Friday 28 May 2021

The Poetry Salon, The Glebe Hotel, Bay Street

A list of things that happened to me to explain why, since 2008, I’d not once attended a poetry reading:

  • Moving to Queensland to look after elderly mother,
  • Moving back to Sydney,
  • Mum dying and my slow recovery from that event,
  • Supraventricular tachycardia and ablation,
  • Trip to Middle East,
  • Moving house again, this time to Botany.

In the meantime I’ve received faithful email notifications from Roberta Lowing though credit for today’s blogpost goes to Twitter since I saw advice about the reading in a tweet from a friend. 

My neglect of local poets, however, was not for lack of trying. I actually planned last month to visit the Addison Road Writers’ Festival but another friend placed in my way an urgent request for help and I had to miss it.

The Poetry Salon at The Glebe Hotel last night was a celebration of diversity. Proceedings opened by organiser Ali Whitelock (see photo above) started with her presenting a poem which has the environment as its subject. She explicitly linked the work to student rallies that’d taken place in Sydney to protest the funding of a new gas-fired power plant by the federal government – or, at least, an announcement to that effect. 

Ali’s poems are full of humour and insight. The poem I’m talking about – unfortunately I didn’t note down the title – likens our relationship with the planet to a relationship between two people, a man and his girlfriend, say. With this metaphor kept in mind a thousand sentences might suggest themselves to a poet. 

Whitelock in her work tends toward the interpersonal and the intimate, though more often (see here a review of a 2018 book) with a comic purpose, so the focus on planet Earth was surprising. 

For Gayatri Nair (see above photo), the event was only the second time she’d read her work out loud though she mentioned a book titled ‘How to Wrap a Sari for Beginners’. Gayatri overtly locates her writing in a multiethnic community, and summoned up, with her trenchant, amusing poems, images I’d kept of parts of Sydney that are seldom the focus of popular attention. 

This city is so big and it’s communities are so diverse that on one day – just by catching a train – you can fly from one continent to another. As if on a magic carpet – though I sat in a retro lounge chair – Gayatri transported me miles away to the remote corners of the city I grew up in and in which I have lived for most of my life. I felt confronted by cultures I rarely see appreciated by the mainstream media – still (despite demographic changes) predominantly Anglo-Saxon – and as I listened to Gayatri tell her stories I grew.

Michelle Cahill – whose tweet had alerted me to the event – read her complex poems rich in imagery. Michelle (see photo above) has poise and is clearly accustomed to reading out loud to groups of people and on this day read one of the poems in a collection I’d recently reviewed, though it wasn’t the one I talked about in my Patreon post. Her work contains a multiplicity of points of view, the ideas quickly forming and resolving in the mind only to be replaced by new ones. This process is aided by her clear diction and the control she is able to make use of in a roomful of listeners, serving to give you a detailed understanding of the world. Because attention switches from one thing to another in rapid sequence you have to work hard to follow but there’s magic – your mind shuttling back and forth between your own point of view and the poet’s – being entertained by words. 

Stephen Edgar (see above photo) also read work he’d written, some of it in the 1970s. He spent time living in Hobart so some of his poems contain stories that happened in the island state. I was transported in time listening to Edgar and heard echoes of Wordsworth in his allusive poems. They catapult you to other places – to the eye of a storm, say, or to a garden where dragonflies whip around bushes – and press into your imagination with subtle wit. Stephen offers a completely different view in comparison to what was offered by Gayatri or Michelle or Ali, leaving me feeling inspired by the choice of the four writers to accompany each other on the night. 

Ducking out quickly as it was well past my usual bedtime by the time everyone had finished reciting their work – books held open in calm hands – I dashed for the car and drove in heavy traffic on Wattle Street. I turned into Fig Street and then took Regent Street, heading to Botany Road and home. A night to remember.

