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