Essay by Anne Kirker

COUPLING: responding to recent work of Judith Wright

Enter through a black mesh screen into the first space. Stand on the polished cement floor and gaze around at white walls hung with large framed drawings. After a while, walk to an adjacent room, darkened, sit on a low bench and look at the projection of two moving figures. One Dances: this is how this combined experience is introduced. The title is written on the entrance door of an inner city gallery in Sydney, Grantpirrie. This is Judith Wright’s 2004 exhibition with the gallery and her most personal and risky to date.

It follows a number of other projects where her film work has been combined with highly tactile abstract paintings on paper. For instance, in 2002 the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane showed a suckling infant close up on video, round the corner from a large room hung with big skin-like sheets of paper carrying brown-toned shapes. Both were informal, intimate components of a larger installation by the artist she called Blind of Sight. The dialogue had commenced between the handmade object and the moving image, between seemingly irreconcilable media with completely different histories.

What could be more challenging than to achieve a meaningful synchronicity between a series of simple abstract forms on textured paper and the shifting images of a video made in real time? Yet Judith has done it superbly here in Sydney for a month, from March into April. We know that the artist has a background in professional ballet, that she was a relative late comer to the visual arts and that from the late 1980s her career has grown incrementally to the point that Judith Wright’s name is recognised as belonging to one of Australia’s most distinguished mid-career artists. She was included in Australian Perspecta 1989, 1997 and 1999, in New Painting in Australia 1, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2001 and in Meridian: Currents in Australian Art 2002 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

The sombre drawings came first, pinned to the height of a standing person. For several years (up to the mid nineties) they were heavy with pigment and were sometimes made into large floor-based books with minimal text. The words were an echo of, or a cue, into the tonally nuanced sheets bound with them. Sometimes, found objects came into the equation, like an old horn, perhaps to propose sound, or a miniature cloth mannequin theatrically lit. Everything was suggested, never explained. Judith’s work could be seen in prestigious State galleries, in alternative art spaces or disused warehouses just as much as in the saleable context of her agent’s premises. The drawings became less dense, more open, with forms resembling sepia shadows on crinkled warm white sheets: visceral, ephemeral, a reconciled duality. This is how they were in One Dances.

On visiting Grantpirrie for this exhibition, I had already been to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see the Man Ray photography exhibition and a touring show of Rover Thomas paintings from the Holmes à Court Collection. Hence the memory of them was very fresh. The surrealist’s treatment of light and ambiguous juxtapositions of figures from his Erotique voilée series of 1933, and the Aboriginal master’s earth pigments and biomorphic forms in intimate relationship to a specific landscape seemed to be highly appropriate when viewing Judith’s recent work. The timing of all three shows could not have been better. The point is that while the Queenslander’s art is independent of close comparisons with the practice of other artists, there are commonalities which enrich our understanding of it. Man Ray’s use of light and shadow as mutually significant components for his imagery, his implied but never overtly explained narratives in the series of 1933, the tension he sets up between the mechanical form and the living human body: these are all attributes of the film in Judith’s One Dances. Similarly, Thomas’ palette and his corporeal shapes for explaining the topography of the East Kimberley region are somehow akin to her drawings.

The video has “coupling”, or doubling if you like, as a central theme and the drawings next door resonate closely with it. The young man dancing slowly with a sweet-faced antique mannequin is surreal, macabre and deeply unsettling. Something unfathomable is going on. This mysterious unison between the animate and the inanimate, between flesh and wood with metal is surely a dance macabre about life confronting death? Is it also too connected to the psychological trauma of male and female relationships that Edvard Munch portrayed in his paintings and prints early last century? As I watched the film from its beginning with the two heads in close engagement, the video camera shifted backwards to show the youth gently moving his partner in a slow exploratory waltz. There was tenderness and compassion. It was clear that for all the protagonists in this scenario: the actor, his mother the filmmaker and the female effigy, no set explanation could or should be given. Some meanings are best withheld. They are merely indicated by the exquisitely restrained overlapping forms of the drawings hung next door. Pinned at the corners to backboards within deep set frames, these visceral, physical statements are firmly of this world, yet the painted shapes the sheets convey reiterate the shadows of the dancing pair.