Thursday 27 May 2021

Take two: Homo Irrealis, Andre Aciman

For full review, see my Patreon

I bought this in Newtown where I’d travelled by bus, walking from Redfern along Abercrombie Street – a street fabled in my memory due to associations with people and times past – and stopping on the way to the bookstore at Campos Coffee to get supplies. The trip was made on 22 May. I caught the train back to Redfern then got on the 309 bus toward my home. I read the book on the platform and at the busstop, immersing myself in the writer’s thoughts about remembrance of things past. The book also talks about how reading works in other ways, furnishing material for the imagination to dream up alternative futures but I felt at times, while reading, as though Aciman – a man made popular by his novels, not on account of his nonfiction – were trying to find new words for old things.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Sydney’s political vision must include more light rail

Working with the state government, Clover Moore has said properties flanking Oxford Street in Darlinghurst would be rezoned to allow for taller developments, special clauses to be included in agreements specifying certain parts of each property to be set aside for cultural activities. 

The day before this story appeared I’d caught the bus, from my home near the airport, aiming to deliver an object to a friend studying at the National Art School at Taylor Square. I got off the 309 bus at Central and caught the light rail to Chinatown then, heading to my destination, walked up Goulburn Street and along Oxford Street. It took some time to get there and my plan – afterward – to go to The Rocks to see the Japanese sculptures had to be scrapped because I was hungry and had food waiting for me to prepare at home, so I walked through Hyde Park and caught the light rail at QVB then got a bus at Central to take me home. 

I’d stopped off at a commercial art gallery to have a stickybeak at a show that’d recently been advertised, so spent more time in Darlinghurst than I’d anticipated doing, and all told it was a three-hour trip. If there’d been a light rail line to Oxford Street it would’ve been far less onerous to travel up the hill and through Darlo along the hill’s busy ridge. On foot, negotiating Goulburn Street and Wentworth Avenue – with their multiple traffic lights – takes a good deal of time as it’s quite a heavily used quarter, due to the incidence of many both vehicles and pedestrians (though vehicles dominate).

A trip to Circular Quay is, by contrast, quite rapid making it now a part of the city that has opened up in a way it hasn’t been – ever – for me, who grew up in Sydney. A few days after my trip to the NAS I ventured out on a weekend to The Rocks to see two exhibitions, including the Japanese one I’d missed seeing earlier in the week. As well as seeing the sculpture show I also saw a show of new Australian works at the Museum of Contemporary Art (I reviewed both shows on this blog). And if I want to go, say, to see the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman shows, which are held annually at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I can just get off the handy tram at QVB and stroll though Hyde Park. 

The light rail has forever altered my topography of Sydney and, thanks to Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s leadership, my Sydney is now much more open, accessible, and user-friendly. As for Clove Moore, she hates cars and a plan outlined in the same newspaper a few days earlier to renovate Botany Road, a busy traffic corridor (especially at peak times), would mean stripping people of a means to conveniently get around. In the absence of more rail infrastructure, closing part of Botany Road would be a devilish development that would severely curtail my free use of the southern part of the city. Buses use Botany Road to deposit residents near their homes, but for a variety of reasons some people need to drive. On a trip from my place to Pyrmont on 24 May I negotiated the heavy, late rush-hour traffic in my RAV4 because my friend wanted to go swimming. If the road had a lower capacity to handle traffic our trip would’ve taken far longer to complete. Perhaps the premier can do people a favour and bring the Kensington light rail line to Botany? This would bring it to a stop near my home, not only pushing up the value of my house, but also obviating the need for me to use Botany Road as much to get around during the day. 

If I could catch a tram to the city instead of driving in my RAV4 or by taking the 309 bus I’d be a very happy camper. If a hipster could go from Oxford Street straight to Newtown on one tram – it could be called the “Trendy Line” – we’d see an explosion of economic activity in the inner suburbs like nothing on earth. I’ve only chosen to highlight two light rail projects with which our esteemed premier might busy her government, but no doubt others could find more to talk about. Whatever was decided, they’d be popular, becoming projects which would bolster the standing of a government that has in recent years completed a number of important and useful large infrastructure builds, and which has more in the pipeline. Andiamo!

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Exhibition review: The National, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

You’ll see from yesterday’s post that I just happened to be down this end of town due to the sculpture exhibition that was on at The Rocks. On the way back to the tram I popped in at the MCA to use the facilities and while there moseyed into The National, a show on the third floor encompassing recent works by Australian artists. Some of the items in the show, which runs until 22 August (so there’s plenty of time to see it) are big – very big, as you’ll see – so’re really only suitable for museums. 

It’d be a highly rare private collector who’d buy one of Mehwish Iqbal’s massive pieces!

