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Essay by Candice Bruce

In Praise of Darkness: Life and Death in the work of Judith Wright

Judith Wright has long been interested in the grand themes of art – Birth, Death, Love, Pain – the essential qualities that define the human condition; our humaneness, rather than our humanity, for there is a distinction, even if it is one often not made today. For humaneness concerns itself with mercy and compassion, it recognises the core of fragility in all people and makes a plea for benevolence.

For me, it is this that makes Wright’s work so compelling. In a world of increasing violence and anarchy, where so much death is random and senseless, where survival – whether physical or emotional (or even, perhaps especially, political) – makes people step over one another without even a backward glance, her work compels us to acknowledge we are more than just this. It is our relationship to others that defines who we are, a subject that has interested her in all her previous work, beginning back in 1991 with Uncovered Language. Wright has continued to wrestle with the unspoken side of language – the means we use to communicate when we do not use the spoken word – the silences, the looks, the gestures, the sighs. She describes the spaces in between these as if they are the empty spaces between words. The blank stare of shock, the moment before the unshed tear, the gasp of a realisation, the distance between a hand and the untouched arm, the bruise that forms in the pause afterwards, the ghost of silent memory.

They are moments of almost excruciating tenderness, of almost exquisite pain, told in the simplest of forms and united in a series of individual works that form a continuous narrative. They haunt us with their pure evanescence – a breath, a cell, a flake of skin, a hair – both too slight and too vast to ever be a particular head – always slipping away from us with a familiar shadow, with a trace of something unknown and unknowable.

Wright mines her own life and experiences, her own physical and emotional terrains, in the same way that a poet does – the feelings she conjures are searing in their intensity; the language is sparse, restricted, exact.

While never easy, in recent exhibitions her work has gone even deeper into the dark abyss. I would like to recall two exhibitions in particular that I think are most pertinent, before discussing this current body of work.

In Blind of Sight (2001), based on the death of her baby daughter decades before, and her subsequent unexpressed (and disallowed) grief, her parched works on paper sat pinned to the wall like pieces of flayed skin. Taking still images from her video of a mother suckling a baby, she simplified the forms until they became like unfertilised ovum in the womb – back and back through time, back through birth, back even before conception, until the baby became a pulse in the mother’s heart. That is where the grief was located and where the child lay buried, a thought so sad it could have become, in less experienced hands, overwhelming. The works, however, float like a baby’s breath and seem to tap some universal space between grief and joy, love and sorrow, a delicate counterbalancing of one on another.

Two years later in One Dances (2003) Wright drew once again upon her early and formative experience as a dancer with the Australian Ballet, though it is not the dance itself that fascinates her but the dance of life, both the video and still images drawing the viewer into a mesmeric spell in which ordinary time and space are collapsed. In one of the videos for this sequence, the line is blurred between the live body of the youth (performed by the artist’s youngest son), his pale skin shining out luminously against a dark background, and the coffee-coloured wood of the life-size marionette with whom he dances. We watch with expectation, for the vision defies reality. We know it is a doll but we still wait for it to speak. They move eerily, the boy and the marionette, in a frozen embrace; their shadows, bent by the light, blend into one black form which casts itself on the fragile membrane of white paper, both alone and connected.

For this current exhibition, In Praise of Darkness: Conversations with the Father, there are two videos – conversations with the mother and conversations with the father – in which the real and the surreal are juxtaposed once again. In the first, the camera opens on a close-up of the white-grey hair of the son (bizarrely similar to the artist’s own distinctive grey hair). The camera shifts then to the face of a doll – a living, breathing doll – whose exhalations are both fascinating and repellent. The mouth opens to display a set of perfect teeth, while the eyes, curiously hairless, remain closed. The boy is asleep on a pillow, and we watch while he wakens, a slight smile forming around his mouth. For the next few minutes nothing, and everything, happens, while a clock ticks faintly in the distance. It is what every mother does at some stage to her child. We stare in awe at the life we have borne, at the sheer enormity of what has been created, at the person the child has become.

There is no need for conversation, for everything is understood.