Anne Kirker, Senior Curator (Special Projects), Queensland Art Gallery

First published in Eyeline, Brisbane, no.54: Winter

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Essay by Russell Storer

Judith Wright – One Dances (Grantpirrie, Sydney)

At the heart of Judith Wright’s exhibition One Dances is a palpable sense of loss. As Suhanya Raffel explains in her catalogue essay, the loss of a child thirty years ago, and the recent locating of the gravesite, have inspired Wright to produce this body of work, which incorporates a video, a series of drawings, an artist’s book and several photographs. The play between mediums highlights aspects of each – the video work becomes a study in light and shade, while the abstract drawings spark with figurative allusions. Linking it all together are the acts of a body in motion, captured on video, painting onto paper, turning the pages of a book. Wright’s work consistently evokes the body, both present and absent, and here the absence is deeply personal, a quiet lament for time passing and life lost.

In the front gallery space, five drawings were installed around the room, featuring abstracted forms painted in white, black and deep brown on Wright’s signature waxed Japanese paper, each surface crinkled and veined like skin. Abstracted from elements featured in the video component, the forms loom ominously from one side of the frame to the other, some overlapping, others crisp and clear. In contrast to the soft, ethereal white-on-whiteness of Wright’s recent drawing series Blind of Sight (2001) and Flight (2002), these works are occupied with inky shadows, with hard, sharp delineations, creating high-contrast figure/ground relationships. At times the shapes recall the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Morris Louis or Franz Kline, compounded by their large scale, yet Wright’s forms are always tightly controlled, their textures layered and worked back, their outlines deliberate.

The starkness of these works is emphasised by their being framed behind glass. Wright’s installations generally feature drawings pinned the wall, so that they hang loosely and move gently with the air, responding to the movement of bodies through the space. Particularly with the white-on-white drawings, it is also difficult to see their edges, as they bleed out from the paper onto the wall. Here, however, they lie still, and the frames provide clear boundaries: the viewer, rather than shifting the paper with their presence, is reflected in the glass. Wright’s drawings are often produced at the same scale as the human body and hung low to the floor, creating a sensation of stepping into the work; this is still the case, yet our passage through is halted.

This sense of gentle distancing continues through to the video work, projected small in the second space. It is structured in five single-take sections, and with each take, the camera gradually moves outward from the subjects and then away. The narrative is simple: a young man dances with an articulated, life-sized wooden marionette within the glow of a spotlight (the source of the strong shadows in the drawings). It is one of the most linear of Wright’s videos, which tend to be fragmented collages of imagery, at times accompanied by jittery avant-garde music. The pace in One dances is slow and careful, with the only sound being the tap of the doll on the floor and the distant hum of traffic. The man struggles slightly with the unyielding awkwardness of his partner, but overall the work is a series of elegant gestural studies, a process of negotiation between animate and inanimate, as well as an element of the danse macabre, a reminder of the transience of youth, and of life.

As in all of Wright’s videos, there is a sensual emphasis on the body, with a focus on the young man’s form and its details: a lick of hair, stubble, eyelashes, the ridges of an ear. The colours are muted, with the soft bloom of the man’s skin set against the blackness of the background. Assisted by the intensity of the spotlight, youth and life radiate from his body, while the skeletal, impassive marionette reflects and absorbs light. The doll is also the worse for wear, with the wood aged and split and its paint chipped. It has a history, and its round, Victorian face gives the film its timeless quality, at odds with the contemporary look of the young man.

Such jarring contrasts between wood and flesh, dark and light, old and new, stiffness and movement, as the two bodies embrace in their intimate dance, are brought into harmony through Wright’s graceful visual poetry. There is something almost Daoist in her approach, emphasising that one cannot exist without the other. The young man (played by one of Wright’s sons), stares intently into the face of the doll, accepting, perhaps, or unafraid. There can be no light without darkness, and to live is to dance with death.

Russell Storer, 2004

First published in Eyeline, Brisbane, no.54: Winter

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Essay Suhanya Raffel

One Dances

In a hospital room, a woman gives birth to a perfect baby girl. Her life is not a long one, measured only in days. She continues to be a part of her mother, as do all her children, and exists for her mother regardless of the fact of her sudden death. Her mother is not allowed the time to mourn, to mark her arrival and passing. The child’s tiny body is taken away from her mother, quickly, and buried.

