Formal engagements

Susan Norrie: R.S.V.P.

R.S.V.P. was Susan Norrie's first exhibition in New York and was held in late 1990. Each of the seven works included in the show has the same format. On the left-hand side is a crafted, wood-veneer 'cabinet' (really a shallow box, four inches deep, with a shelf-cavity built in at the centre), the same height and width as the adjoining, unframed, painted surface. The polisher veneers are themselves rich surfaces, capable of sustaining illusions of depth. Propped against the back of each of the shelves is a small painting, either a non figurative surface, the pale head of a boy with his mouth held in a neat '0', or, in one instance, an exquisitely painted egg, narrow end down, which you are almost tempted to catch. The large painted panels are layered, complexly textured, monochromatic, non-figurative surfaces, in a number of which are buried (or from which emerge) the letters or parts of the letters, R.S.V.P., so that they are readable in some places, not in others.

These are beautiful and curious surfaces, for the same layering of paint might have been used to produce depth, rather than Norrie's flourishing, Baroquely artificial flatness. Given the lettering – which should be referred to as a sign, because it is understood formally, (flatly, perhaps), without the necessity of translation – the viewer is prompted to ask what kind of invitation has been issued. But the relationships between the cabinets, the images and surfaces contained within them, and the large paintings, is recalcitrant.

Reference may be made here to the work of the German painter, Gerhard Richter, whose investigations may be alluded to in areas of Norrie's surfaces (for instance, where paint appears to have been dragged across the canvas). Where Norrie redeploys painterly virtuosity, recent work of Richter's juxtaposes surfaces playing on 'expressive' gesture with convention al representational images. As in Norrie's work the relationship does not give itself up easily. The juxtaposition of different styles tempts an historical reading, from representation to abstraction, but in the end cocks an ironic eyebrow at that narrative. Norrie's work also toys with notions of history. The egg, for instance, that fragile point of origin (and suspect – what about the chicken?), is juxtaposed with a panel suggesting vertiginous motion, while the image of the boy is derived from a pre-First World War German doll, 'Whistling Joe', who whistled when squeezed. These images of origin and of childhood, the latter also suggesting a pivotal period in history, including the history of modernism (in turn raising questions about the smaller non-figurative surfaces), are contained, even perhaps shelved, in the finely-crafted, beautifully finished cabinets. Next to them, outside and unframed, exceeding them, is a kind of surplus of surface.

Childhood's toy propped in a precious container, however, is an image which strongly suggests memory. If Richter's remains cool, Norrie's subtly disturbing and memorable work occasionally suggests a quite sombre working through of a painterly history. This is not to say that her lush surfaces are without any framework at all. But this history is not clear cut or neatly resolved (the viewer need not know about Whistling Joe, for instance): the relationship between the cabinets and the paintings is not explicit, and there is no manifesto relating the painting of the present, or future, to that of the past. In the end, Norrie's work suggests that relationship is embedded in the surfaces themselves.

We are left to consider again the exhibition 's title, and sign, R.S.V.P., and the nature of the engagement. Norrie's work invites the viewer to respond, not with the 'might see you then ' that's right for over-the-shoulder invitations for a few drinks on Saturday night, but with the attention to time and place and detail which is appropriate to formal events.

Incidentally, Norrie was able to complete these works in New York, due to the grant of a residency at the Visual Arts/Craft Board's studio in Soho. The VA/CB is to be commended, for enabling strong artists with opportunities to exhibit overseas to overcome some of the logistic difficulties which accompany Australia 's location ought to reflect better on Australia 's artistic community and institutions than any number of more or less bogus tours of 'Australian' art.