Saturday 30 November 2019

People in place: Stitchers in Wagga Wagga

At the end of November 2007 I visited Melbourne in the state of Victoria to attend a Jane Austen conference. In the southern capital I stayed in the Parkville Motel, near the centre of town.

The conference was on at Latrobe University over a few days including 28 November, and when it was over I drove north, heading home to Sydney and stopping off in Wagga Wagga, in the state of New South Wales. This was on 2 December. I met with Faye Grant and Pat Dixon, two women who know a person I worked with at the time at my job at another university. All of these women embroider. The following photo shows a Wagga Wagga street. It was a year of drought.

The reason I decided to post this now is because the weather in rural Australia is, again, tending to be dry, and has been so since 2016. In 2007, it was the Millennial drought and familiar problems existed: low water flows in rivers, a tough time for farmers, and towns struggling to supply their residents with clean water. Faye captured this dynamic in a work she made (see below).

The following image shows her piece enlarged so you can see the detail. The piece represents a shot taken from the TV news. In the segment, a politician was shown visiting the bush and kicking the dirt in a place where once water had rested or flowed; it might have been a riverbed or the bottom of a dam.

With her friend Pat, Faye is shown in the photo above displaying another item, on which there is a section of work with the following written in a kind of indelible marker: ‘Journeys – Big sky country’ “… is a compilation of images from two journeys my husband and I made in our tiny camper van to the Kimberley, Pilbara and Gascoyne regions of Western Australia in the dry season of 2004 and 2005. This is a land of ancient worn and colourful ranges, vast plains and a feeling of timelessness. The everchanging colours of the rocks – the trees and grasses – the colour of the ocean with its massive tides – the vibrant wildflowers – the brilliant blue of the vast sky & the stars at night, will stay with us as precious memories.”

It was signed by Pat in 2006. I think it looks a bit like a bookcase with its individual sections marked out with darker material sewn on to create borders or frames containing a range of things created with thread and cloth.

Friday 29 November 2019

Book review: Dominicana, Angie Cruz (2019)

Ana is only 15 when she flies to the US and marries 30-year-old Juan, as her parents had urged her to do. So this is a kind of coming-of-age story but it is also very much a story of our times. Juan is cruel to his wife, and also exhibits other personal failings. Ana does her best to make things work at home and her life changes when Juan goes back, for a while, to the Domainican Republic to look after his family’s business interests. While he is gone his brother Cesar looks after Ana, who is pregnant.

With remarkable clarity, Cruz takes us back to New York in 1963 and spins a tale filled with tension as you hope for the best for the main character, through whom most of the narrative is focalised. There are a couple of letters that Ana reads, and which add suspense and colour to the story, but most of it is from her point of view.

This novel bears its political stripes lightly. There is some signalling by the author toward topical issues – such as the Vietnam War and the position of African-Americans vis-a-vis the broader community – but they are peripheral to Ana’s main preoccupations: earning money and surviving.

This reticence on the part of the author is good policy as a person like Ana who is from a third-world country and who has poor English, would not be ideally aware of events happening in New York, or at least not to the same degree as a white person living there. Also, she would not define herself in the same way as, say, a young university-educated person from a European background would. Cruz does place Ana in one demonstration holding hands with other protesters but this ploy is only a sketch and doesn’t serve to advance the story.

What Cruz also does well, on the other hand, is to realistically portray Ana’s sexuality. This is not something you might expect to find in a novel that uses the kinds of themes that ‘Dominicana’ does, but it gives Ana an extra dimension and completes her as a character in a rewarding way. I really liked this novel and look forward to seeing what the author intends to do next.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Book review: Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (2019)

This book is an artefact that can serve as evidence of the problem of political polarisation in America. It’s fiction but it is strongly informed by the author’s own experiences in real life; so, autofiction. It’s more like a series of blogposts than a novel, however, and the story takes the form of a road trip a family makes from New York to New Mexico one year in the post-Trump era. The weather is warm and they drive in their car – mother and daughter with the woman’s husband and his son; a family – for about three weeks to get to their destination. The man has a grant to document in sound the lost civilisation of the Apaches, and the woman has to return with her daughter to New York to document that plight of refugees from South and Central America who have been caught up in the justice system. She is a radio journalist.