The thing that first caught my attention and that started me snapping photos is by Lauren Berkowitz. Her intriguing artwork (see below) contains all the elements of a good government ad campaign – something to try to get us to think about the things we casually throw away. Plastic is choking the seas in some parts of the world and it seems as though every other week there’s another dramatic headline that serves to draw our attention to this kind of pollution. Berkowitz’s work was made in 2020-21.

Above: Plastic Topographies

The second work I took a photo of was Mehwish Iqbal’s grey wall hanging. She had another work in the show – a colourful one made with embroidery and with figures in it – but the 2020 work shown below is made up of thousands of paper human figures. Massed together, they form a kind of threatening or warning motif against our personal fears. Immigration is a constant topic these days so, like Berkowitz, Iqbal has been intent on making engaged art in her practice. She wants to talk about issues that are strongly present in the public sphere because this is her choice as an artist.

Above: Grey Wall

Further evidence of such intent is visible in Kate Just’s work. The recent federal political scandal surrounding Liberal Party staff who’d been sexually assaulted makes the creation of Just’s 2019-21 work (see below) appear axiomatic.

Above: Anonymous was a woman

A smaller, more intimate and less overtly political position is taken by Caroline Rothwell, who’s made a curious amination that plays on a loop (see below). This 2021 work has a dreamy feel to it, as though you’d seen something similar one night when you were asleep. Perhaps in a nightmare.

In a way Rothwell’s work was the most ambitious. We’re so used to external actors like journalists and politicians telling us what to think that to find artists arrogating to themselves the same level of discernment is less than radical. In fact it’s customary for outsiders to do this on our behalf. For an artist to bat the burden of creativity and signification into the viewer’s court is stranger and more challenging. Rothwell asks us to interrogate our own experience to find the meaning hidden in her work. What might you find if you visited the gallery? 

What’s your darkest secret? Perhaps the biggest secret today in the art world is the loss of nuance and irony. When bigger works with more and more obvious meanings are the standard fare, what happens to the tone of debate. When there’s no middle ground online and the sensible centre is hollowed out by extreme language, how can we find common ground? Rothwell’s intimate and innocent artwork speaks of feelings of anxiety as all the loud voices clamour for attention. It seems to speak of a concern that, even when the subject under discussion is as pressing as climate change, something equally valuable – not just the health of the planet – is lost when we try to control the message to suit just ourselves. 

Above: Carbon emission 6, aperture

What happened to subtlety and grace? John Wolseley’s massive etching (with other media also included – it’s a striking work) seeks to find some of these qualities in another quadrant of public debate. A series of works with a First Nations theme it’s one that’s also allied with ideas about the natural environment. At first I wasn’t sure if any of his works – the one pictured below was made in 2020-21 – warranted inclusion in my survey as I wasn’t sure if this artist has a strong vision.

Or if he’s just playing – once again – to the gallery. I kinda liked the effects he’s made as they remind me of old things that risk being washed away with use and while the size of the works and their overt political stance fill me with misgivings, the fragility of the medium – they are works made on paper – serves to reassure me that the artist is aware of the danger his approach to his subject might easily incur.

Above: Termitaria: Indwelling I-IV

To round out the survey I’ve included a 2020 work by an Indigenous artist name Mulkun Wirrpanda. This work is currently in a private collection in Sydney. Other works shown by the same artist are also privately owned. With something of this size – these are medium-sized artworks such as you’d find for sale at a commercial gallery – your viewing experience is less confrontational but the effect in a public gallery such as the MCA is also far less powerful. On public display Wirrpanda’s kind of decorative artwork is often overshadowed by more utilitarian works, such as the ones I describe earlier in this post. He is a Northern Territory artist who lives in Arnhem Land.

Above: Pardalotes

Monday 24 May 2021

Exhibition review: Sculpture Rocks, Sydney

People had fun wandering around this exhibition and talking about the works of art it features, posing in groups beside one or another of the pieces, and spending time outdoors. It’s a short trip from Central on the new light rail – a very Japanese way for me to start the day – just around the corner from the Museum of Contemporary Art (where I popped in to take a peek – see tomorrow’s blogpost).

Keizo Ushio’s ‘Oushi Zokai’ series were popular (see photo below), with one exemplar positioned outside on the deck hanging over the harbour.

He had smaller exemplars inside the gallery nearby (see following two photos).

