“The thing about working with fur,” explains artist Kathy Temin, “is you have to accept that it sheds.”
Certainly, there’s a fine haze of orange fluff over her studio space, which is down by the Maribyrnong, just across the river from Footscray in Melbourne. Otherwise, it’s orderly, with three substantial works in progress, including Orange Cube, a finalist in this year’s Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize. Selected from more than 700 entries (a record in its 15-year run), Orange Cube is a meticulous assembly of plush columns and hairy spheres.
Temin is well known for her work with synthetic fur – her work is represented in every major gallery in Australia. It’s a material that Temin believes is capable of combining minimalism with sentimentality, and one that’s at odds with what people generally think a sculpture is made of. “Originally, when I began working with textiles, it was because of the emotional content of soft-toy imagery, and the heightened, exaggerated, references that soft-toys elicit,” she says. “They go from extreme jubilance to pathos. I use it as a material to generate emotional response, or as a reference to history.”
In her Northcote office, Temin builds models and cuts patterns, then, with the help of a part-time assistant, sews and assembles the sculptures in Footscray. It’s a time-consuming process, but consciously so: the repetitive, craftsperson-like labour is part of the point of the work. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, but I’m essentially self-taught. Although, my father was a tailor, so I grew up around a factory where people were cutting patterns and sewing all the time,” she says. “No-one showed me how to do it, but I must have picked up on things.”
Cube has its origins in a series Temin created for Anna Schwartz Gallery, Pet Cemetery, which constructed tombstones for animals from orange fur and concrete. Temin is again using a 1970s-orange-coloured fur. But this time she’s pairing it with the art-historical concept of the cube. “I’m really interested in making monuments that aren’t representative of any one history, even though I’ve been influenced by my own family history,” she says. “Broadly speaking, I’ve always been interested in cultural identity. Whether it’s through popular culture or through my own family history, it really has been a consistent focus.”
There’s something of the American expressionist Philip Guston in the sculpture, an influence Temin tacitly acknowledges. “People have often mentioned Philip Guston in relation to my work, and I know it and like it,” she says. “I think it’s that human clunkiness, and the awkwardness and slight animation.”
But, it’s the artists Yayoi Kusama and Eva Hesse Temin most often finds herself conceptually in dialogue with. “I’ve [admired] the repetition in their sculptures and objects, and also the materiality of them,” she says. “They really are the two artists I’m engaged with.”
Personal history, memory and experience provide the true impetus to Temin’s work. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, provides a personal connection to world-historical tragedy. A recent memorial series designed for Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery drawing on survivors’ remembrances. “We live in an age where you just can’t ignore what’s going on in the world” she says. “I know that I grew up, and I still continue to experience, the history of remembrance and mourning as a result of cultural displacement of my family. And this is just going to continue for generations to come, with all the people displaced because of war and persecution.”
The Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize exhibition will run from October 10–25.