Friday, 5 November 2021

Hang five: Pixie O’Harris monotype (a posey)

This is the third in a series of posts looking at my art collection. I’m taking questions from an old school friend and answering them. Roger lives in the north of the state and I live in Sydney but we’re both passionate about art. He asks five questions, each of which I answer below.

The Pixie O’Harris monotype is not what I was expecting from her and reminds me of a Japanese print with its delicate use of ink as a medium and a nature-honouring floral design. I think of Pixie as a children’s book author and illustrator, in the same vein as May Gibbs with her Gumnut Babies or maybe Norman Lindsay’s ‘Magic Pudding’. But your picture is more abstracted and graphic, showing the artist in a different light. I would be curious to see the difference in style to her oil painting. Are the monotype and ‘Just Flowers’ still representative of her approach, or more a ‘one-off’ that she did at your father’s request? Which style do you think suits Pixie best?

You mention ‘Just Flowers’, a painting that Pixie made on order for dad and I wish I knew whether the monotype was also an order for him. Because mum’s now dead such questions languish in the province of dust and ashes, never to raise their blooms to the mortal sky. In fact I had four flower pictures by Pixie, including one I sent to my family in Yokohama to hang on their wall. That one is called ‘Roses of My Childhood’ and it had been moved to mum’s nursing home in 2015 before going to Japan by post in early 2017. A monotype is by definition relatively abstract (compared to an oil painting) because of the way it’s been made as time’s of the essence. It’s a crisp image rapidly painted on glass using watercolour and then just as quickly printed on a sheet of waiting paper that’s lain on the glass to capture the pigment in its matrix. No reworking is possible with this form of art and everything must be done very quickly so it perfectly demonstrates artistry in a way that an oil painting must struggle to do. So, as you say, it’s always going to have a sketchy and improvisational feel to it. The early Impressionists were certainly drawn to Japanese art.

Is it still 'a woman’s work' to depict more in the realm of the decorative arts, such as still life and floral pictures? Our most celebrated female painters, historically, such as Margaret Preston and Margaret Olley, seemed to focus on that subject matter. Even now, post-liberation, I believe females often follow a more decorative or at least ‘lighter’ approach to their art. Do you think this a fair generalisation and does gender play a part in determining the artist’s perspective?

When I was thinking about your question but before I sat down to write, the artist whose work came to mind was precisely Olley, though at the time this thought occurred to me I didn’t remember your mentioning her. It might be that one of the things she’s known for is a more radical acceptance of traditional categories of endeavour. Indeed I don’t have any straight men friends who go out and intentionally buy flowers to enjoy on their own account. The other night on ‘Gruen’ on the ABC one of the commentators said that since alcohol advertising is banned the space taken up by old-fashioned and very entertaining beer ads has been occupied by ads for mobile gambling. Men and women to a certain degree can be classified according to what they’re interested in, though 30 percent of gamblers are women.

Perhaps since second wave feminism there’s been a deliberate appropriation of traditional categories by female artists keen to both criticise what they label the “patriarchy” and, at the same time, privilege an idea that gender does, to an extent, determine our individual outlook. I think of women who make art using embroidery. I think of a woman I know who, after her miscarriage, would buy flowers to decorate her apartment. A woman I know through Facebook who had four children (by two different men) uses crochet to express herself and is upfront about her predilection. In fact why should the sexes be completely equivalent in all respects, without anything differentiating them?

Placing these pictures, from another era, in the inner sanctum of your bedroom suggests to me that they hold a special place in your collection. Is there a strong emotional bond in these mementoes of childhood, and do they occupy the liminal space, between memories and dreams, that are the domain of the bedroom?

Not many people come upstairs in my house and fewer enter the bedroom. I put the desk in this room because the room is so big and I didn’t want to waste space, so my decision to locate my office here was purely economical (like using a small sandwich bag to store half an onion in the fridge for later use). It’s intriguing that you identify the realm of dreams as characterising this hang as it’s not something I thought about when making it. Certainly, memories come back to occupy our unconscious consciousness as dreams.

The three pictures have been housed in matching frames with the photo portraits mounted on similar matboard. Yet the portrait of your grandmother as a girl is light in tone; someone in the flourish of youth. The photo of your father after he died, however, is sombre in mood, and had me concerned when I first saw it. Is there an intent to show the life-cycle of the family in this particular arrangement (I’ve noted a much more welcoming photo of your dad in another email). With the floral picture and the sombre arrangement of these three pictures, I almost get the feeling of an altar or sacred site. Since I know you are not religious I wonder at this grouping of pictures and if it is perhaps paying respect to the spiritual faith that these family members practised? Or simply a collection of pictures with family significance…

Mum chose the frames of all of these pieces. The frames are each of them dark but they’re all unique (it’s difficult to see them clearly in the photo I sent you) so the construction of the three items differ in many respects (though at first glance they do seem to match). Every Sunday Granny would go to church (St Peters, Watsons Bay) but like his own father dad was vigorously anticlerical. I’m becoming more confused the older I get, coming to think in ways that I would never have contemplated possible when I was young. The more I read the more complex the matter of God becomes. 

I think that the overall effect of the hang we’re talking about is one of harmony with mementoes of the past adorning this section of wall gravitating to the photo of mum kissing dad’s face early one morning in March 2011. It was just around the time of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Do people get imprisoned in their photographs after they die? It’s perhaps a sign of healing that I cannot remember either the precise date dad passed away or whether it happened before or after the world event. All I can now confidently say is that it happened at “about” the same time. The two events are linked in my mind but their outlines blur making my memories seem unlike a crisp photograph.

Where the beach painting was a daytime vista and the Chris O’Doherty pictures also summery of season, these pictures are nocturnal in mood – less promenade cafe, more serene museum. Are you sectioning your picture hangs through the house to match varying moods? And do these uses of different domestic spaces for different art styles begin with your choice or is the house to some extent dictating the picture placements?

I do carefully choose items for different parts of the house. Choices are deliberate, considered (though someone else might make different choices). You’re astute in suggesting a memorial is the reason I put these pictures up in this section of wall. I write an annual memorial to describe what I’ve done during the year and to describe this hang (in the one to go on the blog at the end of 2021) I’ve written in the purely abstract artefact of my computer file:

This is a sentimental hang that might suggest peace and repose, the delicate yellow and olive green in the Nybo and the Stockley paintings complementing what’s in the O’Harris monotype. Once everything had been put in position on my white walls, it seemed as though the items had just been waiting for a chance to exhibit a pale refulgence evident in the sad, vivid yellow of the Smith, which picks up colours from the other pictures and transmits them to a viewer on the floorboards, but in fact this wall would change within a few months. 

We can talk about the other paintings mentioned in this bit of text at a later date if you like. The wall also contains a framed set of three photographs either mum or dad took on the balcony of their Maroochydore apartment showing the sky and the horizon. Dad had a love of the open air and of vacant spaces which made him gravitate toward apartments facing bodies of water. I’m getting more of their aerial snapshots framed to put downstairs near some war medals belonging to his grandfather and his uncle Bill.

Mum got dozens of family photos blown up and framed when we lived in SE Qld, including this photo of dad just moments after he passed away. This one is one of the smallest of the lot she got done at this time in her life, and in fact taking the photo was her idea. I was in the room with her when he died and just moments after he did so – is dying a conscious act or is it just the point where the material finally wins and becomes master of the mind? – she asked me to take a photo with my phone. She’d placed a sprig of rosemary on his pillow and bent down to kiss his face. The photo was therefore aggressively staged – and who is the audience? – but, then, mum participated in theatrical productions when she was young and free. 

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