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