She is also fiercely liberal (in the US sense of the word, meaning “progressive”) in her politics, as is the author (the two people being, in a practical sense, almost identical), but the author, who is Mexican and who lives in the US, seems to be oblivious to the lack of insight her creation evinces, the glaring holes in her thinking. The woman in the book is so focused on the lives of refugees that she misses out on seeing the value in the lives of everyday Americans. She has no idea about agriculture but has strong opinions about it. She never once asks a question about why all these people are fleeing their countries of birth – the family even listens to an audiobook of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ while driving, so there are plenty of opportunities to open a debate of that nature – but everything seems to be the fault of what her husband, from his studies into indigenous Americans, calls “white-eyes”.

There is a potentially fruitful meditation at one point on the nature of youth (something I had also observed, and have written about before). But the correlate of her female character’s thought – that people change as they grow – seems to have gone right over Luiselli’s head. Perhaps seeing the boundaries between people is something that older people are better at doing. Better at compartmentalising their lives. Better at being organised. Better at surviving. Do older people have nothing at all to offer?

The problem with the book goes deeper than this, though. Luiselli also, at an even earlier point in the book, formulates a critique of politically engaged fiction – writing that serves a utilitarian purpose – and dismisses it as being, usually, bad art, but then quite unironically produces exactly that.

There is a strange exceptionalism evident as well, an idea that the true inheritors of the legacy of the Founding Fathers are progressives like Luiselli, rather than people who live in rural America and vote Republican. This kind of chauvinism is odd and is, I think, particular to the US; you don’t find the same kind of thing happening in a country like Australia. In the US, it seems, people compete for a label proclaiming authenticity on the basis of their identity and the political party they support.

I didn’t finish this book; I got to the beginning of the second section – where the author starts using the character of the man’s son to focalise the narrative – and gave up, frustrated. I had wanted to find out what happened to the woman’s relationship with her husband as this seemed to be something that hung in the balance, but the effort required to wade through another hundred pages – or however long that part of the book is, I don’t know as Kindle had decided to stop displaying progress markers – in order to reach the end, was beyond my capacity to bear discomfort. My brain had started to object to the particular point of view the author seems to be living with and that, through her book, I was inflicting on myself.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

2019 Moran Prize finalists talk

On Sunday I went in the car to Oxford Street, Paddington, to hear two artists talk about their entries in the Moran Prize, which is awarded every year for portraiture.

First up was Oliver Watts, whose ‘Steering for dream (Ben Storrier)’ was on the wall near the front door of Juniper Hall. He said it is a “blue” painting. He likes the dusty gouache effect you get with acrylics, the kind of effect David Hockney achieved in his 70s paintings. Watts also likes the work of indigenous artists, who often use acrylic. He has been committed to acrylic for the last 10 years and signalled for reference to the work of Merlin James, a Welsh artist. Using acrylics is also cheaper than using oils, because you can use a smaller studio as you don’t need to make allowances for oil in the wastewater.

At the end of the talk, Watts made special mention of the Australian artist Max Meldrum who, Watts said, is underrated. Watts’ grandmother had studied under Meldrum.

The painting he was talking about on the day I visited Juniper Hall has a nautical theme, and Watts recalled paintings of his own with a maritime theme that were hung in an exhibition held in June at the Chalk Horse Gallery, which is in Darlinghurst. His kind of work pays out, he said, on the figure of the heroic sailor. He underscored the intent of his remark by pointing to Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with what he called a group of bloggers, all of them eating vegan food. “They are the new pirates,” he quipped.