The journey of rediscovering what happened to this child’s body is a whole other story. It takes her mother thirty years to seek out the plot of land in which she was laid. It is a place that is shared by one other who was also a baby girl when she died in 1919, fifty-three years before her. Her mother now knows where this piece of earth is. *Judith Wright was a dancer in the Australian Ballet before she dedicated herself to being a visual artist. This earlier discipline provided her with an acute sensitivity to engaging movement as an integrated part of a visual practice. Her painted books are made so large that to see the drawings on each page necessitates the drama of a grand gesture. You lean into the book and move your arm across an arc of space as you turn each page. The books themselves are of abstracted images of faces and bodies pared back to elemental form. These drawings are made using thin hand-made Japanese paper, saturated with wax to make the paper tougher and to accentuate the inherent transparent qualities. Wright paints on them using acrylics, and occasionally also bitumen. On first opening these great big books you see the drawings stacked together, the translucence of the paper revealing the blurred shapes beneath, as though the images are touching and then separating as the pages are turned. A certain intimacy is revealed.

Wright also makes large painted drawings that are pinned to the wall. The scale is such that they vibrate with subtle movement when looking at them. The movement of approach makes the drawings ripple, responding to the shift in the air. They breathe in tandem to this movement, a tiny animation in the otherwise still experience of looking.

More recently, in the past ten years, Wright’s painted drawings have transpired through her video works. The relationship between how one sustains a related integrated, practice in both drawings and moving images is not necessarily obvious. Yet Wright belongs to a select group of contemporary artists who are committed to exploring this potential. William Kentridge and Nalini Malani are two others who come to mind. Each of these artists has developed intertwining practices in which drawing and moving images are vital. For Wright, an obvious first correspondence is through her interest in performance, but more profoundly, acknowledging that life requires breath and registers as movement. Video gives her the potential to capture the time-based nature of movement. Nearly all her video works seek out personal day to day, often intimate, activities – bathing, swimming, breast feeding, dancing. When looking at Wright’s work, one way of considering this relationship between drawing and video, is how both groups of work articulate aspects of movement as kinds of light. Video and film register gradations of light, degrees of exposure on objects to make form. The abstractions that Wright arrives at in her drawings are distilled shapes of parts of the body, broad surfaces in which the detail has fallen away to form singular contours through their extreme exposure to light. In her ‘Blind of sight’ 2001-02 series of works, which includes video projections and drawings, the latter are elegant minimalist expressions of white light on a whitened face.

‘One dances’ takes on at least three forms, as a colour video, a black and white film and as a set of three drawings. The opening shot in the video is of a shadow cast across the floor. It takes a minute before it coalesces to form into the back of a young man holding to his body the stiff limbs of a reticulated life size wooden doll. This heavy object is awkward to hold and the dance is slow and melancholic. The video is made up of five sequences, each of them a single take. The lighting adds to the sense of drama and staging, as a single spotlight casts deep shadows while lighting up the gleam of eyelash, the fine fur of hair on a cheek and the smooth glow of painted wood. The first take is of the shadow on the floor and the second is an extreme close up of the two faces of the dancing couple. The third moves to their feet and the fourth is a mid shot of the two torsos. The final take is the full length of the two bodies with the video ending as the young man walks out of the frame, carrying the doll, to leave the circle of light. Although the video work is in colour, the lighting of the dancing man and his marionette partner is such that it is the play of light and shadow that is remembered. Sound is literal, with the drag of the doll’s wooden feet on the floor or the slap of her wooden hand as it falls against her thigh. The two figures are bathed in the spotlight so that they cast shadows on each other, walking, dancing, in and out of light and darkness. In watching the work, it dawns on the viewer that the dance is not only between the two figures in the spotlight, but also includes the holder of the camera. Often the movement is the camera responding to the two figures, creating a dance that acknowledges this third presence.

In a number of Wright’s video and film works the artist collaborates with her sons. They frequently perform in them or work behind the camera with Wright. The young man who dances with the marionette in ‘One dances’ is the artist’s youngest son while her second son is the cinematographer with Wright. In many of the works that Wright has done with her children, their presence on the screen is marked by the way light saturates their forms. Often the images focus on fragments of their bodies that glow with the warmth of light and life. In the moving images of ‘One dances’ this aspect of her film work is most intense. The camera joyously records how the light picks up the fine face in profile, the lithe shape of a back, the modeling of feet in contrast to the skeletal body of the marionette.

