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.