Wall hanging (6 panels), 'Journey', cotton/ reverse applique/ aluminium, John Corbett, Australia, 1990
John Corbett was born in Victoria in 1946 and now lives in Melbourne. He became well known for his woven forms in the early 1970s, and was selected as assistant to influential Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz when she visited Australia in the 1970s. Another influence was American basket maker and fibre sculptor Douglas Fuchs who worked for a year in Australia in 1981, and whose major installation Floating Forest is now in the museum's collection. Corbett taught at Preston Institute of Technology (later Phillip Institute) and at the Launceston campus of the Tasmanian School of Art, University of Tasmania.
He has always been interested in working with textiles, seeking metaphorical meaning in his work through addressing the rituals, forms, functions and processes of past textile traditions. Magdalena Abakanowicz introduced him to making large scale abstract woven and knotted forms, and Douglas Fuchs the traditions, functions and techniques of native American Indian and Aboriginal textile and basket forms. In recent years, Corbett has extended his interest in textiles to include fabric and other materials, and now also uses sewing and embroidery processes like quilting, and the reverse applique of this piece, where layers of fabric are folded back to reveal those beneath.
'Journey' was made in response to the loss of a friend, John Holt, to AIDS. 'It was a way of helping him on his journey.' The symbols are to do with power and regeneration, surrounding an image of the friend with a breathing apparatus. The work also recalls the death of another friend who was Mexican, and who used Mexican symbols in his own work - namely the milagros ('miracles', religious votive offerings) - which refer both to the celebration of life and the acknowledgment of death. Corbett used these motifs for some time to continue his connection with his friend. The colours and motifs used, and the embroidery process of reverse applique (mola), also refer to Mexican folk art. On another level, the work has a connection to the phenomenon of making AIDS Quilts: a means of communal mourning in memory of lost friends.
He writes of this work (see rolled paper in file): 'Journey was made to make (or try to make) some sense of the death of a dear friend Graeme Holt - I've erased from my mind when he died - it was my way of helping him on his journey - letting go - and saying goodbye - the symbols are all power symbols to help his journey - and his reborth - my last memory/picture of Graeme was with a breathing apparatus on - we talked lots but I knew I would never see him again - I then drove back thru (sic) an incredible storm - rain - lightning - and I knew his journey had begun - the piece was made some time after his death - the milagros (miracles) are hands/snakes/lightning/tears/sculls (sic)/comet forms.'
Corbett was referring to J C Cooper's 'An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols' when he made the work. His diagram in file identifies the following meanings to the symbols:
Number of panels (six) represent equilibrium/harmony; colour red - masculine/love/joy, represents the sun and all the war gods; black - darkness of death.
Open hand with palm outward: blessing - divine grace.
(Horseshoe shape with cross): 'Mexican symbol (mine).'
Dog - denotes the messenger going between the higher powers - a keeper of the boundaries between this world and the next - guardian of the passage - attendant on the dead.
Eye: symbol of all sun gods and of their life giving power.
Sun: the supreme cosmic power - the universal father.
Tortoise: the beginning of creation - time - regeneration.
Lightning: Spiritual illumination sudden realization (sic) of truth cutting across time and space.
Birds: transcendence: the soul: spirits of the air: spirits of the dead: the ability to communicate with gods or enter into a higher consciousness.
(Pink) triangle: the upward pointing triangle is solar and symbolizes life - the masculine principle (also my use originally - given to gay men, and women(?), to wear in Nazi concentration camps to distinguish homosexuals from others.
[amoeba like form]: Graeme/breathing apparatus connects to the dog form.
Fire/flame: transformation: purification: strength: energy fusion.
Tears: relate back to water [he also mentioned blood, in conversation].
Water: purify 'wash away' and regenerate. To dive into the waters is to search for the secret of life.
Comet form: messenger of the sun gods.
See Designed. This was made as part of a series. The first was a big one that was large in scale (15 x 12 feet) made in patchwork and cut through from black to red. Bought by Art Gallery of WA for $12500. 'Journey' was one of three or four made for an exhibition at Delaney Galleries in Perth. Title of exhibition Soul in Victus. One work from this show was given to the New Norcia collection (?) in the Benedictine monastery in WA (that has a collection of Spanish paintings). He still holds a portrait of a head surreounded by tears: 15 small panels of 12x8 inches. 'Journey' was then exhibited in Homocraft, 15 Feb - 5 March 1995, at Craftspace, the Rocks, Sydney.