”
As for what’s next for the artist, Contos will exhibit at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery at the end of May this year with a new series of screen print-based works, and later she will feature in a group show at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. “I do a lot of sketching – but it never works out quite the same,” she says of the process of creation and composition. “For me, sketching is like writing a shopping list. You kind of know what you need to get, but when you’re at the supermarket, you end up with something entirely different. But I get excited by it, it keeps me guessing and it keeps me on my toes.”
The Redlands Konica Minolta Art Prize will be held at the National Art School Gallery on Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, from Friday 11 April to Thursday 16 May.