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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

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Essay by Jason Smith

Judith Wright

For the past decade Judith Wright has produced video works and paintings that mesmerize the viewer and absorb them into spaces of quiet, emotional intensity. Her subjects generally are personal and everyday activities and situations: breathing, looking, sleeping, dancing, breastfeeding. Her works transcend, however, their origin in feminine experience and have a communicative power across genders and generations. In the materially, spatially and temporally disparate mediums of video and painting, Wright’s practice is unified through its focus on minimalism, visual and performative restraint and understatement. In contrast to the reflection of a chaotic world in so much contemporary video, the serene pace of Wright’s videos draws the viewer into enigmatic scenarios that register immediately as deeply intimate and perhaps autobiographical, and profoundly evocative of basic human conditions and needs.

The video works One dances, 2003, Conversations with the mother, 2004, and Conversations with the father, 2006, are interconnected visually and conceptually through, as Wright has stated, their juxtaposition of ‘the real with the handmade, the animate with the inanimate, and an insistence on the communicative power of the performative body with the use of light’.

Before committing herself to a visual art practice, Wright was a dancer with the Australian Ballet, and it is the certain disciplines required of the performing body and a sensitivity to the exactitudes of composure and composition in classical dance that provide foundations for Wright’s art.

A study of the contours of the bodies in Wright’s video works, particularly the linear abstraction that results from close-up images of a face against a mannequin, dancing feet against a floor, the play of shadows and their distortion of the body across a surface, are the point of access into the abstract visual structure of the large-scale paintings that accompany the video works. The time-based space of video and the static space of the painted surface are distinct yet integrally connected in Wright’s practice. It is in the human scale of her painted works, and in their varying density and saturation of colour that Wright focuses attention on the potential of light and its modulation to establish ethereal or deep void-like spaces into which the viewer can be absorbed.

Wright’s video works construct and animate spaces that oscillate between reality and abstraction. Conversations with the father is an unsettling and achingly poignant video work. It is one of the several films in which Wright’s son Luke collaborates as a performer. We see in this slowly paced work the young man in an intimate embrace with a headless dressmaker’s mannequin. For most of the time we see his pairing with the mannequin – the embodiment of the father – in extreme close up, our focus drawn to the young man’s face and bare torso and his embrace. As he holds and turns the father/ mannequin it creaks with age and disuse in stark contrast to the vitality and understated eroticism of the youthful body. The diffuse light in which Wright has shot Conversations with the father contributes to its evocation of interiority, desire and a nebulous space between the dream and the real. But it is the sense of longing conveyed by the young man that is so overwhelming in this work – resting his lips and face against the mannequin, committing to or recalling from memory the potency of this or another encounter, the tenderness of his caress of the father. As Blair French has noted, in Wright’s hands ‘video becomes a medium not simply for the representation of the embodied subject, but a means by which to conduct the most tender of conversations’.

‘Judith Wright’ first published in exhibition catalogue by Jason Smith Curator of Contemporary Art
2006 Clemenqer Contemporary Art Award National Gallery of Victoria
Grant Pirie 2006

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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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