In the second video, Conversations with the Father, a boy’s hand reaches out and takes the wooden hand of a doll, its articulated fingers held together with iron nails. When the camera pulls back to reveal the fair shining hair of the youth, the effect is immediate and shocking. For here, the doll is revealed as a dressmaker’s dummy, with a carved wooden knot for a head and a truncated torso that finishes at the waist. The camera pulls back again to reveal them standing in a strange room of polished chrome and mirrors and we watch as the boy leans against the back of the dummy’s torso. It is a moment filled with almost unbearable yearning, a scene of heartache and longing, of a desire for connection that can only end in disappointment.

As before, Wright has painted a series of works on paper Relative Conversations, that, while they compliment the videos, also can be viewed quite separately. For these she has used various shades of red and black, departing from her usually muted tones of white, brown and black, to literally paint the visceral. She has gone to the innermost depths, to blood and tissue, to nerves and intestines, to the deepest, darkest recesses of the body and the mind. It is as if we have travelled down an artery through to a beating heart and look out to the world from inside this red pulsating organ.

And here is the nub, for it would be a mistake to think that the artist’s work is only about the fragility of life. There is also resilience in these works. Robustness. Survival.

There is Death, but there is also Life.

Dr Candice Bruce is a Sydney art historian and writer.

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Essay by Jonathan Goodman

Judith Wright: Color’s Gift

In the spring of 2005 Judith Wright spent several weeks in New York, staying at the Australian government’s studio in the downtown neighborhood of Soho. In the works that I saw in New York, she devoted herself to a suite of canvases painted a matte deep red, with the slightest suggestion of form indicated by a shadow that seems to hang over or become part of the composition itself. Wright is a psychological experimenter, someone given to the elucidation of basic, indeed primal, states of mind; her canvases in their current state effect a dialogue with the color field painting of the New York School, whose influence Wright does not actively so much acknowledge–that is, submit to–as internalize as a private vernacular.

In fact, these works of art reflect and refract color as though it were a physical object, something one might dive into so as to experience the sensuousness of hue alone. The large size of these paintings only intensify the eloquence they bring to the viewer, who watches and waits for something to break free of the heavily sublimated reddish tones confronting him. As in Blind of Sight, a video in which the artist invests her interest in the soft, utterly feminine focus of a woman suckling her child, the untitled paintings appear to lap up light, constructing a surface that absorbs the illuminated space around them. Wright readily uses her art making for the building of metaphor, seeing in primal colors and primary situations an opening for matters of the spirit, a kind of architecture of intimacy. She refers to the idyllic but not necessarily normative world of physical experience, in which pleasure exists in both the actuality of the feeding and the gaze of the audience watching the film’s sequence.

Perhaps Wright is most intent on singling out the vulnerability of things made radiant by the passage of time–or, rather, the intensification of the contact and change time is capable of rendering. It seems to me that her art is oriented toward the mystery of things, the way the world seems to happen even when nothing in particular is going on. In One Dances, Wright’s adult son minimally interacts with a wooden mannequin, holding it and staring at a face that cannot possibly respond to the quizzical gaze it has submitted to. The parable is as far away from Blind of Sight as another work of art can be: Wright’s drama of noncontact in One Dances contrasts sublimely with the child suckling by underscoring just how tentative adult avenues of communication can be. One poses to deny meaningfulness just as one evades theater (in Blind of Sight) by emphasizing the blind beauty of accepted action, in which the reflex of the baby becomes a pseudonym for a unified state many struggle toward but cannot achieve in adult life.

The paintings may be seen, then, as backdrops for meditative considerations of human activities, giving us their warm tones so that we can imagine connections between people and things. Wright is deeply concerned with the conversations people are capable of, in both an abstract and personal sense, and her art drives forward her belief that meaning originates from a perspective that refuses to be distorted by commercialism or self-absorption, those qualities that seem to mirror each other in much of art being made at this point in time. Indeed, there is something profoundly antimaterialist in Wright’s art, which emphasizes holistic touch and existence in the face of a merely narcissistic acceptance of the way things are. Her struggle, then, becomes an open conflict intended to demonstrate insight and beauty in the face of what has now become a world culture devoted to a very different kind of pleasure than the closeness of a mother suckling her child. It becomes clear that there is in Wright’s art a deep-seated resistance to the facile, the idea that art is merely an entertainment. The flat red paintings of her stay in New York accommodate art history–as I have said, they throw a nod in the direction of the New York School–but they are also wonderfully personal interpretations of raw color, in which pleasure is made distant by the artist’s integrity, her abstract refusal to give us a figurative image, which would assuage our anxieties about the content of the art before us.

