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Essay by Julie Ewington

Shadows and shades

It is said that shadows, and shades, gave birth to European art. The Greek philosopher Plato recounted how shadows dancing on a cave wall first prompted humans to make representations of themselves and other beings; and the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder tells how the daughter of Butades, a potter of Corinth, was impelled to trace her lover’s shadow on a wall, so she could preserve his memory while he was away from her.1 From ancient memorials to modern photography, this sense of loss, this desire to recall those who are absent, is a powerful motive for making art.

Judith Wright works within this long tradition of love and loss. In A wake 2011, emphatic shadows accompany the figures of 15 fantastical musicians — variously eccentric human and animal or bird hybrids, one even closely resembling a spider. They serve to evoke a departed loved one and every shadow cast onto the walls is a ghostly refrain of that original loss. Furnished with beautiful antique instruments, this company is assembled to make music to accompany, with appropriate pomp and ceremony, the passage to the afterlife.

Who is the person loved, lost and now recalled in A wake? For whom has Wright convened this motley orchestra? This funerary celebration, with its inevitable burden of joy and bitter tears, is staged for her only daughter, who died shortly after birth many years ago. The mother of three sons, Wright never ceased to grieve for her daughter, and coming to terms with this loss has been the key emotional motivation for her work over several decades.

A wake marks a new development in Wright’s long meditation on this loss: previously, she made drawings, installations and videos that often depicted, or were shadowed by, an absent body, even a group of diminutive quasi-bodily bronze sculpture, Proposition 2010, but this is her first major figurative installation.

Each road-stained companion in this impressive troupe has its role to play in this transit. Appealing to the rich historical imagery of tatterdemalion actors and musicians, every aspect of the work is unabashedly theatrical: one stiff-limbed ballerina in a pale-pink tutu presides over a bronze temple gong; a bird-featured creature adorned with peacock feathers brandishes a trumpet; and an intent little mouse-like personage strums a zither. The entire busy ensemble is presided over by an assertive seated presence in a long rosy-red tutu: clearly she’s a force to be reckoned with. Gawky, speciously glamorous, even wry, this company is fragile but resilient. None of the instruments they flourish actually makes a sound. However, Wright says that she is drawn to old instruments precisely because they no longer make music — their sound, too, is absent, only a shadow of its former presence.

It is as if the orchestra is ready to make an other-worldly din, a glorious clashing cacophony that will accompany the girl on her long journey to the underworld.

With its rich panoply of masks, costumes and props, this work relates to seven videos Wright made between 2003 and 2009, commencing with One dances and concluding with Desire5. In a suite based on the idea of the seven stages of man, these works imagined what the life of the lost child might have been. Through appearances by performers including the artist’s third son, the actor Luke Wright, noted dancers, Grahame Murphy and Janet Vernon, and the octogenarian Dame Margaret Scott6, among others, Wright staged encounters between the persona of the lost girl and various ‘family’ members, calling her into being but also, eventually, reconciling Wright herself to this irredeemable loss.

Importantly, in these videos Wright first began using found objects, ranging from antique mannequins to ballet costumes to furniture, to assist in the evocation of her scenarios. A talented and dedicated scavenger, over the years she has used in her sculptures many objects found in second-hand and antique stores in Brisbane and Sydney and, more recently, on eBay. From Japan, Italy and across Africa, she has collected many beautiful antique masks, admiring their power to evoke past lives, as well as obsolete and antique instruments, not because they have any capacity to sound, but because they embody the memory of the music they used to make. Perhaps all these strange and beautiful objects collected Judith Wright, rather than the other way round, as objects with a rich past tend to do. For, serendipitously, when she came to make A wake she found she already had many of the materials she needed, so that she now could, as the mother-impresario, present a celebratory event to remember her daughter and give her the appropriate last rites.

Despite the imposing presence of the performers in A wake, their shadows are their better selves. Wright says it was ‘the power of the shadow to conjure absence’ that directed her to make A wake. Note, too, that Wright never represents her daughter: she cannot — she is no longer here. Rather, she conjures her presence through meditating on her absence, on her shadow across Wright’s life. This reminds us that the ancient Greeks associated shadows with a person’s soul, a ‘living double, a surrogate’, as the art historian Victor Stoichita eloquently puts it in his beautiful exposition of the importance of shadows in the strand of Western art that is magical, rather than naturalistic, in its origins.7 The same holds true of Wright’s silent energetic musicians: the shadows of these performers is the soul of their music.

