Essay by Russell Storer

Judith Wright – One Dances (Grantpirrie, Sydney)

At the heart of Judith Wright’s exhibition One Dances is a palpable sense of loss. As Suhanya Raffel explains in her catalogue essay, the loss of a child thirty years ago, and the recent locating of the gravesite, have inspired Wright to produce this body of work, which incorporates a video, a series of drawings, an artist’s book and several photographs. The play between mediums highlights aspects of each – the video work becomes a study in light and shade, while the abstract drawings spark with figurative allusions. Linking it all together are the acts of a body in motion, captured on video, painting onto paper, turning the pages of a book. Wright’s work consistently evokes the body, both present and absent, and here the absence is deeply personal, a quiet lament for time passing and life lost.

In the front gallery space, five drawings were installed around the room, featuring abstracted forms painted in white, black and deep brown on Wright’s signature waxed Japanese paper, each surface crinkled and veined like skin. Abstracted from elements featured in the video component, the forms loom ominously from one side of the frame to the other, some overlapping, others crisp and clear. In contrast to the soft, ethereal white-on-whiteness of Wright’s recent drawing series Blind of Sight (2001) and Flight (2002), these works are occupied with inky shadows, with hard, sharp delineations, creating high-contrast figure/ground relationships. At times the shapes recall the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Morris Louis or Franz Kline, compounded by their large scale, yet Wright’s forms are always tightly controlled, their textures layered and worked back, their outlines deliberate.

The starkness of these works is emphasised by their being framed behind glass. Wright’s installations generally feature drawings pinned the wall, so that they hang loosely and move gently with the air, responding to the movement of bodies through the space. Particularly with the white-on-white drawings, it is also difficult to see their edges, as they bleed out from the paper onto the wall. Here, however, they lie still, and the frames provide clear boundaries: the viewer, rather than shifting the paper with their presence, is reflected in the glass. Wright’s drawings are often produced at the same scale as the human body and hung low to the floor, creating a sensation of stepping into the work; this is still the case, yet our passage through is halted.

This sense of gentle distancing continues through to the video work, projected small in the second space. It is structured in five single-take sections, and with each take, the camera gradually moves outward from the subjects and then away. The narrative is simple: a young man dances with an articulated, life-sized wooden marionette within the glow of a spotlight (the source of the strong shadows in the drawings). It is one of the most linear of Wright’s videos, which tend to be fragmented collages of imagery, at times accompanied by jittery avant-garde music. The pace in One dances is slow and careful, with the only sound being the tap of the doll on the floor and the distant hum of traffic. The man struggles slightly with the unyielding awkwardness of his partner, but overall the work is a series of elegant gestural studies, a process of negotiation between animate and inanimate, as well as an element of the danse macabre, a reminder of the transience of youth, and of life.

As in all of Wright’s videos, there is a sensual emphasis on the body, with a focus on the young man’s form and its details: a lick of hair, stubble, eyelashes, the ridges of an ear. The colours are muted, with the soft bloom of the man’s skin set against the blackness of the background. Assisted by the intensity of the spotlight, youth and life radiate from his body, while the skeletal, impassive marionette reflects and absorbs light. The doll is also the worse for wear, with the wood aged and split and its paint chipped. It has a history, and its round, Victorian face gives the film its timeless quality, at odds with the contemporary look of the young man.

Such jarring contrasts between wood and flesh, dark and light, old and new, stiffness and movement, as the two bodies embrace in their intimate dance, are brought into harmony through Wright’s graceful visual poetry. There is something almost Daoist in her approach, emphasising that one cannot exist without the other. The young man (played by one of Wright’s sons), stares intently into the face of the doll, accepting, perhaps, or unafraid. There can be no light without darkness, and to live is to dance with death.

Russell Storer, 2004

First published in Eyeline, Brisbane, no.54: Winter