Above: Oushi Zokai # 19 (2013)

Above: Oushi Zokai Moebius in Space (2011)

There was also inside a small sculpture by the same artist which has a different form (see below).

Above: Oushi Zokai 3 Twists (2015/16)

I thought that the work shown below by the same artist was less successful because of the way the cutting of the parallel lines in the strip was not faithful to the inherent geometry of the thing.

Above: Oushi Zokai Hexagonal

Cleaner lines were available with the work of an artist named Toshio Iezumi (see below).

Above: F.200201 (2020)

Above: M.100901 (2010)

Between 2010 (when the second work was made) and 2020 (when the first work was made) there was evidently a change in the artist’s vision of the world. The sinuous and protoplasmic form of the later work suggest that a degree of uncertainty has entered into his mind or into his imagination. The horizontal plan of the second sculpture also has implications for the viewer’s understanding of his state of mind.

Hiroaki Nakayama also works in granite (see below).

Above: Blowing in the Wind 3 (1997)

The effect of his work is different when you add the Opera House and some passersby …

Above: Blowing in the Wind 

Koichi Ogino had a series of sculptures all sharing a single theme, indicating that he’d spent a good deal of time thinking about one thing.

Above: Camel Country (2014)

Above: Camel Country III (2018)

Above: Camel Country 14

Akiho Tata’s small interior sculpture combined a number of different elements, and in this way differed from the majority of the pieces on display. Nevertheless, her work presents a singular idea.

Above: Love Aus (2020)

Another by the same artist is this humorous piece that's been strategically placed near two utilitarian bollards – the iron pieces embedded in the wharf that were in the past used to tie up ships and stop them floating away. Perhaps Tata’s aubergine can serve to keep friends and family at the dinner table!

Above: Pink Eggplant Share

A simpler form was found in Wataru Hamasaka’s work (see below). His elaborately simple piece has a low specific gravity.

Above: The Sound of Sky – The Physical Ring VI

A completely different medium (steel instead of stone) and a different artistic conception of what is not only beautiful but of what is possible in sculpture was visible in the work of Ayako Saito (see below).

Above: Heart Beat (2019)

Above: Lunar Shadow

Above: Step x Step II

The kinetic properties of Saito’s work are interesting because, as a woman, she’s chosen to add drama in a different way from most of her (mostly male) peers. I see echoes in her work of Duchamp and early 20th Century Modernism, and I like the way she completes each complex piece with elan yet manages to force order on the composition of elements fused together with flux.

Takeshi Tanabe also uses steel (see below).

Above: Locus of Time 18-1

Another sculpture by the same artist uses different materials. With stone he manages to pull off something decisive and intricate but still massive and unique.

Above: A Scene: Dedicated to Handel’s ‘The Water Music’ 17-1

Koichi Ishino's monumental sculpture allowed people to take photos of themselves in the reflecting surfaces of the base (see below). Here's the writer wearing his old blue jacket – at least two sizes too big – and ten-year-old pants! 

Above: Form of Scenery - lat. 35deg06min23sec N, long. 135deg55min30sec E

This artist's work is interesting because he's taken the circle that'll feature later on in my survey and deployed it in an intriguing fashion above a complex set of forms.

Another figurative work is Takahiro Hirata’s lovely marble piece which was placed inside on a plinth. You can buy one of his works.

Above: Arrowhead 2015 Dark Night Shine (w) (2015)

I’ll close out the show with a symbolically important work by Tetsuro Yamasaki that embodies part of the Japanese spirit: the circle. The shape he has chosen for his work is located on the national flag and it is in the Japanese love of uniformity and harmony. The artist's chosen shape is echoed by nearby objects, wow!

Above: Circle – ‘Harmony’

Spend time seeing the show if you’re in Sydney until 3 June. The web page says there’re 17 works but it’s much more than that. I’ve shown 22 in this post and I left some out of my survey. Partly I did so because I sometimes, in my rush to complete a viewing of the exhibition, missed capturing explanatory details, but I also edited my selection based on quality. One or two things that I saw were not, in my mind, up to standard. 

Overall a very fine show and it has the added appeal that it’s free. You can buy the smaller works if you feel inclined but they’ll set you back thousands of dollars – the Hirata arrowhead is relatively cheap at $6500 – so serious collectors only will be influenced by the acquisitive instinct that animates us all. 