Finally, the title: A wake. Think of what the word means in the context of saying farewell to someone at the end of their life: it asserts the continuation of wakefulness, even watchfulness, for those of us who remain behind to remember the dead. To be awake to their memory is our duty, as it is the only way left to give life to those who are departed. Her daughter is the fugitive presence that marks Wright’s life and her art: her absence is everywhere — and nowhere. Judith Wright is completely aware that in European fable a woman presided over the birth of images. Shades, an old word for the departed, suggest that the dead persist in our memories and lives as fleeting shadows: we glimpse them only out of the corner of our eye. And we give them due ceremony.

Julie Ewington

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Essay by Michael Wardell

Judith Wright: An Alchemical Journey

Judith Wright, a dancer with the Australian Ballet from 1966 to 1970, learnt at an early age both the limitations of the human body and its ability to express emotions through the abstracted language of gesture. However, if classical ballet is akin to expressionist painting, Wright’s works are more akin to modern dance and particularly the Japanese influences of Noh theatre and the post-war Butoh dance. This is most evident in her film work where movement is slow and the play of light and shadow is as integral to the work as the human body. These works do not give instant gratification but rather reward a slower, meditative approach. They are concerned with those subjects that enter your consciousness when you slow the chatter in your brain and reflect on more essential matters such as life, death, memory and relationships.

The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca spoke about the Andalusian duende, the primal force that derives from deep inside the body and is conveyed directly to others through paintings, music or poetry. Judith Wright’s paintings are touched by duende, communicating directly to the subconscious with a force that is both frightening and exhilarating.

The earlier black paintings are brooding, melancholic works that effect you subliminally, triggering your own memories and hidden feelings. Sheets of Japanese paper hang frameless on the wall or are bound between heavy wooden covers as books on the floor. The paper is impregnated with wax and dark acrylic paint, forming abstracted shapes that suggest human heads or bodies but are distorted like shadows warped by an oblique source of light. All the works are square, a universal symbol of the ideal human body, and the larger works hang low on the wall so that the viewer is enveloped by their skin-like surfaces.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the ancient traditions of alchemy as a metaphor for the realisation of the self, seeing the three stages of alchemical transmutation as a map defining the psychological path from confusion to self-awareness. The first stage, Nigredo or blackening, is a coming to terms with feelings of guilt, worthlessness and powerlessness, the ‘dark shadow’ aspects of the self. It is a cathartic dwelling on the darker, melancholic aspects of yourself and facing them enables you to move on.

The second stage is the Albedo or whitening, ruled by the white feminine light of the moon. In psychology, it constitutes an awakening, but is still tainted by idealism and contradiction. In 2001, Judith Wright started a new series of white paintings called Blind of Sight. The subtle white-on-white images derive from stills from her film showing a close-up of a baby’s face suckling a woman’s breast. Despite the subject, the resulting images never appear sentimental or saccharin as Wright beautifully balances the conflicting emotions in the joy of natural innocence beheld and the memory of her own baby daughter who died soon after birth thirty years earlier.

The final stage of the alchemical opus is the Rubedo or reddening. This stage is the marriage of opposites, the Queen/Moon with the King/Sun, to achieve the goal of the lapis philosophorum, or in psychology, the re-awakened self-awareness. The opus now complete, the individual can go on to examine their relationships with others. Judith Wright’s red paintings such as Relative Conversations (2005) and her more recent films are concerned with the part of the self that is influenced by others – parents, siblings, children and lovers. The various mannequins in her films are those forces from outside relationships that we carry with us affecting our lives, be they a burden to carry or a sweet memory to cherish.

First published by Mackay Artspace for the exhibition ‘Judith Wright: Breath and other consideration’

Michael Wardell

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Essay by Jason Smith

Judith Wright

For the past decade Judith Wright has produced video works and paintings that mesmerize the viewer and absorb them into spaces of quiet, emotional intensity. Her subjects generally are personal and everyday activities and situations: breathing, looking, sleeping, dancing, breastfeeding. Her works transcend, however, their origin in feminine experience and have a communicative power across genders and generations. In the materially, spatially and temporally disparate mediums of video and painting, Wright’s practice is unified through its focus on minimalism, visual and performative restraint and understatement. In contrast to the reflection of a chaotic world in so much contemporary video, the serene pace of Wright’s videos draws the viewer into enigmatic scenarios that register immediately as deeply intimate and perhaps autobiographical, and profoundly evocative of basic human conditions and needs.