The choreography in ‘One dances’ is very minimal. Wright has chosen the most intimate of dance forms – the simple embrace of two figures. This concentration of gesture belies the impetus of its making. ‘One dances’ came to Wright at the culmination of her thirty-year search for the body of her deceased daughter. In this work, the light is not diffuse. It is a focussed, single spot that enfolds the two figures. The marionette is held most obviously by the young man but also by the beam of light and the camera in a three-fold embrace, paralleling the experience of the dance. Light and shadow form the rhythm in which they perform. The beckoning of this other child wells through the work in the entangled patterns of light. *When light is lost, life is lost.

Suhanya Raffel, September 2003

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Essay by Michael Desmond

Each sigh is the stillness of the shriek: The sensuous art of Judith Wright

Judith Wright’s work has the power to surprise and, perhaps, perplex viewers. Wright is known for her severe, near minimalist works. She is also known as a video artist. Wright joins cool pure abstract statement in an unlikely combination with the noisiest figurative medium, television. It should not work, but, through a calculated legerdemain, it does. But it is not exclusively through contrast that Wright achieves her effect, but something more subtle: a twist here, a tweak there, to pull each distinct element into precarious balance and counterbalance. With a ‘contrapposto’ of media, scale, and surfaces, Wright creates some of Australia’s most original and compelling works.

Before she linked video and drawing, Wright made large scale works on paper that scrutinised the texture of memory, their flat planes of scarred surfaces encrusted with the patina of time. These works fitted easily with Australian art in the early eighties, when a number of artists confronted the excesses of then-fashionable neoexpressionist painting with works that were clearly abstract yet also undeniably figurative. Fellow Brisbane artist, Andrew Arnoutopoulis, whose paintings are often thought to have the appearance of rusted steel panels, shares an affinity with Wright’s concern with surface. Wright, in her early works, favoured large-scale images layered with encaustic paint on unstretched paper pinned directly to the wall. While a minority of these were all over compositions, most showed a single, centrally placed, biomorphic form described in dark earth tones. The suite of drawings, Palm of the hand 1991, announces the typical repertoire of head and torso shapes described schematically through line or inferred through shape. Her images, despite the concrete descriptors, are suggestive and equivocal, accepting figurative or abstract readings equally.

Excluding video, Wright works exclusively on paper. Canvas, she says, is domineering, the mechanical tooth of the textile too strong for the luminous stained veils of pigment and wax that she applies to the surface. She prefers to exploit the properties of paper and has developed a virtuoso handling – staining, waxing, tearing, and layering – that generates organic, skin-like surfaces: wrinkled, crinkled, worn and torn, warm, flayed, saggy, tight. Each work is a display of won effects.

In these early works Wright established the acetic presence characteristic of her oeuvre. Her disciplined regime pares back colour and simplifies composition to iconic shapes that emphasise figure and ground or contrasts of light and dark, texture, an awareness of edges, and the play of scale. For all the severe geometry, it would be a mistake to believe that her work is driven by the tenets of formalism. Indeed, given her use of materials, method and approach to subject, the opposite must be true: Wright makes a fetish of painterly materials she employs, relishing the glaucous skin of encaustic, engineered by mixing bees wax with earth pigments and so impregnating and staining the paper support as much as painting it. Her method explores the illusion of depth that only a subtle surface can convey. She works on paper because the application of a medium immediately alters the surface properties, ‘so you loose control, allow distortion of the paper to happen, then try to control, by allowing and anticipating accident.’ While many of the conventional devices of Wright’s painting are reduced to minimalist levels, it would be a mistake to consider her art as a monument to cool rationalism or stoicism: she aims to provoke emotional sensation. This derives from the many references in her work to the body, and equally from the ‘human’ scale of each painting and its physical presence as an object. This presence is emphasised by the ragged, uneven edges and impacted and crinkled surface. Thus Wright engineers a relationship with the viewer’s body.

Wright’s imagery is personal rather than cultural. She employs a few selected symbols which are used and reused. Closed and open forms reference landscape as well as female and male identities. Hands, feet, shoes torsos and heads – the body is perennially cited. Over her career an iconographic evolution has taken place, granting these body signs greater realism in the videos and abstracting them in the paintings. This reference is unavoidable, says Wright, ‘our body is the vehicle with which we travel through life.’ The power of Wright’s work derives from the psychologically charged projections of inner self.

