A sensual aesthetic: the art of Judith Wright

The substance of Judith Wright’s art practice is to be found not only within the individual elements that constitute her work, but between them. A distinctive aesthetic governs their creation and selection, their placement and presentation. Refined and spare yet rich with patina and history, the drawings, books, found objects and, more recently, films are arranged and presented in a carefully calibrated environment. However the visual experience is not an end in itself but rather contributes toward the creation of a felt aesthetic.

The body is central although always obliquely so. In many works the structural configuration of the installations involves the physical movement of the viewer between and among elements, within controlled lighting and atmosphere. This compositional device has been compared to a stage, calling on Wright’s previous career as a classical dancer. In this construction the viewer is placed in the position of the performer, yet the result is not outwardly performative. An atmosphere of stillness and quiet, darkness or obscurity -whether in filmed or drawn images – has the effect of turning the viewer’s focus inwards towards contemplation, interior sensation or the experience of memory.

Characteristic of Wright’s oeuvre, Journeying (2002) combines the diverse media of film and painting. The configuration of the installation proscribes the movement of the viewer into an enclosed space and back out: from the immersive sound and light experience of the video installation Inferno to the physicality and silence of the worked and painted surfaces of the Flight paintings. Contained within this division is the germ of other journeys that inform and weave through the work.

One source from which the work departs is the poetic narrative by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy. Wright’s video traces Inferno, the first part of this allegorical voyage towards God which takes the poet through the great circles of Hell, physically located within the bowels of the earth, and back out into the light.

Awareness of the body in Wright’s work is not limited to the viewer’s movement. Throughout her work fragmentary images of human shape on film, and abstractions in drawings and books, serve to evoke sensation and touch. Substitutes for the body are common in installations in the form of bellows, shoe lasts, shop dummies and stools. Wright fills the filmic narrative of Inferno with inanimate figures drawn from diverse cultures. Introduced as characters during the initial prologue, their carved, impassive features are subsequently overlaid and interspersed with images of fire, water, snow, and earth, although few of air, which amplify rather than re-enact the narrative progression.

Just as the extremes of Inferno and Paradiso inform Dante’s narrative, so do the paintings of Flight present an alternative within Journeying. The abstracted forms allude to the angel wings in works by Renaissance painters Raphael and Fra Angelico. Facing the viewer on exiting the film, their layered and worked surfaces are evocative yet quiet and still. Journeying resonates between ascension and descent, yet within each there is interdependence. This movement is common to all journeys, not just physical but mental, emotional and spiritual.

Vivienne Webb