Is it real? Deidre But-Husaim and Mary-Jean Richardson
Posted: 13 Nov 2010 | By: Stephanie Radok
The history of tendencies in South Australian art is underdeveloped. While Sydney has been defined by charm (though now grunge is often more prevalent) and Melbourne had and continues to have intellect, what is it that Adelaide possesses?
The clear air and light of South Australia could be responsible for the cool realism and suppressed sexuality present in the work of Jeffrey Smart, who grew up in Adelaide. It could also hold clues to the surrealism of painter and critic Ivor Francis. From a more recent generation, Annette Bezor, now showing her photorealist paintings regularly in New York as well as Australia, paints mostly inscrutable women who emanate sexual knowingness caught in a vaguely artificial no-space.
The influence of the various art schools and their lecturers on recent South Australian artists is also striking. These influences have often come with British accents. At the South Australian School of Art George Popperwell taught many artists to be critically concerned with the inframince, the abject and formlessness.
At Adelaide Central School of Art (ACSA), Rod Taylor taught tonal painting, in one case to his future wife Anna Platten who is now well known as the local doyenne of tonal realism. Platten is a legendary teacher of tonal realist skills at ACSA and taught both Deidre But-Husaim and Mary-Jean Richardson, who are just two among the crop of painters; others are Stephanie Crase and Morgan Allender, who have graduated from ACSA and are starting to make a name for themselves with their well-developed skills and the enigmatic atmosphere embodied in their work.
For Deidre But-Husaim (the surname is from her husband and has Tartar origins), it is the materiality of a painting which is important. She began making digital work but did not like what she felt to be the flimsy disposable quality of printed digital images. So she has taken elements of the vividness, artificiality and plasticity of digital images and recreated them in smooth finely detailed paintings. Her earlier work included images of small dolls then she made a series of works called polymorphs that were images of 'sexy' women taken from some playing cards owned by her father. More recently, But-Husaim spends hours surfing the net looking at sites of modelling agencies where young and hungry men and women place their faces in the hope that they will be picked up and become supermodels. Onto these naked often hermaphroditic faces But-Husaim paints tattoos of her own devising that she develops from embroidery patterns, upholstery fabric and the markings on animals, flowers and birds. She began working with tattoo imagery when sharing the now defunct Hedgemaze Studio at Port Adelaide with Mary-Jean Richardson and other artists. Hedgemaze overlooked a tattoo parlour and here But-Husaim saw the intimacy and the tenderness of tattooing, and the way it is currently a rite of passage for many young people.
The painting of skin is an important feature of the work of any figurative artist - to get the luminosity and radiance of skin down on canvas is to create something that always fascinates people. Mary-Jean Richardson is at the end of a research-based Masters Degree at the South Australian School of Art, University of South Australia, on the theme of 'Ambivalence, mutability and mortality: the legacy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic conventions on contemporary art'. Her early work was characterised by images of her two daughters though was deliberately not portraiture and rarely showed their faces. Instead the backs of their heads and their hair were involved, which suggested refusal, withholding and mystery. To some degree the compositions echoed the photography of South Australian-based Deborah Paauwe in which faces are covered or seen from behind and in which hair is a prominent feature.
Richardson began to introduce blots, smears and rubs into her precise realistic paintings in order to give them an edge of unreality and to introduce what she has since identified as the Gothic. For a recent show of small paintings at Greenaway Art Gallery, while thinking about one of those criminal cases where a woman spends years of her life in a cellar, Richardson made works in which ectoplasm was spookily present and flanked by clear luminous skin. Gothic is, the artist tells me, not a genre but a mode, and a mode is like a mood. To understand it you must think of Tasmanian Gothic or New Zealand Gothic, and then there is daylight Gothic, which occurs in Australia in the middle of the day in the light but is full of emotional and physical darkness.
The success of artists such as Sam Leach (born in Adelaide), who won both the Archibald and the Wynne this year, and Michael Zavros, who has just won the Moran National Portrait Prize, shows that the prize-givers and the market are currently very keen on painting that is illusionistic, highly skilled and engages in a mixture of fantasy and realism. Like Leach and Zavros, both But-Husaim and Richardson engage with the traditions of oil painting but bring it into the twenty-first century with all its glamour, doubts and uncertainty. n
Images from top:
Deidre But-Husaim, Tiberius, 2010, oil on linen, 152 x 152cm.
Deidre But-Husaim, Ekaterina, 2010, oil on linen, 152 x 112cm.
Mary-Jean Richardson, Girl with hummingbird, 2008, oil on canvas, 56 x 77cm.