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the art of judith wright and ian friend
Last year, at the galleries of Andrew Baker and Jan Manton, two senior Brisbane-based artists, Judith Wright and Ian Friend, held solo shows. To my mind, each, in their respective ways summed up a phrase from Hal Foster’s book ‘The Return of the Real’, where he states that both modernism and postmodernism demonstrate ‘a continual process of anticipated futures and reconstructed pasts’.1 Foster was in part referring to the process of ‘deferred action’ whereby subjectivity is never fixed or established once and for all. I like this notion as it fits with malleability, slippage, and shifting borders of awareness. It also implies exploration along paths that may be uncertain but that are pursued nevertheless.
Wright’s exhibition comprised her characteristic large-scale monochromatic drawings of abstract shapes, referencing ‘the body’, silhouetted on translucent white Japanese paper. Startlingly new was the procession of small bronzes, cast from a soft claylike substance, which was placed in front of them. Each with a subtle colour difference stood no higher than twelve centimetres from waist level on the single narrow bench. Given the over-all title of Proposition, these little objects from 2010, were conceived in groups of three. Important this, as the risk of misunderstanding the artist’s sculpture as discreet stand-alone (and only ‘hand-held’) personages would otherwise be high and would ignore the compelling dialogue between them. Nevertheless, for those who know Wright’s oeuvre well, there is always the awareness that her imagery is about the body in counterpoint with others, both animate and inanimate, of intimate human relationships, of connections with archetypal (possibly ritualistic and totemic) presences, and with the fluidity between the conscious and unconscious mind in determining her art.
When I first saw these little sculptures in Wright’s studio, reminders of both western masters (Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning) and of those that still are inadequately interpreted in art museums (African ‘guardian figures’, wooden ceremonial figures from the Pacific) came to mind. This collapsing of indexical distinctions in her work is only one reading. As I lingered with each group of bronzes, I realised that through their deliberately rough and awkward forms, with marks of the artist’s fingers still present, a tactile sense was paramount and that the animation this gave to each was carried through in the relationships amongst them. For instance, a Buddha-like form sat in the middle of a reclining torso shape, while on the other side was a rudimentary woman. She appeared again in another group with her head yearning forwards towards a shape that, in its posture, suggested inwardness and the earth-bound, while the third companion, cipher-like, bent out and upwards.
While not normally spoken of together, there is common ground between Judith Wright and Ian Friend in their new work, and this is through a shared commitment to materiality as conceptual as much as formal substance. While Wright’s film-work was also present at Jan Manton’s, it was less readily connected on this occasion to her monochromatic drawings than the procession of objects arrayed on their narrow bench. The ‘haptic’ is vital to both practitioners; the need to realise an idea, memory and sensation through the very act of direct making which retains a quality of both touch and facture. Foster, elsewhere in his collection of essays, is quoted as acknowledging that particular intrinsic values inscribed in artistic practices are not ‘dead letters’ however radical the transformation of a field might appear.2 It is here that modernism, with its truth to materials, cannot be so easily dislodged and where the exhibitions by Wright and Friend sat to a large extent.
For Friend, watercolour drawings/paintings, which are his usual modus operandi, were matched on this occasion by series of oil paintings on canvas. In avoidance of any obvious analogies to landscape, these paintings are vertical and have a deliberate architectonic structure. This is especially so with the compositions titled Tracing the Paths of Memory: Biting the Air (2009-2010). Here, blue grounds (built up by many thin layers of pigment) are figured by full-brush sweeps downwards in white, and those that are ‘dryer’ for veiling effects. Only towards the end of this contemplative working process does Friend add opaque white oblong shapes and rectangles (sometimes in yellow) that float like reference points. The first series of these oils (2009) which were on display have a more apparent crossover with his works on paper. They use drifts of colour on canvas and a loose chance-like effect of staining and pigment runs. There are flashes of the white painted background in an overall impression of blanching and blanking, of redefining and a ‘push-pull’ effect (harking back to Hans Hoffman) as black liquid gestures share the same terrain as soft grey and white. A ‘poisonous’ yellow (the artist’s term) is used for occasional small ovals, linking the work to that of the modernist painter Ben Nicholson. Beyond this, it is a colour that determinedly defers a comforting link with either the natural environment or the divine.
This is an artist who traverses metaphysical terrains that are underpinned by the poetry of, primarily, J.H. Prynne, including the latter’s ‘The Oval Window’, and music of the sort that allows for quiet attention over many hours. Friend’s working method is slow, deliberate, and yet inventively capricious. The new drawings at Andrew Baker’s have a supple linearity to them that is akin to art nouveau expression and bypasses the usual ink and gouache drenching of the artist’s earlier works on paper. This is particularly apparent in the series titled Tracing the Paths of Memory: Biting the air (2010). The blue, that wondrous hue, is nevertheless retained.
Paper as a matrix with a character and life of its own has been recognised and prized by both Friend and Wright for much of their careers. It continues to have a firm place in these two solo exhibitions. Whatever mark-making and soaking occurs in working an image up, the former consistently maintains his preference for small or medium scale stock, that which is thick and textured and with a deckle edge. Often the imagery dictates that the sheets are diptychs or triptychs in a horizontal formation. In Wright’s case, paper for her wall statements has usually been fine, expansive in scale and skin-like. Both use this medium as a theatre for enacting memories (or the idea of memory itself) and intimations, in ways that are deeply evocative and open to reverie on the part of the viewer.
Ian Friend’s paintings in oil, which are classical in their tenor, and the intimate and haunting processional bronzes by Judith Wright are both extensions of previous work and fresh departures for the artists. Whether read apart or in unison with their works on paper, these new developments considerably enrich their respective practices.
Judith Wright, Desire, 2009-10. Installation of three drawings. Acrylic on Japanese paper, each 200 x 200cm. Pinned to wall beyond procession of three bronzes, each 10 x 12cm. Private collection, Brisbane. Photography Peter Wright.
Ian Friend, Tracing the paths of memory: Biting the air #5, 2009-10. Oil on canvas, 165 x 105cm. Private collection, Brisbane.
Judith Wright, Desire, 2009-10. Detail. Bronzes, each 10 x 12cm. Private collection, Brisbane. Photography Peter Wright.
1. Hal Foster, ‘Whatever Happened to Postmodernism’, in The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.,1999, p.207.
2. Miwon Kwon, ‘The Return of the Real: an interview with Hal Foster’, Flash Art, Vol. XXIV, March/April, 1996, p.62. Foster’s book attracted critical appraisals from a number of scholars who pursued varying aspects of his arguments.