The video works One dances, 2003, Conversations with the mother, 2004, and Conversations with the father, 2006, are interconnected visually and conceptually through, as Wright has stated, their juxtaposition of ‘the real with the handmade, the animate with the inanimate, and an insistence on the communicative power of the performative body with the use of light’.

Before committing herself to a visual art practice, Wright was a dancer with the Australian Ballet, and it is the certain disciplines required of the performing body and a sensitivity to the exactitudes of composure and composition in classical dance that provide foundations for Wright’s art.

A study of the contours of the bodies in Wright’s video works, particularly the linear abstraction that results from close-up images of a face against a mannequin, dancing feet against a floor, the play of shadows and their distortion of the body across a surface, are the point of access into the abstract visual structure of the large-scale paintings that accompany the video works. The time-based space of video and the static space of the painted surface are distinct yet integrally connected in Wright’s practice. It is in the human scale of her painted works, and in their varying density and saturation of colour that Wright focuses attention on the potential of light and its modulation to establish ethereal or deep void-like spaces into which the viewer can be absorbed.

Wright’s video works construct and animate spaces that oscillate between reality and abstraction. Conversations with the father is an unsettling and achingly poignant video work. It is one of the several films in which Wright’s son Luke collaborates as a performer. We see in this slowly paced work the young man in an intimate embrace with a headless dressmaker’s mannequin. For most of the time we see his pairing with the mannequin – the embodiment of the father – in extreme close up, our focus drawn to the young man’s face and bare torso and his embrace. As he holds and turns the father/ mannequin it creaks with age and disuse in stark contrast to the vitality and understated eroticism of the youthful body. The diffuse light in which Wright has shot Conversations with the father contributes to its evocation of interiority, desire and a nebulous space between the dream and the real. But it is the sense of longing conveyed by the young man that is so overwhelming in this work – resting his lips and face against the mannequin, committing to or recalling from memory the potency of this or another encounter, the tenderness of his caress of the father. As Blair French has noted, in Wright’s hands ‘video becomes a medium not simply for the representation of the embodied subject, but a means by which to conduct the most tender of conversations’.

‘Judith Wright’ first published in exhibition catalogue by Jason Smith Curator of Contemporary Art
2006 Clemenqer Contemporary Art Award National Gallery of Victoria
Grant Pirie 2006

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Essay by Candice Bruce

In Praise of Darkness: Life and Death in the work of Judith Wright

Judith Wright has long been interested in the grand themes of art – Birth, Death, Love, Pain – the essential qualities that define the human condition; our humaneness, rather than our humanity, for there is a distinction, even if it is one often not made today. For humaneness concerns itself with mercy and compassion, it recognises the core of fragility in all people and makes a plea for benevolence.

For me, it is this that makes Wright’s work so compelling. In a world of increasing violence and anarchy, where so much death is random and senseless, where survival – whether physical or emotional (or even, perhaps especially, political) – makes people step over one another without even a backward glance, her work compels us to acknowledge we are more than just this. It is our relationship to others that defines who we are, a subject that has interested her in all her previous work, beginning back in 1991 with Uncovered Language. Wright has continued to wrestle with the unspoken side of language – the means we use to communicate when we do not use the spoken word – the silences, the looks, the gestures, the sighs. She describes the spaces in between these as if they are the empty spaces between words. The blank stare of shock, the moment before the unshed tear, the gasp of a realisation, the distance between a hand and the untouched arm, the bruise that forms in the pause afterwards, the ghost of silent memory.

They are moments of almost excruciating tenderness, of almost exquisite pain, told in the simplest of forms and united in a series of individual works that form a continuous narrative. They haunt us with their pure evanescence – a breath, a cell, a flake of skin, a hair – both too slight and too vast to ever be a particular head – always slipping away from us with a familiar shadow, with a trace of something unknown and unknowable.

Wright mines her own life and experiences, her own physical and emotional terrains, in the same way that a poet does – the feelings she conjures are searing in their intensity; the language is sparse, restricted, exact.

While never easy, in recent exhibitions her work has gone even deeper into the dark abyss. I would like to recall two exhibitions in particular that I think are most pertinent, before discussing this current body of work.

