8 - 25 July 2010

Melanie Irwin

Why are things shaped the way they are and what effects do these shapes have on our environment? What happens when certain shapes change form and matter breaks down, when one element becomes another?1

At its core, Melanie Irwin’s work is a philosophical inquiry into the mutability of matter. Her compositions utilise a range of commonplace materials, including thread, knitting needles, plastic bags, plastic balls and household paint. She incorporates abstraction, colour field painting, installation, minimalism and craft, to create an immersive environment that allows for a dialectical examination of the correlation between the geometric and the biological.

In recent years Irwin’s concerns have extended to the performative function of art making; the process of creating and its relationship to her physical self are often documented through photographic works, such as Untitled (action_structure_drawing) (2008)and Untitled (Sydney and Moreland Rds) (2009). Here, themes of the geometric and the biological are quite literal with the artist drawing a relationship between the geometric (constructions made out of chopsticks or the documentation of tram cables and telegraph wires) and her physical self.

In Sphericity, Irwin’s latest installation, molecular biology, geometry and the cosmos collide through various aesthetic and abstract devices: Irwin’s loose and irregular knitting-work triggers visions of multi-cellular organisms; a field of colour is blocked out and painted on the gallery wall, with shapes defined through negative space – referencing polygons; and a bright plastic ball caught in a web of thread mimics the form of a planet or comet as often found in astronomy journals or diagrams of the solar system. The installation continues the artist’s interest in mathematical structures – in the cyclical and notions of uncertainty – and follows on closely from the conceptual interrelationships developed in Untitled (Constant elasticity) (2009), a recent work exhibited in Warsaw at the artist-run space Fabs.2

Recalling the sculptural knitting practice of Melbourne-based artist Kate Just, Irwin is similarly interested in spatial relationships and interacting with a given space in its entirety. She also explores the re-contextualisation of found objects in a manner similar to American artist Jessica Stockholder with her boundless installations. Yet unlike Stockholder it is clear that the underlying motivations behind Irwin’s practice are grounded in empirical research and a respect for physics.

The sources Irwin draws on for inspiration are heavily weighted in the scientific and mathematical domain. Texts relating to quantum physics, the impossibilities of a perfect circle and irregular numbers are all part of a standard diet for seeking new understanding of the universe and its hidden mechanics. In tune with the physicist Edward Zganjar’s belief that ‘the structure of matter underlies the structure of the whole physical cosmos,’3 it is through an interrogation of matter and materiality that Irwin contemplates the connection between the universe and the biological. This is also succinctly demonstrated through an awareness that ‘a teaspoon of the materials in our bodies dates to 13 billion years ago.’4 She states: ‘on a metaphorical level, my interest in geometric shapes is concerned with the arbitrary nature of the universe and existence and the physical transformations that occur in the origins, evolution and deterioration of matter.’5

Irwin is fascinated by mathematical equations, by polygons and by π. Her interest in Archimedes’s approximation of π (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) is revelatory to her art practice; she explains: ‘Archimedes established that π is not 3.1408, it is more than 3.1408; and it is not 3.1429, it is less than 3.1429; it is somewhere in between.’6 In her work we sense a yearning for this state of ‘in between,’ as opposed to a fixed state. The various formal vocabularies she deploys – abstraction, the hand-made, and so forth – assert a morphic resonance, a state of transition, of becoming, that is open to contingency. Sphericity alters our perception, catapulting the ordinary into new terrains and creating a space conducive to transformation and renewal.

Claire Anna Watson, 2010.

Claire Anna Watson is a Melbourne-based artist, writer and curator.


1. Melanie Irwin, artist statement, June 2010, Melbourne.

2. Irwin travelled to Warsaw on a Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship for Emerging Artists where she exhibited her work in the group exhibition Ciagla elastycznosc [Constant elasticity], June-July 2009. It included Australian artists Kim Donaldson and Felicity Mangan. Curated by Kim Donaldson.

3. Edward Zganjar, Louisiana State University, “Physicist Finds Out Why ‘We Are Stardust…’,” ScienceDaily, 25 June 1999, retrieved 23 June 2010 from <http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/1999/06/990625080416.htm>.

4. The artist reported learning this at the presentation Journey to the Stars,The Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, November 2009.

5. Melanie Irwin, artist statement, op.cit.

6. Ibid.