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