It is hardly surprising then to learn that Wright worked as a dancer with the Australian Ballet for a number of years before turning to fine art. She brought to her art a performer’s sensitivity to the body, an appreciation of the spaces that frame it and a distinctive sense of theatre. Wright’s acknowledgement of the relation ship felt between art and viewer is particularly evident in her 1993 installation Silence echoes in the hollow of the hand 1992 at Galerie Lunami, in Tokyo. Wright places an oversized book and an inverted French horn on the floor in front of a dark painting showing what could be read as two confronting heads, a conversation reiterated in the dialogue between the three components of the installation. Book and horn appear as actors before a backdrop, although the performance begins only when the viewer turns a page to open another scene in an unfolding drama. Nor is the performance exclusively visual: the reader is conscious of the smell of the bees-waxed paper, sound accompanies the turning of each page, fingers sense the weight and texture of each sheet, and the action of turning produces a tactile breath of air as the page swings past the face and drops into place. The images in the book echo the hierarchical heads of earlier work, now with the notion of an album of memories, with friends, places and times recalled. In this work, significantly, the artist exerts control over the viewing sequence.
A painting, drawing or sculpture captures a single moment in time, with the capacity to trigger outside associations. Many artists have attempted to create works beyond the ‘frozen moment’ of art. Wright’s strategy is to emphasise the formal composition and reduce detail to imbue each work with a ‘timeless’ quality. In that sense the works appear at first to accord with the Greek sculptor Myron’s predilection for a pose that summed up the larger action. An example closer to Wright’s theatre background might be the heightened inaction of actors in a Japanese Noh play who hold their pose for the few seconds it takes the audience to register that this is a significant moment. In fact Wright does not believe that a single work can hold the moment and do justice to an idea. There is no ‘hero’ image, instead a work is made of many in sequence. ‘I couldn’t do what I want in one image’ says Wright. Not that each image is a sketch, a pensée, but rather the artist envisages her work filmicly, as a temporal sequence. Her works have always been produced in series and read as a series.

Wright’s bookworks clearly articulate a narrative, but the works on the wall are also intended as unfolding sequence. Body trace 1995 provides ready insight into this, with its earthy, rounded forms making a rhythmic progression across multiple sheets of paper. While in Calcutta during a residency in 1995, Wright became fascinated with the variety of painted facial decoration worn by local women. These ‘traces’ and the associations of art and artifice, beauty and time formed the basis for a body of work. This suite evokes a strobe-lit dance caught in the frames of an animated film. Sweeping curves and rhyming organic shapes in tan and ochre undulate from one sheet to the next, creating a syncopated pattern of movement across the series of panels. While no one image depicts the body, all suggestively carry the imprint of breasts, buttocks, calves, thighs and belly: body traces as vivid as motion snap-frozen into silver gelatine by Eadweard Muybridge. Together, the images of Body trace describe (a choreographed movement but above all the passage of time.

One of the pages in the book, Silence echoes in the hollow of the hand 1992, is inscribed ‘the patience of shadows’. The phrase speaks eloquently of Wright’s attitude to time, her premise being that there is no penultimate work: each is part of a larger enterprise and the works, while independent of each other, have a collective quality. Each work informs the next. The pigments inevitably extend to the edges of the support, as if able to continue outside the image. The viewer is encouraged to understand the relationships between works as describing a continuity. The pages, either in a book or pinned to the wall suggest each sheet as ephemeral and not the grand statement. Wright’s forms are neither elaborate nor overly ornate. She uses the strength and simplicity of archetypes – arcs, lines, curves and organic shapes – as a means of triggering associations in the viewer. The French horn although silent now, conjures up music past. Wright attempts to convey an awareness of time by evoking mood as disturbingly patient and sharp as the black shadows in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. Her installations particularly mine this mood of displaced time. Image of absence 1995, consisting of an artist’s book surrounded on three sides by racks of shoe lasts, is a notable example. The population of lasts, different sizes for different feet, works as a roll call of missing individuals. The carved, wooden feet will never move – it is the cruel fate of art to parody life – but just as the mute horn evokes sound, so the immobility of the lasts calls up the clacking steps of moving people. Sober and sombre, the preternatural stillness of this mortuary installation paradoxically declares tempus fugit – time flies. The sad beauty of reflection in this work is tempered by personal experience: the shoe lasts are, in fact, survivors from the artist’s ex-husband’s shoe factory testify to another life and absent others. It is also tempting to see the shoe lasts as reminders of her former career with the Australian Ballet, as images of regimentation, rhythm and the dancer’s private pain. Wright’s iconography includes images of heads and torsos, references to shoes and feet, eloquent hand gestures, dance and the physical presence of the body, suggesting a grander project of an autobiography through art. While this must apply to all artists to a certain extent, as personal impressions are always the foundation for an authentic art, Wright steers clear of diaristic intimacy and mawkish realism.