The notion of masculinity in his work on show at Juniper hall is, he said, about it being in a state of anxiety. “A man reading a book in a boat sailing on autopilot”: this image could sum up his ideas about contemporary masculinity. He had deliberately picked an old genre to work with and the bottle of scotch in Ben Storrier’s boat – Watts went out on the boat with his subject in order to capture images to use while painting – is part of that play of ideas. “Not bad to go out for one day and get one image” to use, he added. The red towel and shirt were actually what Storrier wore on the day, and this ideally feminised his subject, making him more suitable for the artist’s purposes. Storrier wore the sombrero as half a joke. “It ended up looking like a halo,” said Watts. “When you increase the size what seemed like a joke on the boat turns out to be serious.”

He mentioned what he called “this weird tension” in the painting and noted what he called “a bit of a weakness” in the drawing. “I tried to keep a little bit of that first sketch. I don’t want it to be too serious.” Pointing at the lower right-hand side of the large canvas he indicated the suede cushion that had been on the boat and that had had water marks on it.

He then made some comments about the composition. “My paintings fall away from the frame if they’re not framed.” He had had this canvas framed for the prize entry. “It’s more finished with a frame.”

In the photo above Watts is holding the mobile phone to take a selfie in front of his painting. Alex Thorby is wearing a blue shirt and is standing to his right, next to the doorway.

After 30 minutes of listening to Watts and of asking questions, everyone moved into a different room and put down their chairs to listen to Thorby talk. Her painting is titled ‘Artist Dick Watkins’. Watkins is an Australian abstract expressionist who uses gestural brushwork and bold colours. 

Thorby started by recounting how the portrait came about. She used to walk her son to school past Watkins’ house. On the front verandah there were brightly-coloured sculptures. She asked someone who lived there about what she had seen, and learned that Watkins is her neighbour. He is held in high esteem in the art world. “Who am I?” she asked, rhetorically and for effect, adding that Watkins is, however, “very down to earth”. His wife is in her 90s and still drives. Watkins habitually starts painting at midday and paints all night. He doesn’t need daylight and is an avid reader.

Thorby works from life. She said that the immediate experience with the subject “gives you an energy”. “You discover things about their personalities.” They did 15 sittings or more. His favourite chair, where he sat for the sittings, rocks back. Thorby asked him if he would put a painting of his on the wall but he didn’t want to do that. Thorby says her study was “quite loose”. The two of them initially talked about things, but Thorby needs to concentrate when painting so Watkins put on jazz to listen to while he sat silently. There is no daylight in Watkins’ studio; he works under fluoro lighting. 

The first attempt at a composition didn’t work and Thorby repainted the whole figure, painting over the top of the first draft. In all, the work took over a year to complete. She said she likes Francis Bacon’s spaces in his works, compositionally speaking, and pointed to the tins of paint at the left-hand side of her painting that help to frame the figure near the centre of the canvas. “Your brain will finish things for you,” she said, so she left some areas unfinished. She used yellow in the background in order to get, she said, the same feeling as though it were a white room Watkins is sitting in. Pointing to the palette on the right-hand side of the work, she pointed out that Watkins doesn’t use a palette when he works on his own paintings, but she does. 

As her painting was taking so much time, Thorby said Watkins told her: “Just do what you’ve got to do.” He loved the portrait when it was finished, Thorby said. “Danger is his philosophy.” Thorby’s portrait is shown below.

Monday 25 November 2019

Road trip from Melbourne, heading north: Two

This is the second of two posts containing photos from a road trip taken over a decade ago. It contains 46 photos from the second day (Tuesday, 5 August 2008) of a two-day trip from Victoria to Queensland along the Newell Highway. On this day, despite the Millennium drought, I encountered rain, which cleared by the time I was in Queensland. The first image shown below was made at 4.29am.

The rest were made between 7.29am and 4.49pm. Taking my cue from some of the previous day’s efforts, some images I made on the Tuesday are out-of-focus or fuzzy which is, now, the kind of image that appeals to me the most. The sharp-focus shots seem uninteresting by comparison. I like the way the windows get in the way of the scenery or how the trees blur as the car moves along the carriageway.