In Blind of Sight (2001), based on the death of her baby daughter decades before, and her subsequent unexpressed (and disallowed) grief, her parched works on paper sat pinned to the wall like pieces of flayed skin. Taking still images from her video of a mother suckling a baby, she simplified the forms until they became like unfertilised ovum in the womb – back and back through time, back through birth, back even before conception, until the baby became a pulse in the mother’s heart. That is where the grief was located and where the child lay buried, a thought so sad it could have become, in less experienced hands, overwhelming. The works, however, float like a baby’s breath and seem to tap some universal space between grief and joy, love and sorrow, a delicate counterbalancing of one on another.

Two years later in One Dances (2003) Wright drew once again upon her early and formative experience as a dancer with the Australian Ballet, though it is not the dance itself that fascinates her but the dance of life, both the video and still images drawing the viewer into a mesmeric spell in which ordinary time and space are collapsed. In one of the videos for this sequence, the line is blurred between the live body of the youth (performed by the artist’s youngest son), his pale skin shining out luminously against a dark background, and the coffee-coloured wood of the life-size marionette with whom he dances. We watch with expectation, for the vision defies reality. We know it is a doll but we still wait for it to speak. They move eerily, the boy and the marionette, in a frozen embrace; their shadows, bent by the light, blend into one black form which casts itself on the fragile membrane of white paper, both alone and connected.

For this current exhibition, In Praise of Darkness: Conversations with the Father, there are two videos – conversations with the mother and conversations with the father – in which the real and the surreal are juxtaposed once again. In the first, the camera opens on a close-up of the white-grey hair of the son (bizarrely similar to the artist’s own distinctive grey hair). The camera shifts then to the face of a doll – a living, breathing doll – whose exhalations are both fascinating and repellent. The mouth opens to display a set of perfect teeth, while the eyes, curiously hairless, remain closed. The boy is asleep on a pillow, and we watch while he wakens, a slight smile forming around his mouth. For the next few minutes nothing, and everything, happens, while a clock ticks faintly in the distance. It is what every mother does at some stage to her child. We stare in awe at the life we have borne, at the sheer enormity of what has been created, at the person the child has become.

There is no need for conversation, for everything is understood.

In the second video, Conversations with the Father, a boy’s hand reaches out and takes the wooden hand of a doll, its articulated fingers held together with iron nails. When the camera pulls back to reveal the fair shining hair of the youth, the effect is immediate and shocking. For here, the doll is revealed as a dressmaker’s dummy, with a carved wooden knot for a head and a truncated torso that finishes at the waist. The camera pulls back again to reveal them standing in a strange room of polished chrome and mirrors and we watch as the boy leans against the back of the dummy’s torso. It is a moment filled with almost unbearable yearning, a scene of heartache and longing, of a desire for connection that can only end in disappointment.

As before, Wright has painted a series of works on paper Relative Conversations, that, while they compliment the videos, also can be viewed quite separately. For these she has used various shades of red and black, departing from her usually muted tones of white, brown and black, to literally paint the visceral. She has gone to the innermost depths, to blood and tissue, to nerves and intestines, to the deepest, darkest recesses of the body and the mind. It is as if we have travelled down an artery through to a beating heart and look out to the world from inside this red pulsating organ.

And here is the nub, for it would be a mistake to think that the artist’s work is only about the fragility of life. There is also resilience in these works. Robustness. Survival.

There is Death, but there is also Life.

Dr Candice Bruce is a Sydney art historian and writer.

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Essay by Jonathan Goodman

Judith Wright: Color’s Gift

In the spring of 2005 Judith Wright spent several weeks in New York, staying at the Australian government’s studio in the downtown neighborhood of Soho. In the works that I saw in New York, she devoted herself to a suite of canvases painted a matte deep red, with the slightest suggestion of form indicated by a shadow that seems to hang over or become part of the composition itself. Wright is a psychological experimenter, someone given to the elucidation of basic, indeed primal, states of mind; her canvases in their current state effect a dialogue with the color field painting of the New York School, whose influence Wright does not actively so much acknowledge–that is, submit to–as internalize as a private vernacular.

In fact, these works of art reflect and refract color as though it were a physical object, something one might dive into so as to experience the sensuousness of hue alone. The large size of these paintings only intensify the eloquence they bring to the viewer, who watches and waits for something to break free of the heavily sublimated reddish tones confronting him. As in Blind of Sight, a video in which the artist invests her interest in the soft, utterly feminine focus of a woman suckling her child, the untitled paintings appear to lap up light, constructing a surface that absorbs the illuminated space around them. Wright readily uses her art making for the building of metaphor, seeing in primal colors and primary situations an opening for matters of the spirit, a kind of architecture of intimacy. She refers to the idyllic but not necessarily normative world of physical experience, in which pleasure exists in both the actuality of the feeding and the gaze of the audience watching the film’s sequence.