Abstraction’s refusal to specify, its ability to favor the contemplative, is deftly contrasted with the familial emotion seen in Blind of Sight and the idiosyncratic stalemate between Wright’s son and the mannequin he holds in an unapologetically ironic approximation of closeness. Both videos entertain the idea that meaning is composed of physical closeness, while the set of paintings Wright produced in America distance the relationship of the audience to color, giving us a scene in which depth becomes a matter of refusing to identify form as the most important bearer of ideas. So far as I can see, these paintings are not meant to get lost in; instead, they are avenues in which one proposes the kind of understanding that is brought about by the heightened awareness of color. It is interesting to note that the language Wright uses–color as abstract field–has become more or less international in its development and implications, this despite the rather awkward and territorial attempt of New York culture to define modern painting at its height as the achievement of its abstraction alone. While it is true that a certain abstraction did originate and rise to remarkable heights in New York City, such works as a movement are now some fifty years old, leaving the process open–we might say vulnerable–to interpretation by artists from all over the world.

Wright is an artist who both reveals and conceals, trusts and tricks her audience. The relationship between her varied accomplishments lead to active consideration of the ties between representation and abstraction, closeness and distance. The connections are not always spelled out, which is a good thing given the fact that Wright is interested in generating a tissue of meaning joining disparate elements and imageries. Art, which yields remarkable meaning but which cannot double as a purely religious content, receives a treatment here that sympathizes with spiritual intensity even as it offers the alternative of physical pleasure based on an intimacy of support and nurturing. So it happens that we cannot easily take on the implied commitments of the artist’s work, primarily because they are spelled out as absolutes, in an idiom that refuses to relieve us of our own involvement. Wright presents an attitude as much as an imagery leading to the serious reading of what we mean to ourselves, helped by the honesty of her works of art. In consequence, we are made richer, indeed wiser, by our slightly bemused response to her beliefs, which demand spiritual wisdom as much as physiological sight.

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a poet and critic who writes for Art and America, Sculpture, and Yishu (a magazine devoted to the study of contemporary Chinese art). He lives and works in New York City, and also teaches at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.

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Essay by Anne Kirker

COUPLING: responding to recent work of Judith Wright

Enter through a black mesh screen into the first space. Stand on the polished cement floor and gaze around at white walls hung with large framed drawings. After a while, walk to an adjacent room, darkened, sit on a low bench and look at the projection of two moving figures. One Dances: this is how this combined experience is introduced. The title is written on the entrance door of an inner city gallery in Sydney, Grantpirrie. This is Judith Wright’s 2004 exhibition with the gallery and her most personal and risky to date.

It follows a number of other projects where her film work has been combined with highly tactile abstract paintings on paper. For instance, in 2002 the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane showed a suckling infant close up on video, round the corner from a large room hung with big skin-like sheets of paper carrying brown-toned shapes. Both were informal, intimate components of a larger installation by the artist she called Blind of Sight. The dialogue had commenced between the handmade object and the moving image, between seemingly irreconcilable media with completely different histories.