For my part, I’ve been more than happy to collect images and mental impressions. Sculpture is always exciting, and large works like some of the things shown above are doubly so because you can actually walk around them. Being able to take your friends’ photos – or else take selfies – next to a monumental work like Yamasaki’s makes the promise of a meaningful day more real.

Sunday 23 May 2021

Take two: Thirty Australian Poets, ed Felicity Plunkett

For a full review, see my Patreon

Glancing round my swag of books, I picked this off a shelf in the studio. It made a refreshing change, especially so because I’d not read much poetry in recent months. The relocation had contributed to this dry spell but it was also probably due to personal reasons. Reading other poets’ work enabled me to reengage with the medium, and I felt light-headed on the bus into town on the day I started reading. The quality of the book is very mixed, and I couldn’t say, on the whole, that there was no reason why any of the poets whose work I read should’ve been excluded from the collection, though I still enjoyed myself spending time with it.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Take two: The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

For a full review, see my Patreon

Apart from Proust’s, this is the best novel of its era I’ve read. Better than Joyce, better than Conrad, better than James. The reason why it’s been neglected is because it’s partly a love story and partly because it exploits the old Jamesian Old-World-New-World trope (corrupt vs virtuous) which must’ve been an annoyance for Europeans of Ford’s era in a way that we cannot understand today. It’s also not experimental. Coming into being at a time when other writers were trying different ways of representing reality, this is, in the upshot, a relative shortcoming but Ford’s wonderful novel deserves two thumbs up from this decrepit-but-still-functional reviewer. 

My antique visage echoed by my reading choices. I’ve been gallivanting around the countryside with my collection of books for the past decade and now I’m sampling old volumes kept without being read – some of them – for thirty years. Time now for a bit of appreciation.

Monday 17 May 2021

Take two: Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class, Robert Lacey

For a fuller review, see my Patreon

I decided to do something different for the cover shot this time, taking a hint from someone on Twitter who uses the handle @LloydLegalist. On 14 May he said, “I think folks should be required to read a book for every 10 selfies they take.” It gave me the idea to put up selfies of my own reads, to accompany my secondary reviews. I wish people would write more reviews on books they read. Selfies are fine as far as they go but what do they tell us about the person inside? What about my loaf? Is it acceptable now I’ve lost 30 kilos?

Dad had this volume in his library and it had sat on a bookshelf in my bedroom, having come from Pyrmont in the January move. I brushed the dust off the tops of the pages before reading. Sotheby’s sold my house and sold me my new place, so I thought that I’d take dad’s posthumous advice and learn more about the company that’d had so much to do, in recent months, with my finances. 

I don’t know how much of the book dad read before he succumbed to dementia (no bookmarks were in place to show me how far he’d got, but something had spilled on some pages so parts of the book had definitely been read) and I thoroughly enjoyed it since it supplemented other knowledge I had, especially about the 18th century, which was when the company was founded by a second-hand bookseller named Baker. 

Sunday 16 May 2021

Exhibition review: Leah Fraser, ‘Let her go into the darkness,' Arthouse Gallery, Rushcutters Bay

It was early on a Saturday morning in autumn and I was on the bus planning to go to the state gallery but checked my phone because for a couple of weeks I’d seen notices of Fraser’s exhibition in emails. I’d actually received advance notification almost a month earlier, probably because I’d previously bought – critic’s disclosure here – one of the artist’s little ceramic sculptures. I took a shine to Fraser’s work as it was portrayed in a February 2014 email the gallery sent out to its list of patrons, whereupon I bought it and had it shipped to Queensland. I was living there at the time near my mother’s house and kept my eyes peeled for value. 

Now, sitting on the moving bus, I lodged a booking to go to an artist’s talk in the early afternoon. I got off at Central and, instead of walking up by Surry Hills, I entered the train station to use the conveniences, then got on the light rail and took it to the QVB, from where I walked through Hyde Park to get to the AGNSW. Inside the front door a young woman stopped me to ask if I needed assistance and when I asked what was on rattled off a list. These included a talk on Indigenous art – she pointed to a young man waiting in the gallery foyer – which was to start in 10 minutes. I drifted off and poked my head in the bookshop door, picked up a book I thought I might like to read, then sat down on a settee to wait until 11am rolled around.

