Rachel Apelt: Luminescence

Jugglers Art Space, Brisbane

Rachel Apelt comes from a big family and a creative family, where her mother was not only the provider of a rich domestic life, but also the director and stage manager, sounding board and primary audience for eagerly growing voices. Mothers as feeders of minds as well as bodies—of course! When Apelt’s mother died, many years ago now, her art practice was also wounded—the figure, once central to Apelt’s practice, became absent and eventually artmaking ceased altogether, (contradicting that rather persistent cliché that artmaking is fuelled by suffering and alienation). Luminescence, Apelt’s first solo exhibition in nine years, is then a recovery, not or not only from grief and loss but, perhaps more importantly, a recovery of Apelt’s conversation with her mother, that rich imaginative internal realm and protected private world of home, where the real, the imaginary and the symbolic are often felt as seamlessly interconnected. However, the exhibition does not attempt to access that realm via ‘child’s eyes’ or even a nostalgic mature reflection. Rather Apelt uses it as a place and point of departure for gazing at her life now—her contemporary audience, existing intimacies, and the experience of female friendship.

The primary works in the exhibition are a series of portrait paintings, predominantly close-hand facial views of mature age women. In a deliberate echo of the (traditionally female) domestic realm, Apelt has treated the canvas as the fabric that it is, cutting, sewing, and stitching it together. Leaving seams evident and threads hanging, the paintings are literally pieced together as compositions of off-cuts. Though playful in feel, this common ground powerfully ‘socialises’ the works, expressing a sense of relationships, social circles and ways in which (particularly female) identity is bound up in managed environments. Where more traditional or typical portraiture may seek to express a subject’s identity through personal associations with setting, clothing and/or personal belongings, these portraits resist identification. They better attest to the manner in which identity is presented—the social rituals of grooming and decorating, of private occasion, or even of comforting and confiding. The same tension can be felt within the faces themselves which, while reflecting strong mature and individual features with serious intent, are also painted faces, made formal and beautiful as statements of social capacity. This series of work attests to the phenomenal capacity of women to manage their lives, their families, their relationships private and public, while oftentimes keeping their individual identities well guarded. It also alludes to the (higher) price women pay when they fail to meet social expectations of care provision. These women are far from being decorative backdrops, hollow vessels or passive stages for male protagonists in a Father’s drama, yet they are also far from occupying centre stage. The reluctance and resistance in these works is a refreshing dimension in portraiture which so often and almost inevitably boils down to an impervious ego exercise.

Luminescence points to a serious conversation about the interplay of freedom and inhibition within the subject and what exactly these terms might mean both individually and socially, particularly for women. These women, as vividly portrayed by Apelt, feel as though they may be on the verge of something, newly alive to a sense of preference within themselves. Psychoanalyst and author Adam Philips writes,

To tell a persuasive story about inhibition we need to be as imaginative about its hidden successes as we are about its more vivid failures. … There is something strangely reassuring about witnessing the familiar parade of one’s putative failings. The free will that inhibition entails is a complicating factor. Not only are there two things we might have done, one of which we have chosen; there are also the many things we are doing or intending to do in doing one and not the other. Inhibition turns out to be an exhibition of more than we realised. In our inhibitions—in the areas of our lives where certain things seem impossible—we are over-achievers. We are doing too much where we seem to be doing so little.1

The two series of smaller scale works which accompany the portraits curiously resemble this ‘overachievement’ of inhibition, the busy posturing of a self which is avoiding conclusions. These works reflect upon Apelt’s internal conversations and private struggle for a sense of identity—depicted alternately as a series of fictional female portraits, and also as iterations of an abstract symbolic shape, crystalline in form. These works may appear to be marginal, taking the form of visual notations and derivations, but they are also literally cut from the same cloth, working together to communicate a sense of environment in which the portraits swim and survive.

Rachel Apelt, In moonlight, 2015. Oil on canvas on board, polyester thread, 475 x 490mm. Courtesy the artist.

Rachel Apelt, Moon stream, 2016. Oil on canvas on board, polyester thread, 640 x 700mm. Courtesy the artist.

Rachel Apelt, An ocean stream, 2015. Oil on canvas on board, polyester thread, 570 x 490mm. Courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. Adam Philips, One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays, Hamish Hamilton, The Penguin Group, 2013, p.190.