Rosalie Gascoigne: a haunting afterglow

• A look at some striking late works from an artist who gave dignified new life to outmoded detritus and turned abandoned retro-reflective roadsigns into stuttering concrete poetry.

Rosalie Gascoigne, Loopholes, 1997

Despite once representing Australia at the Venice Biennale and featuring prominently in all the major antipodean art museums, Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) is an artist too little known outside her native New Zealand and Australia. The accidental similarity I noted here between a David Shrigley painting and her “Loopholes” (above), caused me to revisit Gascoigne’s famed retro-reflective assemblages, which the artist – who liked to work in materials-based series – embarked on in the late 1980s. At that point, having ended a run of monumental wall structures made from yellow wooden Schweppes crates, she turned to deconstructing these obsolete road warning signs, which glimmer softly by day but reflect car headlights with startling intensity at night.

Gascoigne was fascinated by the discarded and doomed detritus of housewives and workmen, transforming junk-heap finds into elegant memorials to the disappearing days of a more hardscrabble antipodean life. She had first noticed these signs singing in the darkness on evening drives through Canberra’s desolate hinterlands, while returning from hunts for her elegiac raw materials. By the time she started sculpting with them, they too were on the endangered list, forcing Gascoigne to scavenge what remnants she could from unhelpful navvies busy replacing metal signs with vinyl versions. And once she’d thoroughly harnessed the signs’ fierce, flaring energy, moving from acidity to mellowness, from exuberance to tranquility, from packed letters to blankness (making me think of Alighiero Boetti’s games with positive and negative areas of colour grids), she moved on again: to the weathered reds, whites and browns of old painted wood, making some of her most earthily minimal works.

A haunting glow: Rosalie Gascoigne's late retro-reflective works at Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney, 1999

I had thought the retro-reflective series ended at around this point, as Gascoigne rarely revisited earlier materials. So I was fascinated to come across a small group of very late examples, completed between 1997 and 1999, the year of her death. I interviewed Gascoigne extensively in 1996-7 for a monograph, the memories of which made these unfamiliar works emotional viewing: at the time I could never have imagined that this feisty and piercingly intelligent octogenarian, still making compelling art, would not be around for the millennium. So looking at these tender, energetic and cerebral assemblages was like discovering a reflection of the artist herself, after 15 a year absence.

Mainly compact in size and recalling book or album covers (items in their end-days, as ever with Gascoigne), they are among the most striking statements she made in this series, and show the variety she could wring from any seemingly limited material. While essentially a formalist – she admitted to moving things around till they felt right to her – Gascoigne’s assemblages were always far more than mere arrangements of stuff. Not just pattern as they may appear in reproduction, these works have real physical presence in a room: varying chunks of weatherbeaten signboard refracting the light, sometimes a haunting glow, sometimes a harsh glare, the random scratches and slashes recalling years lolling mutely in Canberra’s scrubby bush, reacting only to fleeting headlights and thumps from passing wildlife.

Rosalie Gascoigne, Grasslands II, 1998

As well as coaxing emotional resonance from unloved materials, Gascoigne was a shaper of fading words and a maker of fugitive messages. A deeply literary woman who loved poetry and crosswords, her art – literally lyrical – was very much informed by the verbal world. But while she paid great attention to writing descriptive titles, which run the gamut from playful to gnomic – “not wanting to lead the witness too much”, as she put it – she rarely left comprehensible words within the compositions themselves. The letter-based screeds instead resemble a recursive concrete poetry, or an abstract musical score, their shattered glyphs suggesting subconscious readings: open or enclosing, sinuous or jagged, flowing or jarring, all cues which lovers of the Latin alphabet can mine for non-verbal feeling.

This stuttering musicality always evokes for me Rosalie Gascoigne’s husband Ben, whom she followed from New Zealand to a remote Canberra mountain observatory as a wartime bride in the 1940s, and who outlived her by many years. One of Australia’s top astronomers, he had a most unusual and tortuous stammer; one which didn’t hamper his charming extrovert nature, yet did usher him into a profession where he felt verbal felicity would not be vital. It may be incredibly simplistic, but I always felt lifelong exposure to this endearing yet maddening tic, from the husband whose life shaped her own, whose career for 30 years overshadowed hers, and yet whose fame she eventually eclipsed, must have had some subconcious input into her mind-jangling text pieces. Shown here is a selection of these late works, beautiful individually but en masse a poignant late statement from an artist who departed at the height of her powers.

• The estate of Rosalie Gascoigne is represented by Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney, Australia,

Rosalie Gascoigne, Birdsong, 1999

Rosalie Gascoigne, Solitude, 1997

Rosalie Gascoigne, Fishbowl, 1999

Rosalie Gascoigne, not yet titled (Little One), 1999

Rosalie Gascoigne, Medusa, 1998

Rosalie Gascoigne, Trumpet Voluntary, 1997

Rosalie Gascoigne, Printed Circuit, 1999

Rosalie Gascoigne, Cumquats, 1999

Rosalie Gascoigne, Downbeat, 1998

Rosalie Gascoigne, Reserve, 1997

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