To create and hold a moment of reverie, a time outside of time, measured by ‘the patience of shadows’, is equally the enterprise in Second stage, also 1995. In this work two old-fashioned shop mannequins stand to attention inside a spot lit circle of coloured light. While ostensibly devoid of personality – one is simply a torso on a stand and the other a headless body – an intense relationship is inferred from the differences in size and build, and from the confrontational and dramatic placement. A video sequence of a head, wrapped or bandaged, is shown in concert with this tableau. The play of stilled life and moving pictures heightens the viewer’s awareness of a subjective time played out against the meter of real time, the present/past of filmic time, and the ineluctable decay of objects. Memory and materials mesh and elide in the installation.

Since 1995, Wright has developed a powerful corpus of video-based work. She always uses this temporal medium along side her paintings, books and found objects to extend the range and meanings of her work. Central to its reading is the way Wright consciously shapes the viewer’s experience of time. ‘My primary interest in time’, says Wright, ‘is in the cessation of it – the arresting of it or at the very least the slowing down of it.’ Wright acknowledges it is impossible to still time, but employs a number of stratagems to put the brakes on the rapid viewing and quick understanding of her works. Blind of sight I 2000-02 combines a number of large painted sheets of paper pinned to the wall with a grainy, almost monotone, video of a hand dabbing at a face. The paintings are profoundly abstract, consisting of broad curved areas of warm earths, scumbled pale and muffled creams. The forms in the paintings respect the volumes in the video. There is a resonance between the mediums, but it leads to alternate readings. It is difficult to identify the video image at first, such is the effect of the close up and the texture, but it becomes clear that it shows the application of makeup or beauty crème to a woman’s face. From the ‘painted lady’ the parallel between beauty and art is drawn, with the subversive notion of artifice as a foundation. Blind of sight II 2000-2002 is a similar work, with the relationship made here between paintings and a video of a suckling baby. Again the paintings use broad organic shapes, with the muted earth colours veiled in soft chalky layers to a near white on white surface. There is some notion here of a milky zone of maternal bliss, of starched baptismal gowns and of new life; just as there was its opposite in the hint of the whitened sepulchre in Blind of sight I. Both series convey compelling images of physical and spiritual regeneration.

Logically, the greatest risk to these cool, sensual, paintings is the contrast with the ‘hot’ mechanical video images. To ensure equal weight in the partnership of painting and video in her work, Wright scales down or distances the video screen, slows the screen images to a dream-like slow motion, emphasises grain and texture and chooses near monochrome or crepuscular lighting. Her subject, be it the bustling marketplace, bird-filled air, landscapes, sleepers or lips, eyes and hands, provokes consciousness of the world encountered through the senses, rather than the intellect. The videos provide atmosphere rather than narrative, a mood of sensual awareness that accords with the experience of the paintings. The video images are generalised rather than specific, equivocal rather than heroic. The artist describes them as ‘not dictatorial’, but like a ‘sideways glance’, an equivalent of the way we unconsciously absorb information of time, place and space to provide the background in interpreting personal histories.

Wright’s motifs derive from images generated in her videos. She does not make drawings as such but ‘takes notes’ from the screen as her video plays. These graphic comments are formalized into the ideographic compositions of her paintings. While this process abstracts incident to archetype, Wright’s final composition also accommodates a succession of readings. The relationship between painting and video is complex and ambiguous: in some ways a hyperaesthetic pairing of aleatory moment and acetic recording, yet clearly a form of symbiosis between two art forms rather than the more traditional vampiric association between reality and its wraith-like double. The differences highlight the intervention and interpretation of the artist, throwing into relief the perceptible decisions made in creating each work. Dabs, wipes, traces and pentimenti evidence Wright’s tremulous struggle to draw out and crystallise an emotional perception.