Perhaps Wright is most intent on singling out the vulnerability of things made radiant by the passage of time–or, rather, the intensification of the contact and change time is capable of rendering. It seems to me that her art is oriented toward the mystery of things, the way the world seems to happen even when nothing in particular is going on. In One Dances, Wright’s adult son minimally interacts with a wooden mannequin, holding it and staring at a face that cannot possibly respond to the quizzical gaze it has submitted to. The parable is as far away from Blind of Sight as another work of art can be: Wright’s drama of noncontact in One Dances contrasts sublimely with the child suckling by underscoring just how tentative adult avenues of communication can be. One poses to deny meaningfulness just as one evades theater (in Blind of Sight) by emphasizing the blind beauty of accepted action, in which the reflex of the baby becomes a pseudonym for a unified state many struggle toward but cannot achieve in adult life.

The paintings may be seen, then, as backdrops for meditative considerations of human activities, giving us their warm tones so that we can imagine connections between people and things. Wright is deeply concerned with the conversations people are capable of, in both an abstract and personal sense, and her art drives forward her belief that meaning originates from a perspective that refuses to be distorted by commercialism or self-absorption, those qualities that seem to mirror each other in much of art being made at this point in time. Indeed, there is something profoundly antimaterialist in Wright’s art, which emphasizes holistic touch and existence in the face of a merely narcissistic acceptance of the way things are. Her struggle, then, becomes an open conflict intended to demonstrate insight and beauty in the face of what has now become a world culture devoted to a very different kind of pleasure than the closeness of a mother suckling her child. It becomes clear that there is in Wright’s art a deep-seated resistance to the facile, the idea that art is merely an entertainment. The flat red paintings of her stay in New York accommodate art history–as I have said, they throw a nod in the direction of the New York School–but they are also wonderfully personal interpretations of raw color, in which pleasure is made distant by the artist’s integrity, her abstract refusal to give us a figurative image, which would assuage our anxieties about the content of the art before us.

Abstraction’s refusal to specify, its ability to favor the contemplative, is deftly contrasted with the familial emotion seen in Blind of Sight and the idiosyncratic stalemate between Wright’s son and the mannequin he holds in an unapologetically ironic approximation of closeness. Both videos entertain the idea that meaning is composed of physical closeness, while the set of paintings Wright produced in America distance the relationship of the audience to color, giving us a scene in which depth becomes a matter of refusing to identify form as the most important bearer of ideas. So far as I can see, these paintings are not meant to get lost in; instead, they are avenues in which one proposes the kind of understanding that is brought about by the heightened awareness of color. It is interesting to note that the language Wright uses–color as abstract field–has become more or less international in its development and implications, this despite the rather awkward and territorial attempt of New York culture to define modern painting at its height as the achievement of its abstraction alone. While it is true that a certain abstraction did originate and rise to remarkable heights in New York City, such works as a movement are now some fifty years old, leaving the process open–we might say vulnerable–to interpretation by artists from all over the world.

Wright is an artist who both reveals and conceals, trusts and tricks her audience. The relationship between her varied accomplishments lead to active consideration of the ties between representation and abstraction, closeness and distance. The connections are not always spelled out, which is a good thing given the fact that Wright is interested in generating a tissue of meaning joining disparate elements and imageries. Art, which yields remarkable meaning but which cannot double as a purely religious content, receives a treatment here that sympathizes with spiritual intensity even as it offers the alternative of physical pleasure based on an intimacy of support and nurturing. So it happens that we cannot easily take on the implied commitments of the artist’s work, primarily because they are spelled out as absolutes, in an idiom that refuses to relieve us of our own involvement. Wright presents an attitude as much as an imagery leading to the serious reading of what we mean to ourselves, helped by the honesty of her works of art. In consequence, we are made richer, indeed wiser, by our slightly bemused response to her beliefs, which demand spiritual wisdom as much as physiological sight.

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a poet and critic who writes for Art and America, Sculpture, and Yishu (a magazine devoted to the study of contemporary Chinese art). He lives and works in New York City, and also teaches at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.

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