Rowan Derryth's Virtual Adventures
I like the stories behind things… most of my creations have stories. -Eliza Wierwight
The 19th century British designer William Morris said: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. The Utopian ideal Morris employed in developing the Arts & Crafts movement approached art and architecture with a holistic view – that is, a unified sense of design, where everything was in harmony.
Inspired by this, architect-designers like E.W. Godwin sought to design spaces that were not just artful, but were complete works of art: buildings, interiors, furnishings – even clothing – all crafted to work as an aesthetic whole. In Britain, this approach was called Aestheticism, and the writer Oscar Wilde took this idea to extremes in the preface to his gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) when he said “All art is quite useless.” By this, Wilde does not mean to deprecate art, but rather that for something to be art, it needs no other meaning or purpose; one should not look beyond a thing’s beauty, its surface – Art for Art’s Sake.
In Europe, this holistic approach was adopted by many of the forefathers of modern design – the Vienna Secessionists like Josef Hoffmann and Kolo Moser; and German architect-designers like Adolf Loos and Peter Behrens (who was himself a mentor to the ‘big three’: Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe), to name a few. There, a phrase was coined to describe this: gesamtkunstwerk, or, ‘a total work of art.’ This legacy was handed to subsequent design movements: The Bauhaus, De Stijl, the American Craftsman style, and so forth.
So, why start with this little design history lesson? Because this is what ran (very rapidly) through my mind when I first saw the work of Eliza Wierwight. When I say that Eliza is following the gesamtkunstwerk philosophy, I want readers to understand what I mean. In fact, I want Eliza to know what I mean too, because when I asked her about the above, it was a new concept to her, but she was delighted to learn more about it. Does her being unaware of this history make it any less relevant a lens to think about her work? I don’t think so – because regardless of how she came to it, Eliza’s own philosophy very much matches those of the aforementioned greats. But before I get into that, a bit more about the artist herself.
Eliza has been on my radar lately, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’d heard of her through the grapevine as an incredible builder, seen and chatted with her ‘around town’, and her Patron Gallery (which won the May round of the University of Western Australia’s Flagship Challenge) was the first featured gallery on Treet TV’s Metaverse Arts, hosted by Tricia Aferdita. She then went on to take the most awards at the final UWA Round for her extremely clever The Satirical Polemicist (more on that work in a minute).
Eliza came to Second Life a little over two-and-a-half years ago, and the fact that she began creating from the start shows in the level of skill and attention to detail in her work. Very early on she began associating with and learning from some of the best content creators around, particularly in terms of textures, including Cuwynne Deerhunter, Stephen Venkman, Baron Grayson, Keith Extraordinaire, Sextan Shepherd, Max Graff, and Kriss Lehmann.
Like many, she began creating because, as she looked around, she wasn’t seeing things that quite fit with her own sense of style. “I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist,” she clarified to me when we sat down to chat at her lush, tropical outdoor studio (which speaks to her RL Australian roots), “I’ve collected some exquisite things by other creators in my time in SL… but that’s why I started… not just because I love designing these micro designs, but also because when I first set up a place, I struggled to find things that I really liked.”
And this is the first thing you need to understand about Eliza’s work, which is extremely exciting to me and is what you will discover when you visit Patron: Eliza makes decorative art. Make no mistake that this is not diminutive; Eliza makes exquisite, artful decorative objects which, yes, are meant to adorn your virtual interiors, but do so like Lalique glass, or a Fabergé egg, or a Tiffany lamp, or Wedgwood China, or Baccarat Crystal. You get the idea.
Her Patron catalogue is full of finely detailed and highly finished objects like table lamps, vases, artifacts, candles, and my personal favourites, highly unique ginger jars and ‘framed’ kimonos. (Godwin and his erstwhile artistic collaborator James McNeil Whistler would, I’m sure, fairly drool over these last items were they alive and virtual today!). But it doesn’t end there – she makes furnishings, and, of course architecture as well (don’t forget the gallery itself was a UWA finalist). And yes, she does work on commission.
Eliza takes tremendous pride in her work, and that shows in her attention to detail. “I love Patron,” she tells me “I ‘walked’ around the Gallery yesterday, first time in ages that I wasn’t just flying in and dropping stuff then leaving… I forget all the little things I’ve done that make a whole.”
The latest edition to her catalog is the stunning Ambassador Suite – a complete studio apartment which can be purchased on its own or with the bespoke furnishings that come as a separate pack. I’m not the only one who sees the connections between Eliza’s work and masters of modern design. A friend and customer commented:
Toured your suite again. Just beautiful, you have exquisite taste and your dedication to detail is admirable. In RL I am an art furniture/cabinet maker so I understand getting every last detail perfect. And again, the spacious unconfined feeling is just amazing. What you’ve done with a box reminds me a bit of Louis Sullivan, box outside, expansion beyond the box inside. Bravo.
And without knowing these larger concepts of holistic design principals, Eliza naturally gets it. “I’ve designed everything for this suite… every stick of furniture, you name it… all for the ‘environment’,” she explains while showing me around the incredible suite (do NOT call it a ‘skybox’!). And she’s got that detail thing down to – dare I say – an obsession? She tells me, “I decided I needed to make a doormat… I spent a whole day on a frikken doormat, because I know what I want to emulate, and I will keep at it until I’m happy.” She laughs, “it’s a beautiful doormat, the best!”
The mat sits neatly in front of a gorgeous double door in the entry of the suite – a door which has no actual function except to serve conceptually, “to give a sense of security,” Eliza says. Art for art’s sake. The palette perfectly balances lights and darks, and the textures are rich, but broken my smooth minimalist planes, giving the overall affect of being lush but not overdone.
