Jenny Sages

Posted: 11 Dec 2005  |  By: Sasha Grishin

At the age of 52, in 1985, Jenny Sages turned to fulltime art making. For the preceding 30 years she had worked in commercial art as a freelance writer and illustrator, but the conversion to serious art was both sudden and total. She took part in an outback workshop with Clifton Pugh and while travelling in the Bungles and experiencing the overwhelming beauty of the place while painting her gouaches, she realised there could be no turning back. She describes her conversion as being "overnight" and subsequently there has been a string of art awards, including this year's Wynne Prize and a prestigious acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery.

Born of Russian Jewish background in Shanghai, the family emigrated to Australia in 1948 when it became apparent that Mao was coming to power. In response to my question as to when she decided she wanted to be an artist, Sages responded, "I cannot remember a time when I wanted to do anything else".

Jenny Sages

After a turbulent period of schooling in Sydney and expulsion from East Sydney Tech, Sages left for New York, where she graduated from the Franklin School of Art. By the time she returned to Australia in 1955, she had married an Israeli and following the birth of her daughter, Tanya, she became involved in earning a living. Her conversion to art was not a career move - it was a calling.

The paintings of Jenny Sages are unlike those of anybody else. She is the quiet achiever on the Australian art scene. She is admired and respected as an artist's artist, but generally has kept out of the limelight. Her encaustic oil and pigment technique is also unusual. The wax gives the paintings a certain density, the surface is gouged and scarred and the powder pigment is rubbed in by hand. It is a very labour intensive, intuitive method of work, as she notes: "I work on the edge of anxiety, I suppose it is that Russian thing."

Technique, however, is not Sages' most distinguishing feature, which is the imagery and general sensibility of her art. Her paintings have the quality of a profound meditation on the everyday, on landscapes and on people's faces. Sages recently noted about her series of genre scenes: "They are predellas. They are story boards. They are frames within frames. They are the subject of my fiercest attention and my worst nightmares."

On one hand, the pictures appear like snapshots, casual and direct observations, but on the other hand, they are remarkably compressed images. They are intense observations where, despite the apparent innocence, there lurks a sinister tinge. In her paintings of a young woman, sometimes accompanied by three children, we are presented with the attractive face of a young woman, where we notice that the surrounding heads betray a heightened and unhealthy degree of interest in her presence. It is as if innocence is compromised by the circumstances of its exposure, with each painting conceived as a parable designed to expose a certain duality of vision and being.

In many of her landscapes set in Toowoomba, one can almost feel the radiating heat as children walk barefooted on the bare earth. But the atmosphere itself is often one of melancholy.. There is a perception of loss which is not illustrated or even hinted at in the imagery, but somehow evoked in the presentation of the figures within their bush setting. D. H. Lawrence once described his novel Kangaroo as a "thought dventure". It was "where nothing happens and such a lot of things should happen". It is this quality of a thought adventure which is the most noticeable characteristic of Sages' best paintings.

She notes about her own work: "The images are protected in their own space that one cannot invade. It parallels our own existence. Looking with contemporary eyes the picture becomes merely a world of appearances." The titles for her paintings frequently seem to hint at the possibility of another dimension of being, an implied hidden narrative to which we are intuitively drawn. We are basically invited to explore these parallel universes and make sense of those little dramas which have their own sense of profundity.

Sages is a master painter who in her work celebrates a sense of visual intelligence. Her paintings are quiet and perhaps understated and have the quality of an enormous presence, but it is a presence which is not established through scale or simple gimmicks of the artist's trade. "I have walked this country for 20 years; what happens in the paintings is what I feel and I am reinventing myself every time I face the canvas".

Image: Jenny Sages. Courtesy the artist.

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Issue 38