The notion of pulling order from chaos is heroic, but it is the heroism of the everyday. Wright’s work offers no epiphany, rather a gradual revelation and completion. Perversely, her use of austere, near-minimal, forms in the paintings should be grasped as rapidly as a diagram but instead creates a gestalt that is absorbed progressively. The perceived lack of incident across the picture plane or in the video prompts greater scrutiny and a measured scan of the surface. This search for ‘enlightenment’ creates a heightened awareness of nuance and can induce a mood of gentle lyricism and poetic contemplation. T. S. Elliot identifies the importance of such lacunae in time when he states that ‘history is a pattern of timeless moments’.

Wright’s palette has changed from the dark earth tones of early works to the pallid chalky pastels and white on white of contemporary paintings. White is conventionally understood to signify purity, illumination and a spirituality beyond the quotidian world. There is nothing of the searing whites of Howard Taylor in Wright’s works, though both artists aim for sublimity. Taylor is, in the end, more austere than Wright, more dependent on formalist principles and, in striving for a sublimity that is awe, vastness and power, perhaps more ‘dictatorial’. Wright’s large white works are not minimal in the conventional sense, but always anchored to time and the body, inevitably as crinkled as an Eva Hesse sculpture or weather-beaten as lead sheet in a work by Anselm Kiefer. Wright calls on the modernist abstract formulas but works around high modernism’s serious purpose favouring the sensual over the intellectual to avoid being didactic or rhetorical. Learn about life, says her work, not with the eyes but sensually, through the skin. Trace 1998, in which a video is projected onto milk in a metal pail illustrates this. The image shows a woman’s head repeatedly plunging into the milk. The white liquid conjures up a number of powerful emotional responses with its associations of nurture, cleansing and beauty. Cleopatra’s bath in asses milk is evoked with a frightening, obsessive edge that is, nonetheless, strangely beautiful.

Wright creates an equivocal yet luminous poetry, in which solitude, eroticism and sadness are consoled by haunting white noise of the French horn. Hers is a world in which the senses grope and reach out beyond the blindness of sight to search for essential truths. She offers a troubled and contradictory illumination of self, constructed with memories that flutter and slide as surely as the afterimages that follow a flashbulb. Wright’s sublime is transcendence and bliss, in which ‘each sigh is the stillness of the shriek’.

Michael Desmond

Judith Wright – Each sigh is the stillness of the shriek, first published in Art & Australia, Autumn Vol.40 No 3, 2003


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Essay by Ruth McDougall

Tactile Spaces

When we first spoke, Judith Wright and I, it was to discover a shared love of space and its potential eloquence. For both, the movement of one’s body through space and across space is a language or way of understanding. Perceived by most as silent and mute, the body holds coiled within its movements a range of memories; pain, desire, fear, boredom, fascination. To those who have been encultured within the West’s philosophical and religious doctrines, the potential of the body to be overwhelmed by these emotive memories is often frightening. The body is perfidious; it leads one astray with its base instincts and diversions. One cannot trust ones body, one must silence and tame it. But, as psychoanalysis has gone to great pains to elucidate the body’s memory cannot be mastered by the intellect. Something flows over, cannot be repressed.

Physical memories of the maternal, of being small and vulnerable are often things we experience when we are ill, scared and alone. There is a sense of moving inwards, of losing focus and objectivity. In an attempt to curb this we often seek the horizon of the outside world, but its enormity and busyness only reinforces the sense that we are outside, boundaryless and lost. Small bodily processes and sensations grow louder and draw our attention. These processes are real, present, defining.

Why is it precisely the middle space, the link between feeling boundaryless and focussed, between an expanse and the detail that is missing as we move through the space of Wrights Blind of Sight? The constant movement between abstraction and detail in Wright’s paintings and videos undermines the middle ground and the ability it provides the gaze and subsequently the intellect to master her subject. Wright’s space is a tactile space in which we discover, like a suckling child through the memory of our body’s sensations, only the edges of what is happening.

I start in a dimly lit gallery, in which 12 large square paintings hang, pinned like blankets to fall softly from the wall. The gallery is large and the paintings, all the same size and tones, appear like portions of a larger narrative or landscape which I only grasp in part and at what seems like an oblique distance. Because of the dimness of the light and the softness of the paintings forms I feel drawn to move closer until the individual paintings are much larger than me and there is no way of establishing edges without moving my head or body. I have the sense as I move from one painting to the next, forwards and back, that I am moving across an expanse and that when I reach the last painting that I will have no better sense of the start and finish of the work, its edges, than when I began. Indeed there is the sense that the paintings will continue like a path in the desert, the further I walk, the more that will open up in front of me.

