Cheryl Hutchens and Deborah Prior
8 May – 7 June 2017
Adelaide Central Gallery, 7 Mulberry Road Glenside SA
Predating the advances of early modern science, Greek philosopher Epicurus and his protégée Lucretius described physical bodies as being composed of minuscule atoms swirling around inside of them. They were among the first to consider the inner workings of biological organisms and to wonder at the hidden complexities of life lying beneath outer skins and surfaces. Through intricate and repetitive craft techniques, Cheryl Hutchens’ and Deborah Prior’s exhibition Electric Meat at Adelaide Central Gallery probes the edges of the physical self by reflecting on biological forms and processes. What is it like to inhabit an organic body of flesh and bone? How does the individualistic concept of ‘self’ fit into scientific and philosophical terms?
Cellular investigation is one method through which scientific enquiry has uncovered the interior structures of life. Presented on a low, circular plinth, Cheryl Hutchens’ Bifurcate is laid out under a focused light like a specimen beneath a giant microscope. The hand beaded structure is magnified thousand fold, sprawling outward in a circular shape composed of repeating, dividing branches and strands resembling the cross section of a cell sample. Astonishingly, Hutchens’ work is not a painstaking reproduction of a sketched out pattern, but the result of an experimental, let’s-see-what-happens approach. I couldn’t help thinking that the hand of the artist here resembles the hand of Mother Nature herself, threading each tiny bead together into numerous parts that combine and miraculously arrange themselves into the familiar patterns of cells and microforms. Perhaps this is the result of a process that somehow conforms to universal patterns and sequences?
Tiny pink flesh coloured beads are also stitched onto circular cloth that viewers can hold in order to feel the approximate weight of skin flayed from one human hand and arm. Laid out on a shelf, Where I end: skin (arm) II reminds us of the biology of ourselves as beings composed of simple organic matter, a trillion separate parts combined and stitched together into a singular human package. Looking over the lustrous, closely beaded surface of the work, I was again reminded of Epicurean bodies as atomic containers.
Despite a limitation of materials, each of the artists in this exhibition have produced highly sophisticated works of meticulous detail. Deborah Prior’s An Incomplete Family History adorns the gallery mantelpiece, its shape reminiscent of the drapery of feminine gowns and domestic interiors. Emerging from the tucks and folds of a pelvic bone shape, closer inspection reveals that the entire surface of the blanket has been cut into small circles that were lifted out, moved into different places and stitched back in again. Prior estimates that she spent at least 500 hours working on this piece and explains that her work ‘consider(s) the politics of female corporeality and the status of domestic craftwork.’ Citing the influence of the Italian Baroque and sacred relics, Prior’s ‘slipped anatomies’ are the result of time consuming, repetitive acts of crafting and the combination of raw supplies. This is not unlike the creative processes of nature and the physical interaction of materials at the core of atomic theory.
As with Hutchens’ beaded work, the simplicity of linear yarn and the repetition of knitted stitches combine to invent new forms including Prior’s Purgatory/Every Bone Will Break. Tubular stocking stitch forming lengths of pink, woolly intestinal tubes hang precariously on shelving fixed to the wall. This specimen has escaped the confines of the preserving jar and threatens to slide off among bone fragments placed on the gallery floor. Wound round with a stained bed sheet encrusted with faux pearls stitched into place, Prior’s knitted tubes appear as embellished entrails, further provoking associations with the human body as dressed up meat. In a clear reference to domesticity, the bedsheet is used as an intimate material characterised by its sustained contact with the body. These references are likewise noted in Lupa (She-Wolf) and Saint Asleep, each of which include stained pillows as the material foundation of the works. Once again, stains are left behind as emblems of physical presence. They become historical markers – relics - of an individual self and its transient residence in space and flesh.
Set to the soundtrack of a human heartbeat, the darkened space of Electric Meat is highlighted by a series of thought provoking works pushing both technical and conceptual boundaries elaborated through rigorous, experimental practices. In their own unique approaches, Hutchens and Prior participate in a conversation dating back to Antiquity, demonstrating that contemplation of the interior self and its place in the world is very much alive.
 I was fortunate to learn this first hand through conversation with Cheryl Hutchens during the exhibition opening event that took place on the 9th of May, 2017.
 Deborah Prior, Artist Statement, Electric Meat. Cheryl Hutchens and Deborah Prior. Adelaide Central Gallery floor sheet. Version 8 May 2017.
 This is a term that Prior herself applies to her work.
Work exhibited by Deborah Prior in this exhibition was initiated with the support of the Helpmann Academy through their British School at Rome residency. The artist wishes to acknowledge the generous support of both organisations.