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