What could be more challenging than to achieve a meaningful synchronicity between a series of simple abstract forms on textured paper and the shifting images of a video made in real time? Yet Judith has done it superbly here in Sydney for a month, from March into April. We know that the artist has a background in professional ballet, that she was a relative late comer to the visual arts and that from the late 1980s her career has grown incrementally to the point that Judith Wright’s name is recognised as belonging to one of Australia’s most distinguished mid-career artists. She was included in Australian Perspecta 1989, 1997 and 1999, in New Painting in Australia 1, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2001 and in Meridian: Currents in Australian Art 2002 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

The sombre drawings came first, pinned to the height of a standing person. For several years (up to the mid nineties) they were heavy with pigment and were sometimes made into large floor-based books with minimal text. The words were an echo of, or a cue, into the tonally nuanced sheets bound with them. Sometimes, found objects came into the equation, like an old horn, perhaps to propose sound, or a miniature cloth mannequin theatrically lit. Everything was suggested, never explained. Judith’s work could be seen in prestigious State galleries, in alternative art spaces or disused warehouses just as much as in the saleable context of her agent’s premises. The drawings became less dense, more open, with forms resembling sepia shadows on crinkled warm white sheets: visceral, ephemeral, a reconciled duality. This is how they were in One Dances.

On visiting Grantpirrie for this exhibition, I had already been to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see the Man Ray photography exhibition and a touring show of Rover Thomas paintings from the Holmes à Court Collection. Hence the memory of them was very fresh. The surrealist’s treatment of light and ambiguous juxtapositions of figures from his Erotique voilée series of 1933, and the Aboriginal master’s earth pigments and biomorphic forms in intimate relationship to a specific landscape seemed to be highly appropriate when viewing Judith’s recent work. The timing of all three shows could not have been better. The point is that while the Queenslander’s art is independent of close comparisons with the practice of other artists, there are commonalities which enrich our understanding of it. Man Ray’s use of light and shadow as mutually significant components for his imagery, his implied but never overtly explained narratives in the series of 1933, the tension he sets up between the mechanical form and the living human body: these are all attributes of the film in Judith’s One Dances. Similarly, Thomas’ palette and his corporeal shapes for explaining the topography of the East Kimberley region are somehow akin to her drawings.

The video has “coupling”, or doubling if you like, as a central theme and the drawings next door resonate closely with it. The young man dancing slowly with a sweet-faced antique mannequin is surreal, macabre and deeply unsettling. Something unfathomable is going on. This mysterious unison between the animate and the inanimate, between flesh and wood with metal is surely a dance macabre about life confronting death? Is it also too connected to the psychological trauma of male and female relationships that Edvard Munch portrayed in his paintings and prints early last century? As I watched the film from its beginning with the two heads in close engagement, the video camera shifted backwards to show the youth gently moving his partner in a slow exploratory waltz. There was tenderness and compassion. It was clear that for all the protagonists in this scenario: the actor, his mother the filmmaker and the female effigy, no set explanation could or should be given. Some meanings are best withheld. They are merely indicated by the exquisitely restrained overlapping forms of the drawings hung next door. Pinned at the corners to backboards within deep set frames, these visceral, physical statements are firmly of this world, yet the painted shapes the sheets convey reiterate the shadows of the dancing pair.

Anne Kirker, Senior Curator (Special Projects), Queensland Art Gallery

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

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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

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Essay Suhanya Raffel

One Dances

In a hospital room, a woman gives birth to a perfect baby girl. Her life is not a long one, measured only in days. She continues to be a part of her mother, as do all her children, and exists for her mother regardless of the fact of her sudden death. Her mother is not allowed the time to mourn, to mark her arrival and passing. The child’s tiny body is taken away from her mother, quickly, and buried.

The journey of rediscovering what happened to this child’s body is a whole other story. It takes her mother thirty years to seek out the plot of land in which she was laid. It is a place that is shared by one other who was also a baby girl when she died in 1919, fifty-three years before her. Her mother now knows where this piece of earth is. *Judith Wright was a dancer in the Australian Ballet before she dedicated herself to being a visual artist. This earlier discipline provided her with an acute sensitivity to engaging movement as an integrated part of a visual practice. Her painted books are made so large that to see the drawings on each page necessitates the drama of a grand gesture. You lean into the book and move your arm across an arc of space as you turn each page. The books themselves are of abstracted images of faces and bodies pared back to elemental form. These drawings are made using thin hand-made Japanese paper, saturated with wax to make the paper tougher and to accentuate the inherent transparent qualities. Wright paints on them using acrylics, and occasionally also bitumen. On first opening these great big books you see the drawings stacked together, the translucence of the paper revealing the blurred shapes beneath, as though the images are touching and then separating as the pages are turned. A certain intimacy is revealed.