“The matrix has no center, it constantly slides to the borderline, to the margins. Its gaze escapes the margins and returns to the margins. Through this process the limits, borderlines, and thresholds conceived are continually transgressed or dissolved, thus allowing the creation of new ones.”

The adjoining gallery is much darker than the first. Projected on the far wall is a large black and white image of a woman’s face appearing and disappearing beneath hands moving white facial cream in long sensuous strokes. The white cream is deliciously opaque and appears cool and wet like paint straight out of a tube. The woman’s face remains still and inert whilst the action of the hands are compelling and rhythmic. I stand entranced sensuously soothed with a growing feeling of horror and discomfort at the absolute stillness and vulnerability of the face. The use of black and white and cropping out of any detail frustrates my desire to place what is happening in front of me in any particular time and space. The image hangs at once persistent and fleeting.

“What finally frightens you and throws you into disorder is the knowledge that desire sometimes makes you a victim, you become flesh, without identity and without meaning”

To one side, near the door is a much smaller projection. Warm in tone and very soft in focus this projection feels more familiar and intimate in its scale and its presence. Soft washes of flesh tone merge into darker shadows, as gentle curves and forms appear only to blur before I can grasp the meaning of their shape. The more I concentrate the more the sense that I know this image slides away. Then almost with a shock the forms sharpen and my senses flood with the recognition of a baby pushing its head into flesh, mouth open searching for its mothers nipple. I am no longer standing looking but awash in my bodies memory.

“Concerning that stage of my childhood, scented, warm, and soft to the touch, I have only a spatial memory. Not time at all. Fragrance of honey, roundness of forms, silk and velvet under my fingers, on my cheeks. Mummy. Almost no sight – a shadow that darkens, soaks me up, or vanishes amid flashes”

It may seem incomprehensible, at first that the paintings in Blind of Sight are edits from a short video of a mother breast feeding her child or that a woman having a facial could have any connection with this most symbolic of acts. However what emerges the longer one is with the work is a realisation that Wright is not interested in representing breastfeeding per se; rather that this powerful event acts as a trigger for other layers of experience which have often been repressed visual representation. Indeed, the iconic image of a mother suckling her child is found at the very heart of Western representation as both a symbol of the ideal transcendence of the body and the repression of an archaic all encompassing pleasure (for both mother and child).

The function of the maternal, as symbolized in the figure of the Virgin Mary with child acts within the history of painting as a mark of the sacred and unnameable. But it does not succeed in doing this “without relying on the feminine representation of an immortal biology” . That is this representation gains its power through the memory of another unnameable experience – childhood before language in which there is no link between different sensual experiences and the maternal body is a source of pleasure, bounty, safety and trauma. That and the repression of the female body, it’s many sourced pleasure and way of knowing the world. In the image of the Holy Virgin and Child we are provided with a way of visually consuming and mastering what is otherwise unnameable and ungraspable.

What Wright seeks in her mobilisation of space, shifts between mediums and abstraction is to introduce a system of different viewing distances and conditions, which provide vastly different experiences. Here “especially haptic qualities are demanded of the viewer; not to follow optically the line of ideas and see only the representation proper, the surface, but to probe with eyes the pictorial texture and even to enter the texture and probe below the texture” . Such “touching” with the eye does not provide the grounded sense of having touched something with ones hands. Unable to project ourselves we feel disorientated and without a position in which to secure the act of looking. We are thrown back on our bodies – the vulnerable and unruly body resembling early childhood.

In Blind of Sight, the space of our bodies is a space of vulnerability and a certain degree of anxiety. There is however a rhythm to this work that reminds me of Oliver Sachs description of his experiences of a phantom limb, in which he moves from the feeling of being unable to connect to his leg, absolutely at the mercy of his body to discovering a rhythm within his body in which to move. Wright’s Blind of Sight provides a space in which, not able to trust our sight we are encouraged to stop and listen for the presence of a different mode or rhythm for being in the world.

“It seems that there has long been a connection in our culture, or a least in our psyches, between the loss of sight and the loss of self”…And yet it might be that the connection is in fact the other way round: that a dimming of sight, a changed condition of seeing, and therefore a change in our social relations, forces us not into a loss of self but into a confrontation with the self.”

Ruth McDougall

Tactile Spaces, first published in exhibition catalogue Blind of Sight, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2002.

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