“A gesamtkunstwerk!!!” I exclaim like the design nerd I am.
Eliza laughs, “A whaty?!”
I explain, then go on to ramble a bit about the Arts & Crafts movement, spouting that “beautiful and useful” quote I mentioned at the outset, and I find her unaffected candor utterly charming:
Rowan Derryth: Have you read your William Morris?
Eliza Wierwight: No, I’m a peasant at most things. (laughs)
Rowan Derryth: (laughs) He said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Eliza Wierwight: Awwwww, I think I like him! I think I know his name from Antiques Roadshow, think they’d discuss him there ?
Rowan Derryth: (smiles) You DEFINITELY do. He is the design geek god. We worship at his altar.
Eliza Wierwight: There you go, I knew it was familiar! I love that show, very relaxing and I LOVE provenance, it’s something I seek and highlight in-world.
In fact she often speaks to me about provenance, as she likes to acknowledge that she acquires many of the textures she uses from her creative circle. A comment she made on her Flickr photostream to friend and fellow artist Stephen Venkman for the following artwork gives you an idea:
What a compilation scene this is, Venks. Kriss’s lightbeam, Sue’s chandelier (forgotten how exquisite this piece is), Igor made me the parquetry texture for a birthday present, the sculpture in the background is mine which I only just released at Patron and my lovely swan is a gift from the hugely talented Jon Haskell. Ohh and Gossy’s Queen Anne Chair. Pity the violin I’m holding is not seen in detail, it’s also an exquisitely executed creation. Ohh the prim corset, I made that too ~laughs~ Good times.
However in the end, she may appropriate objects and textures, but the images she creates are solely her aesthetic. Her love of decorative objects is clear when viewing her 2D images and sculptural works; they are really just amplified objects d’arts. However, I would argue that more than just the ‘story’ that Eliza suggests in the quote that opens this Ekphrasis, she explores issues that are much deeper and more philosophical than mere narratives.
Her Three Dresses Triptych, for example, is a set of three ‘life-size’ glass domes which contain extraordinary dresses in unusual settings. Viewers can engage with them by sitting inside the cases and contemplating each dress and it’s environment, while perhaps even considering issues of femininity and display, fashion and art, like I did. Eliza’s note on this work confirms her exploration of feminine identities:
Symbolic – A woman’s potential journey symbolized by the veneer of the dresses (masks) we wear. The trophies we acquire as we become trophies to society’s expectations and our inherent values reflected by both. The darkness of that undertow contained in the veneer of beauty. I both claim and deny these duties.
Her UWA-winner The Satirical Polemicist also allows us to become part of the piece, as we transform into the dancing figure at the centre of this giant music box amidst a series of precariously spinning plates. How they stay aloft must be the magic of the jester – the artist herself – whose image gazes at us from the inside of the lid. Our dance apparently keeps these plates spinning, as when we finally decide to depart, the plates – printed with the word ‘LOVE’ – go flying into the air. The work then begs the question – who is the satirical polemicist? Is it the jester watching in her whimsical garb, or is it the dancer (you, the viewer) who causes the rupture of the spinning plates, to instigate the pieces of ‘love’ to fracture?
Eliza is now working a new series of thought-provoking works based on one of her favourite artists – Frida Kahlo. I got a sneak peek at some of these pieces, and they are very exciting. I asked her:
Rowan Derryth: Tell me – why Frida?
Eliza Wierwight: She resonates to me really strongly. The more I learn about her the more intrigued I am. Her work is iconic, [but] she is not all she was constantly portrayed as. A sexual predator for starters, though entirely submissive to Diego [Rivera, her husband, and a Mexican Muralist].
Rowan Derryth: She was a predator, or that is how she was portrayed?
Eliza Wierwight: She is portrayed as this victim predominantly – talented victim. Lots of religious overtones. Enigmatic woman.
Rowan Derryth: Do you think she portrayed herself that way though?
Eliza Wierwight: I have no idea at this point. In her personal life she was far from discreet.
Rowan Derryth: (nodding) I find her work very powerful – she shows us her wounds, but she also shows her strength.
Eliza Wierwight: Yes and that resonates too, though in a different way.
The works in progress are extraordinary, and really evoke the rich, sensuous, and at times violent images Kahlo for which she was known. Igor Ballyhoo, her close friend and sometimes collaborator, was also there looking at them with us, and when I commented on how impressed I was with her process (setting up the images, layering and making composites), he stoically said “Eliza has imagination.” Those simple words spoke volumes, especially from such a notoriously harsh critic as Igor. Not one to rush, she doesn’t expect them to be on view until the new year, but has given me permission to share with you one work, very clearly based on Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas”.
When I asked Eliza to describe her style to me, she offered me a challenge. “You’ll have to make up a name for the style for me Miss Rowan… goth, modern art style… contemporary goth with a hint of steampunk, damned if I know but it works!” Well, I cannot deny the surrealist quality to her work, and she does certainly embrace the dark, anachronistic aesthetic of both goth and steampunk culture. But the art historian cannot get away from the tradition she carries on with from those mentioned at the start of this article: the gesamtkunstwerk approach in unison with the beautiful, useful, and exotic objects she states. In consideration of all that, there is only one name I can dub her style: Dark Aestheticism. We’ll see how she likes that.
Eliza’s current art exhibit can be seen at Exposure Gallery in Avalon for just a few more days, I highly recommend this fabulous show! Her Decorative Art and Interiors are available at Patron Gallery.
New to Ekphrasis? Catch up on the previous posts here: