Anne Wallace

Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane and Darren Knight Gallery, Melbourne

Brooding, sentimental and passive, Anne Wallace's oil paintings appear profoundly conservative and not a little unlike English nee-Romantic painting from the late 1940s such as that of John Minion. They escape, however, the fate of charm because they are unnaturally self-contained and their stripped-down rhetoric is that of an austere neo-classicism, suggesting the unexpected communication of an ethical dimension usually dismissed in contemporary art. The considerable attention surrounding the work of a young artist such as Wallace, demonstrated in surprisingly large gallery traffic, favourable reviews and considerable sales, testifies to the theory that Anne Wallace's paintings strike a contemporary nerve. It is doubly surprising, then, that her figure compositions are both so utterly different from the irredeemably trashy art repeatedly lionised in many magazines and curated exhibitions, especially that of the 1995 Perspecta, and from the equally sterile, reactionary expressivity beloved of the art world's aging conspiracy theorists. Apparently, the resurfacing of literate painting-avoiding at the same time, in this inherently conservative medium, a traditional valorization of the heroic figure of the artist-answers a widely felt but contradictory cultural need.

Critical strait-jacketing will endlessly argue against any such ability to repoliticise, in effect, figurative painting-to remobilise the complex cultural conversations of resemblance and poetics located in mimetic representation. Such an aim inevitably steers dangerously close to both obscurity and banality even though these were exactly the qualities most valued by the last decade's major grandfather figures from Andy Warhol to Bruce Nauman. There is, nevertheless, a widespread prevailing interest-clear in conversations with any number of young artists- in the possibilities of a melancholic artistic language as conservative as that of Anne Wallace. Such renovations of seemingly exhausted cultural forms have been attempted any number of times over the last two centuries; the first such manifestation occurred amongst the neo-Classical followers of David, who were as obsessed with the renovation of painting and its poetics as they were determined to avoid the trivial subversions of codes practiced by the academic cutting-edge of the period. Ideas of poetics have been associated with reification and the commodity fetish for so long that they have become generally unacceptable. However, in more recent literature such as Hal Foster's book, Convulsive Beauty, and Thomas Grow's essay on Ross Bleckner, there are signs that this connection is being reassessed. Melancholia is usually a pathology and a sign of a lack of integration: is it therefore possible to make major melancholic painting, such as Anne Wallace attempts, at this point in time? Is it possible to image a disreputable classicism?

Wallace's paintings feature large, almost life-sized figures posed alone or in self-consciously meaningful tableaux, rather like stripped-down, historicist Eric Fischl 's. This, of course, is an accurate description of Fischl's figuration without his allegories of consumption and brutal sexual politics, for both artists' figures and compositions are unmethodically and productively borrowed from the history of art. At this point of her career, she also shares Fischl's weak drawing and scrubby, thin paintwork; nevertheless, like Fischl, Wallace's technique sufficiently approximates her historical models to recreate the aura of gravity and profundity that sets the imagination loose in a way unattainable to third-generation neo-conceptualism. Wallace 's Down by the Sally Gardens, 1995, then, is an obscure allegory of indeterminate meaning: her standing figure fits into a symbolic economy of poetics in a way that is at both under-and over-determined, for the woman appears to connote longing, loneliness and contemplation but adapts herself over-neatly to facile readings of late-adolescent self-awareness. This feyness, as well as the close-toned, drab greyness of her palette, is very like English painting of the 1940s and 1950s.

Wallace's paintings demand to be read as gendered, for the rhetoric of her compositions is, despite my superficial psychologising, a contradictory mix of Balthus-like introspection and muscular Davidian moralism, complicated by the frequent substitution of female for the male bodies featured in neo-Classical painting. On the one hand, her female subjects and their disposition, in paintings such as Succubus, 1995, is determined as much by Wallace's adaptations to her inadequacies of drawing as by a metaphoric program, necessarily generating images of female sexual avoidance and display that are reminiscent of Balthus. She has clearly coded a discourse of sexual politics into her paintings: in Down by the Sally Gardens, 1995, Wallace separates the young woman from her audience by a screen of twigs; in Untitled, 1995, the gaze is corralled by more-than-phallic plant fronds, marking out, in the process, visual trajectories like a figurative version of Duchamp's Stoppages. On the other hand, Wallace's inversion of Classical models-so that female bodies carry moral messages usually reserved for males- reverses this sexual charge, especially upon the inevitable recollection of Wallace's own gender. Such figures, which strangely enough appear in paintings such as Siren, 1995, and In Foreign Parts, 1995, are not particularly erotic but are definitely purposeful, for these ghost-like women are defined by the studied, rebus-like appearance of their scenes. I think a contradiction between nature and the studio is both the principal subject and the problem of Wallace's work, for her synthetic images require a level of painterly accomplishment that she has yet to demonstrate, for considerable virtuosity is unfortunately necessary to set in motion the ambitious associations to which she aspires. Situated at the crucial intersection of several so far unreported cross-currents now preoccupying many artists and audiences, the innocence of Anne Wallace's figures is also a valorization of enigma.