The talk was interesting and involved some works on the ground floor which the gallery had commissioned from Aboriginal people as well as Tiwi Islanders in the 1950s. I learned a great deal in a short space of time, then we headed downstairs to see some more contemporary works of Indigenous art, this time by a Torres Straight Islands producer. 

A cup of coffee and a short visit to the food exhibition delivered meaning. The waitress had sat me down near a young woman seated at a standalone table wearing a long black shirt and a white woollen sweater. The idea came to me that I should strike up a conversation but I felt old and awkward, so just used my fingers to scroll through social media while I drank a tepid coffee. In the Asian gallery – where the food exhibition was held – I saw a few minutes later a painting (see below) that echoed my recent experience. Titled ‘Southern beauty’ the painting is by Chinese artist Li Jin.

It shows a young woman in a qipao looking awkward at a restaurant table. Done in ink and colour on xuan (rice) paper, it is a whimsical and entertaining portrait of femininity where the subject is not entirely confident in her appeal but where she nevertheless deploys it to best effect. Almost despite her true desires.

I left the gallery and walked through the park near men playing soccer, then went up William Street and over the hill to Rushcutters Bay. It started to rain for a moment, then relented – by the time the event ended it was only windy – but I was very early. It wasn’t 1pm and I mooched about as patrons gathered and at about 1.40pm Ali Yeldham knocked something against a bottle to get people’s attention and started the discussion. 

At home I had placed Leah Fraser’s ceramic statue ‘Full moon rising’ on top of a bookcase, which was free – without charge – and that had been listed on Facebook Marketplace. Along with it went a wooden Japanese stamp and the Chinese box I’d had downstairs on the busy entertainment cabinet. There are also some rocks from my old place in Pyrmont and a flat, basalt roundel the original purpose of which I’m ignorant of; I selected it for inclusion because in its absence the rocks’d only number four. 

Five being more auspicious. The bookcase has a chipboard construction but is sturdy in the old-fashioned 70s style of low-cost household furniture. Since it deprived me of no cash I’d no reason to quibble over such details as the stain in the top – which I covered with an orange dining placemat of mum’s that had been embroidered with a dove at some point in the far distant past. (I’ve got a set of these placemats in the kitchen cupboard ready to use – in Pyrmont they’d been stuffed away in the hall cupboard and were, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible.) 

Before the talk started Fraser had been introduced to me by Will Mansfield. She is glamorous and quite stunning, resembling Keira Knightley – and in fact Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ is in the bookcase in the above photo – and, though not as tall as the British actress, she has poise. When Will mentioned some ideas I’d expressed about her art, Fraser seemed to want to run interference – she smiled and laughed and turned her head to the right as though something witty had been said but avoided commenting – though Yeldham later took up the same theme. I’d thought that Fraser’s paintings exploit conventional ideas about femininity while also challenging them. This was briefly discussed as the two of them stood in front of the small crowd in the gallery, everybody waiting to hear something new that might help them to understand questions raised by the confusing world in which they live and for which Fraser’s work seems to have answers.

Above: The night was heavy but the air was alive

While fey and attractive, Fraser is clearly knowledgeable about that world, and her artworks are titled as though with lines of poetry in a way that Craig Waddell also uses for his paintings. Waddell’s impasto statements are unlike Fraser’s delicate female figures – each of them enclosed (as Fraser mentioned during her talk) in a narrow space – in which the hands are especially prominent. Fraser said that her figures might be about to be hugged or stroked, but in some of the artworks (see image below) the subject is holding something in her long, icon-like fingers.

Above: She flew light night from land to land

The theme of darkness embodied in the name of the show is echoed faithfully in the titles of many of the paintings, which are done in acrylic on polyester canvas. In one of them (‘Let her go into the darkness’) a woman holds in her grip a long spray of stars, the tips of her fingers feather-light but competent for the task – as though holding onto the night itself were a power she resolutely but uniquely commanded. 

Is it a power she wishes to possess? In another painting (see below) the woman holds a knife and uses it to prick her finger, whereupon a drop of blood is visible on the pale skin. In this painting Fraser uses a kind of border around the figure, the paint shimmering with suffused intensity and outlining the figure like a halo.

