private rooms

anne wallace, ten years of painting
Brisbane City Gallery
27 July - I 0 September 2000

The fan has for centuries been used in the erotic interplay between the seen and the unseen, the knowable and the unknowable, the object of desire and the onlooker, to tease, to flirt, to mock. From Western fancy-dress balls to Chinese Opera and Kabuki theatre, the fan has been used by males and females alike to conceal not only identity but also sexuality in the dance of courtship, love and lust. Somewhat passe in today's sexually liberated society, the fan appears in Anne Wallace's painting Assignation as a nostalgic reminder of a past generation when desire was sublimated in a subtle, more calculated game of longing and denial. As the first work one encounters on entering the artist's retrospective, 'Private Rooms, Anne WallaceTen Years of Painting', Assignation sets the tenor for the remainder of the exhibition. In the artist's statement we are told that 'assignation' is 'apportionment, attribution to, formal transference, appointment (of time or place), illicit love meeting'. In this illicit love meeting a female sits alone in quiet repose behind an empty table, a delicately coloured fan masking her face. Frozen in a perpetual moment, the woman's pale, almost deathlike, ivory flesh distances her from reality. Perhaps a self-portrait of the artist or a portrait of womanhood-the viewer is met by an absence, a Lacanian lack, a body without identity, an object of the 'male' gaze, a question rather than an answer. The exhibition, itself an appointment between artist and audience, gives glimpses into the nature of femininity and the individual's journey from childhood and adolescence into adulthood and sexual maturity. The title of the exhibition, Private Rooms, references a work produced by Wallace in 1998, which noticeably is absent from Simon Ell iott 's final curatorial selection. Femininity has historically been defined by the private and the domestic, the home and its many rooms. Whereas some feminist artists aggressively champion the personal as political, Wallace's gesture does not appear to carry the same motivation. Her works speak more of the psychological formation of identity, subjectivity and the self. At the same time, by employing the techniques of realism, she highlights the condition of the artist and the impossibility of representation and objective perception through an empirical, realist tradition of painting. Her figurative works of the early nineties are reminiscent of the neoclassicism of artists such as David and lngres and the surrealism of De Chirico, Matisse and Balthus. In Sour the Boiling Honey, Wallace presents an allegory in the mimetic Renaissance tradition. Inspired by a line from Dylan Thomas's poem 'I See the Boys of Summer in their Ruin', the background of the triptych captures the burgeoning sexuality of adolescent youth and all the angst it entails. The artist is positioned seated in the foreground of the central panel donned in the attire of a male, boots to the right of her feet, phallic, upright umbrella

to the left, a book-a symbol of knowledge and learning in her hand. Eschewing femininity, the artist seems introspectively detached from her surroundings. Weighted in narrative and personal symbolism , interpretation here

remains open-ended. Implicit in Sour the Boiling Honey as in other works of this period, such as Exemplar, Virgins and Exhibitionist, is an underlying critique of stereotypes of female sexuality and the social construction of gender. In Exemplar, three schoolgirls concealing a slingshot, plane and books behind their backs gather around the feet of a young woman. This blonde role-model stands aloof, distanced from the three 'tomboys' in the foreground carrying emblems of male preoccupation- war, technology and learning, respectivelyand a group of diminutive, older women in the background. She separates the present from the past but it is unclear as to whether her enigmatic presence is as paragon or pariah. In Virgins, a girl, rather than taming and wooing the mythical unicorn, pierces the heart of the beast with a dagger. Her accomplice witnesses the scene. They act out an aggressive rebellion against the phallic signifier. In the psychological drama of these earlier works Wallace appeals to us to think beyond sexual stereotypes. The paintings, In Retrospect and In Foreign Parts are pivotal in the artist's transition, stylistically and thematically. Each image represents a female, back to the viewer, walking into a void. These are no longer the figures of adolescents but mature young women. Walking into a shadowy grove of trees, like entering the labyrinth of a garden maze, the woman of In Retrospect can only look backward as she holds the fragment of a mirror to her eyes. She observes her past while stepping blindly toward her future. Through the reflection of her gaze she engages with the viewer in a duplicitous process of mirroring. We can never really fathom her true identity as she presents a mirrored self. With In Foreign Parts the woman remains completely

anonymous and oblivious to the viewer. She journeys forward toward an empty, rocky chasm, about to be consumed by an arid landscape. The possible psychoanalytic interpretations of these images abound. From 1994-996 Wallace attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her work dating from this period displays a maturation of style with greater technical proficiency and a keener understanding of the medium. Simplification of form and composition is matched by an expanded palette and a more dexterous application of paint. Wallace abandons the moral allegory and personal narrative of her earlier work in favour of a more stylised, almost filmic approach to the image. With the sleekness of advertising and the suspense of Hollywood drama, these later works are disturbing but also seductive, replete with sexual tension-an open invitation as well as a foreboding sense of violation. Through technical devices, clothing and decor, the onlooker is transported visually into the world of the fifties. The surrealist-inspired films of Alfred Hitchcock immediately come to mind. In Damage, the blood trickling down the legs of the young woman carries the sinister undertones of Psycho. A crime has been committed, whether it be self-inflicted or directed by another. Cropping the image to a view of the victim's legs, in the tradition of film stills and television commercials, Wallace leaves us guessing as to the extent of the assault and the identity of the perpetrator. We are left suspended between the fictitious, dreamlike quality of the image and the forced realism of the style. Equally disconcerting is Wallace's representation of women. Most of the works from this period allude to the female body, but it is no longer woman as an autonomous whole, but rather, an absence or incompletion. Invoking the erotic, Wallace increasingly focuses on the body's erogenous zones. This is woman as decentred 'other'sensually elusive object of the male gaze. In a sense Wallace perpetuates the same fracture that is present in her artistic male predecessors. Where the female subject's identity is revealed through the representation of facial features, such as in Soft Winds I or Stardust (Marilyn) , the eyes are left intentionally blank. Herein lies the paradox of the development of Wallace's oeuvre. Her earlier images of adolescence have an element of critical defiance, but these later works seem almost complicit in the process of female objectification. Or are they? Are these women submissive, passive objects of the gaze, or are they very much in control, aware of the power of their own sexuality? Is this woman as victim or woman as femme fatale and provocatrice? In Pate Morning our glance alights upon a bedroom scene. With the long, narrow, landscape format and lifesize scale of the image we become overly conscience of our own act of looking, like peering through a keyhole or gazing through a camera viewfinder. Following the compositional devices, our eye is drawn to the centre of the image only to be confronted by a spatial void. From there our vision shifts to the top of a woman's thighs on the left. Supine on a bed, her legs are juxtaposed against a piece of cut crystal from a dresser set on the right. The contents of this crystal jar, presumably precious jewellery, are not revealed. Through positioning, the jar could be read as a metaphor for the woman-undisclosed, but there for the taking. While Pale Morning is quietly submissive, Springtime depicts woman as voluptuously wanton. This female, although truncated at the neck, is very much alive and empowered. Wearing a short dress and high heels she sits facing a cityscape of skyscrapers. This is the modern city as the zenith of male architecture. The woman does not seem daunted by her environment but, with legs

apart, invitingly relishes the scene. In essence, Wallace's art acknowledges that there is an ambiguity, an unquantifiable quality, about 'femininity'. Like the tabula rasa in her work Secret Paintings, there is something withheld or hidden and open to interpretation that constitutes both woman's difference and power. Upon reconsideration, the viewer is left to ponder if the woman behind the fan in Assignation is tremulously waiting in anticipation or secretly laughing at us in our

ignorance. Whatever the answer, Anne Wallace has the ability to leave the audience both unsettled and spellbound.