Wright also makes large painted drawings that are pinned to the wall. The scale is such that they vibrate with subtle movement when looking at them. The movement of approach makes the drawings ripple, responding to the shift in the air. They breathe in tandem to this movement, a tiny animation in the otherwise still experience of looking.

More recently, in the past ten years, Wright’s painted drawings have transpired through her video works. The relationship between how one sustains a related integrated, practice in both drawings and moving images is not necessarily obvious. Yet Wright belongs to a select group of contemporary artists who are committed to exploring this potential. William Kentridge and Nalini Malani are two others who come to mind. Each of these artists has developed intertwining practices in which drawing and moving images are vital. For Wright, an obvious first correspondence is through her interest in performance, but more profoundly, acknowledging that life requires breath and registers as movement. Video gives her the potential to capture the time-based nature of movement. Nearly all her video works seek out personal day to day, often intimate, activities – bathing, swimming, breast feeding, dancing. When looking at Wright’s work, one way of considering this relationship between drawing and video, is how both groups of work articulate aspects of movement as kinds of light. Video and film register gradations of light, degrees of exposure on objects to make form. The abstractions that Wright arrives at in her drawings are distilled shapes of parts of the body, broad surfaces in which the detail has fallen away to form singular contours through their extreme exposure to light. In her ‘Blind of sight’ 2001-02 series of works, which includes video projections and drawings, the latter are elegant minimalist expressions of white light on a whitened face.

‘One dances’ takes on at least three forms, as a colour video, a black and white film and as a set of three drawings. The opening shot in the video is of a shadow cast across the floor. It takes a minute before it coalesces to form into the back of a young man holding to his body the stiff limbs of a reticulated life size wooden doll. This heavy object is awkward to hold and the dance is slow and melancholic. The video is made up of five sequences, each of them a single take. The lighting adds to the sense of drama and staging, as a single spotlight casts deep shadows while lighting up the gleam of eyelash, the fine fur of hair on a cheek and the smooth glow of painted wood. The first take is of the shadow on the floor and the second is an extreme close up of the two faces of the dancing couple. The third moves to their feet and the fourth is a mid shot of the two torsos. The final take is the full length of the two bodies with the video ending as the young man walks out of the frame, carrying the doll, to leave the circle of light. Although the video work is in colour, the lighting of the dancing man and his marionette partner is such that it is the play of light and shadow that is remembered. Sound is literal, with the drag of the doll’s wooden feet on the floor or the slap of her wooden hand as it falls against her thigh. The two figures are bathed in the spotlight so that they cast shadows on each other, walking, dancing, in and out of light and darkness. In watching the work, it dawns on the viewer that the dance is not only between the two figures in the spotlight, but also includes the holder of the camera. Often the movement is the camera responding to the two figures, creating a dance that acknowledges this third presence.

In a number of Wright’s video and film works the artist collaborates with her sons. They frequently perform in them or work behind the camera with Wright. The young man who dances with the marionette in ‘One dances’ is the artist’s youngest son while her second son is the cinematographer with Wright. In many of the works that Wright has done with her children, their presence on the screen is marked by the way light saturates their forms. Often the images focus on fragments of their bodies that glow with the warmth of light and life. In the moving images of ‘One dances’ this aspect of her film work is most intense. The camera joyously records how the light picks up the fine face in profile, the lithe shape of a back, the modeling of feet in contrast to the skeletal body of the marionette.

The choreography in ‘One dances’ is very minimal. Wright has chosen the most intimate of dance forms – the simple embrace of two figures. This concentration of gesture belies the impetus of its making. ‘One dances’ came to Wright at the culmination of her thirty-year search for the body of her deceased daughter. In this work, the light is not diffuse. It is a focussed, single spot that enfolds the two figures. The marionette is held most obviously by the young man but also by the beam of light and the camera in a three-fold embrace, paralleling the experience of the dance. Light and shadow form the rhythm in which they perform. The beckoning of this other child wells through the work in the entangled patterns of light. *When light is lost, life is lost.

Suhanya Raffel, September 2003

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