Above: I was charged with life

In her talk, Fraser mentioned her love of 16th century Italian paintings and named Botticelli as an influence. She said that in such artworks there is always a plethora of objects adding meaning and signification to the whole, and in her own works it is nature that serves this purpose, for example in the work shown below.

Above: Some strange music drew her in

Here, as in other paintings in the show, are birds and flowers. The latter reminding me by the shape of their petals of hydrangea but with the difference that here the blooms are on vines, whereas in real life hydrangea are clearly bushes. And the birds resemble a honeyeater, perhaps such as you might see feeding off and pollinating flowering gum trees around Sydney.

The feminine is not only expressed in Fraser’s work via the subject, but also through the rhythms used to create the composition, as in the painting above where vegetal vines strike up a chorus with the woman’s hair and with the unusual and almost Indigenous white veil in which she is cloaked. As in most of the works the eyes are oddly-coloured (in this case, black) and eerie, as though we were looking at an alien from another planet come to visit Earth and to describe all the ways in which we are abusing Her. The small teeth in the woman’s mouth seem to be about to serve to help form words. The mouth is slightly open, as though in casual speech. What is she wanting to say?

Once I was on my way home I pondered the juxtaposition of the AGNSW talk and Fraser’s show, and how they both contained messages about our society and the ways that we are using the Earth. In one of the bark paintings I’d had explained to me that morning, backburning was depicted by a traditional artist of Arnhem Land. The exercise doesn’t go as planned, however, and the fire spreads out of control. To escape censure, the man who’d been in charge changed himself into a bandicoot. Also visible in the painting was a crocodile with a burnt back, where the flames from trees overhanging the body of water in which the beast was lying had singed its skin.

Fraser’s art goes to similar places in different ways, though there’s also a strong storytelling component to the works on display on Saturday. It’s not clear who has agency in the paintings. Is it the women pictured? What about the darkness? Is there an implicit threat to their safety? Fraser’s early attraction to Wicca is expressed in some printed matter supplied by the gallery, but it’s not evident which form of the religious she cleaves to. If you go – as I did – to the main Wikipedia page, you can read about a wide variety of practices and denominations though they seem to hold in common the idea of a female god. Adherents’ connection to the Earth is also manifest in the account on the website. The movement grew as part of the same postwar counter-culture that spawned the ecology movement and looking at Fraser’s work you quickly pick up reverberations of this, too.

Above: I crushed the fragile white petals in my fingers. The scent was like oblivion, a trance

Yet this is clearly not the whole story (a species behaviour, we seek to make meaning out of what we perceive). Connected with an overtly environmental theme is another one that is also chained to the feminine, and it is here that, for me, the mystique of Fraser’s art most strongly resides. Like most contemporary art, Fraser’s is aware of itself in its context. I’ve already mentioned the method of titling the works, but I also felt ideas about how women live in the world, and one of the women at the show who wore what looked like a 1960s Indian cotton dress – mum used to sell such garments in her gift shop in Vaucluse – with an elaborate pattern printed on it made me think of the many women I’ve known over the years who have gravitated into my orbit like crazy stars. 

Stars perhaps like the ones in the hands stroking the exposed figure in the painting above, the extended title of which is like part of the figure’s accoutrements. Whose hands are those that reach out from the margins to touch the raised knee or to dawdle in the flowers adorning her blue hair? Are they benign or malicious? Would they heal or can they, instead, hurt? 

If the woman seems unhappy perhaps this is also an illusion. What was certain on that Saturday was the cold of the afternoon that closed in as I stood there among my coevals – people I’d never otherwise meet – and again I spoke to none of them, and when Fraser had finished regaling us with some mysteries of her practice I popped out the front door onto the street, scampered quickly up the hill, got on the train, and came home to make my weight-watcher’s dinner: a tomato with a half-fillet of perch baked in the oven and the juice of a lemon from the tree in my garden.

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Take two: The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant

For a longer review, see my Patreon site

This cracked paperback fell to pieces while I was reading it, but what a treasure it is! An ancient name by now, but a wonderful read nevertheless. What a shame she’s not widely consumed anymore. Like Miles Franklin’s ‘Old Blastus of Bandicoot’ there’s a major bushfire to spark new events near the ending of this tremendous postwar classic, but it’s the characters that are so memorable. Its humour is incredibly refreshing.