There is a strange familiarity to the forms in Arran Russell’s works. Like the shape shifting qualities of a dream, the elements of Russell’s visual vocabulary have given their foundations the slip and drifted into new formations.

The shapes in these works have been floating in Russell’s subconscious for many years now, the recognition they trigger coming from their origin as garment patterns. For Russell, his past occupation in the design and fashion industries meant years of working with these shapes, through the medium of textiles. This work often took place outside of Australia, where the only vocabulary the artist shared with his colleagues and collaborators was contained in the forms laid out before them. Originally flat, strange pieces, the artist recalls often finding these shapes alien and wondering how they would result in a wearable garment, despite repeating the process successfully countless times. Here, these cut-out shapes have kept their perplexing, prone characters, floating, nudging, and nestling themselves into new, abstracted compositions. Like Russell and his fellow garment creators, as viewers we find a shared language in these works. Flat, geometric curves cutting through two dimensions, eventually destined to come together to create, seemingly miraculously, a garment that fits and moves with the human body.

The visual simplicity of Russell’s works allows space for a wealth of cultural references to resonate. The lines of the quintessential Australian singlet, often visible through a thin white business shirt or worn proudly as no-nonsense outerwear, intersects with the minimalism of Kazimir Malevich’s equally iconic Black Square. In bringing together these two seemingly disparate visual heavyweights, Russell raises questions around what we come to value in our culture, and why these symbols continue to resonate across time.

While Russell’s art practice speaks to painting, sculpture and printmaking, there is a mix-and-match approach in the way he employs surface and support. Avoiding the use of the paintbrush and the precise, repetitive motions it encourages, Russell instead prefers printmaking tools such as squeegees and spatulas, familiar from the artist’s time spent screen printing textiles, to push heavy-duty materials like black oil paint, tar and lead across the surface of his sculptural reliefs. The resulting texture evokes asphalt roads, polished metals, squeaky blackboards, or charcoaled timber. In a series of white-coloured works, the use of Kaolin powder layered with oil and acrylic paints creates the soft, chalky effect of unfired clay on the work’s surface, absorbing light. The resulting textures are gritty, permeable and uneven, suggesting a building-up and wearing-down through layers of time. This sits in contrast to the clean, repetitive cutting of new textile which is the basis for the works’ forms.  

Russell’s works may appear abstract and inorganic, however they remain intrinsically linked to the human body through their garment origins. And once these finished garments are picked up off a rack and taken home, the who, what, why, how and where of their wearing becomes their identity. The titles of the works in Silent language, such as Pumpin’ iron and Adho Mukha Vrksasana, hint at this notion.

Like a gesture performed through muscle memory, the forms in these works emerge from a place of subconscious recollection. Familiar yet abstract, reiterated yet unique, Russell harnesses a hidden language of shapes, conjuring a well-worn vocabulary into new expressions.

Chloe Wolifson

© Arran Russell