Sue Norrie

Objets d'art
Mori Gallery, Sydney
8 November - 26 November 1988

Since it first attracted critical attention in the early '80s, Sue Norrie's work has consistently invited contradictory responses from its audiences. Her obsessive renderings of conventionally "feminine" subject matter induced a sense of vertigo in many viewers. To embrace - or to parody - a distinctively female variant of fetishism is still to construct the feminine as spectacle: object of masculine desire - even if it also sustains a feminist reading as expropriation of an exclusively male perversion. Postmodernism, however, delights in intellectual pastiche, and has consistently celebrated Norrie's ability to extract nausea from the mundane aspects of existence. Objets D'Art resumes the theme of the personal and the obsessive in her work. This time, the mode is seduction rather than fetishism.

lt is an interesting commentary on the local art scene that the debate around the apparent "decorativeness" of Objets D'Art should so far have been conducted without any articulation of its latent sexual politics. lt may be a cliché of a certain kind of politics, but (as the contemporary discourses of Aboriginality so powerfully attest) victims have a way of turning the language of oppression into weapons of resistance. So it is with Norrie's use of decorativeness in this exhibition. Norrie has been spectacularly successful in a world which once excluded women by trivialising their work as "decorative". Ironically, that very success now compels her to confront the trivialisation of her art, not as "women's work", but as high art merchandise. Norrie's determination not to become a victim of this situation is expressed in her attempts in Objets D'Art to force the issue of commodification in the very act of submission to it. Under the circumstances, the strategy of a defiant display of decorativeness in these paintings could be calculated to achieve the desired effect. The combination of her reputation with a social climate sensitised to masculinist strategies of exclusion would ensure that if anyone did dare to accuse her of decorativeness, they would be obliged at least to consider the artist's explanations of this appearance in her work.

Whether she actually manages to subvert the iconography of opulence remains a matter of debate. Ultimately perhaps, it doesn't really matter. It's the kind of enterprise which even in failure would at least succeed in raising the issue. To pull it off would defy the Duchampian edict that "Today there is no shocking but not shocking". Sue Norrie may just have stumbled on one last taboo which the successful woman artist is strategically located to assail: the "tackiness" of good taste. The domestic-scaled spaces of the Mori Gallery could have sustained an examination of the proposition that art just is interior decoration. At first glance, an installation shot of Objets D'Art might look a bit like a photographic layout for Home Beautiful. Most of the works were painted in Italy, home to many of the world's finest interior designers, including the Memphis school, whose creations have recently found their way into art galleries - even in this country – contesting the marginality of objets d'art in the hierarchy of plastic art forms.

But for all this, the impact of the installation may in the end derive less from its challenge to the painting- sculpture/other distinction than from its metaphorising of the conventional expatriate's perception of Australia as cultureless. The hyperreal waratahs, flannel flowers and gum leaves exaggerate the fragility of local symbols of identity, the bare white walls and polished concrete floors of the Mori Gallery giving a sense of the local art scene as an emptiness, an artistic vacuum. Norrie is adept at putting ideas in circulation around her work. Her catalogue notes for the exhibition commend it to its audience as a response to the "problem of a neocolonial culture", focused by being in Europe in the bicentennial year. The European vantage point shows in the rich golds, maroons and greens of her Sienese palette and the layered and enamelled surfaces, which simulate - even celebrate - the western High Art hegemony by invoking the easel painting traditions through which it is enforced.

Locally, for a variety of reasons including the vicissitudes of demography, the Orient has begun to rival "Woman's" special place in representations of European experience as the deepest and most recurring image of the Other. Norrie however cleverly avoids the Woman-Other-Orient cliché by locating herself on the western side of the divide. The high kitsch stencils of geishas and references to lkebana flower arrangements are a gesture towards the hidden agendas of popular Orientalism, but they also come full circle and invoke hobbyism and the old pathos of women's creativity within the domestic sphere. Simone de Beauvoir once dismissed the notion of a distinctively female creative attitude as "feminitude": a conflation for the contained spectacle of femininity with a properly feminist outlook. Objets D'Art is saved from feminitude by the grandiose scale on which the artist has taken up her interrogations of decorativeness. Their masculinist authority of scale paradoxically draws the original artist-as-prostitute issue into a public political debate about prostitution and a woman's right to sell even herself in order to work- in this case to paint. Maybe this is Objets D'Art's real challenge to the art fraternity: what will postmodernism do with one of its heroines who exploits its rhetoric to engage in such an un-post-modernly pursuit as the logic of her own autobiography?