01 Aug 2003

Contemporary Women Painters
Curated by
Cathy Blanchflower . Marion Borgelt . Jacki Fleet . Wendy Kelly . Ildiko Kovacs .
Dorothy Napangardi . Gloria Petyarre . Angelina Pwerle . Aida Tomescu . Savanhdary Vongpoothorn
...And to be featured in the Cupola room, blown glass by Clare Belfrage (see below for further information)
Opening Thursday July 31, 6-8pm, 2003,
by Susan Donnelly, Director of Arts Development, NSW Ministry for the Arts
Exhibition dates: Friday August 1 – Sunday 7 September, 2003  
Curator's Floor Talk, Saturday 9 August, 2pm, 2003
The current resurgence of abstract painting may be viewed as a post-modernist phase, in the specific sense that contemporary artists paint in the full consciousness of the complex history of modernist abstraction, or, as in the case of Aboriginal artists, from a totally different cultural and historical starting point.  The paintings in Indecorous Abstraction are not post-modernist in a reactionary sense of the term, but rather, can be seen as a further evolution or mutation of abstraction after modernism.  They look forward with hope rather than picking over the bones of a past era.  They are ‘indecorous’ only in so far as they transcend ‘décor’ and the decorative and reveal the powerful abstraction of contemporary Australian women artists.  
Indecorous Abstraction contains diverse approaches to abstract painting by contemporary women artists of differing cultural backgrounds and different generations.  Yet there are connecting threads, points of convergence, as well as sharp contrasts.  This may be partly to do with common gender, partly to do with the process of painting and the nature of abstraction.  In the current climate of artistic debate it is close to heresy to emphasis aspects of cross-cultural commonality rather than those of cultural difference (note these are not mutually exclusive) between indigenous and non-indigenous artists or to suggest that abstract paintings by women artists  may have shared qualities that are partly due to gender.
As curator of the exhibition, I have been concerned to avoid gender type-casting and leveling of individual difference, and have deliberately included paintings that disrupt these tendencies.  Yet, I have found, both in this exhibition and in two previous exhibitions I have curated that focused on women artists , that there are recurring qualities in the approach to abstraction by women artists.  These include an interest in layering, texture, organic line, rhythmic and repetitive patterns, centred design and woven matrices.  
On a formal level Indecorous Abstraction is an exhibition about the visceral power of abstract paintings to entrance the eye and stir the psyche through rhythmic movement of brush marks, finely calibrated shifts in tone, textural nuance and pulsating colour.  It is about the subtle tonal and textural effects achieved through application of multiple layers of opaque or translucent paint.  It is about the artists’ use of organic line, pattern and repetition to move beyond mere decoration or design (once seen as the domain of the feminine and of the interior decorator), to create contemplative rhythms, resonance and mesmerising fields of materialised energy.  
The exhibition reflects my long-standing intrigue with the link between visual and psychic stimulation and the relationship between abstraction in art and science.  If through the artist’s use of pattern, texture and colour a painting acts on the optical nerves to create a materialised field of energy can this ever be a purely visual sensation?  
Is our sense of existential freedom and the autonomy of our individual response to art compromised by the increasing scientific evidence that some of that response to abstract design is primal and hard-wired into our cerebral cortex; while it is also evidence of our highest cerebral powers of conceptualising elegant order in the chaotic realm of the visual?  
The eminent evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book Consilience (1998) speculates:
‘In both the arts and sciences the programmed brain seeks elegance, which is the parsimonious and evocative description of pattern to make sense out of a confusion of detail.’  
Supporting the proposition that there are universally shared neurological triggers - as well as culturally conditioned factors - influencing our response to abstraction in art, noted neuro-scientist Vilayanur Ramachandran used his Reith Lecture for BBC Radio 4 to propose ten ‘universal laws of art’ which cut across cultural boundaries.  These include ‘Repetition, rhythm and orderliness, balance and symmetry.’   
Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’s perforated paintings emit a shimmer of finely patterned colour that mesmerises the eye.  Yet within the dance of colour, created by tiny globules of paint pushed through the perforations, there is the calm of balance and order.  Finely woven patterns of Laotian textiles, the flickering light and muted shades of the Australian bush are fused with spiritual influences from Buddhism.  The fine dot paintings of Aboriginal desert art, as seen in this exhibition in the work of Dorothy Napangardi and Angelina Pwerle, are also a possible influence on Vongpoothorn’s approach to colour and pattern.  
In comparison to Vongpoothorn’s ordered designs, Angelina Pwerle freely interprets her Bush Plum Dreaming to create less structured layers of molecular colour.  At times her paintings evoke celestial nebulae, dense clusters of volatile vaporous clouds; at others they suggest the heat shimmer of the desert blooming after rain.
A cosmic sense of the macrocosm within the microcosm is immanent in Warlpiri artist Dorothy Napangardi’s paintings of her sacred custodial country at Mina Mina.  In the notes provided by Gallery Gondwana on her painting, Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa (1999), the intricately interwoven filaments of white overlaid on either a black or ochre ground are stated as deriving from the crystalline patterns of salt encrusted on dried out clay-pans. This site is interpreted in Napangardi’s  innovative painterly language as :
‘an intricate network of lines that collide and implode on top of each other creating a play of tension and expansion, transporting the viewer through a myriad of intersections.’
Gloria Petyarre uses a glowing palette of gradations of green and gold, applying dense, repetitive brush marks in rhythmic waves. This vibrating optical field of movement emits an almost tangible, intense energy.  Petyarre, like the other Utopia artist, Angelina Pwerle, is notable for her experimental approach to use of colour and her free interpretation of her Dreamings.  Both artists paint traditional women’s business, centred on bush tucker, but have developed distinctive painting styles and interpretations that can be likened to the approach of non-indigenous artists.
Using the mandala archetype, Jacki Fleet creates a rhythmic translucent swirl of brush strokes in a repetitive pattern, emanating from a central energy source.  The original inspiration for the Pulse series of paintings was termites swarming around a light source, and this is still a residual presence in the wing shape of the brush marks.  Fleet applies layers of charcoal, acrylic, oils and shellac to evoke a sense of light penetrating through layers, generating a tension between the material and immaterial dimensions of the painting.
Drawn from the emerging generation of artists who finished their training in the 1990s, Perth artist Cathy Blanchflower’s formalist approaches to pattern in abstraction is in many respects light years away from the spiritual dimension of paintings discussed so far.  She has said of her optical paintings that she uses pattern to ‘set up a field of movement’ so that the eye moves around rather than focusing on any one point.  The patterns are built up from geometric shapes – ‘hand done without tape, the resulting organic quality is crucial as the many small inconsistencies create a life to the work.’     It is interesting that there are some parallels here with other painters who are using this optical power of abstraction as a way in to the spiritual, whereas for Blanchflower seduction of the eye is an end in itself.
Repetitive designs, which are used by many of the artists in this exhibition can be a meditative act for the painter as well as the viewer as they require slow, meticulous building up of layers and patterns.  In Aboriginal art this is bound up with the re-enactment of Dreamings through the act of painting.  Even in the case of Cathy Blanchflower’s geometric abstraction, there is a meditative dimension both in the making and the viewing.
Not all the painters represented are working with repetitive designs.  Wendy Kelly’s monochrome minimalist canvases are imbued with an ethereal calm and cool sense of order.   Through application of multiple layers of paint and glazes to create linear grids and geometric designs, finely traced with thread, she creates subtle rhythms and textural variations that are accentuated by the play of light. There are parallels here with the textile allusions in Vongpoothorn’s paintings.  Both use a tension between the subtle nuances of surface and an ordered structure to lure the roving eye into a contemplative state.
Wendy Kelly states that her use of thread ‘forms a base anchoring the multiple layers and glazes of paint, which at times is accentuated by the addition of inert pigments. It allows the light to play its critical role as it illuminates the taught woven matrix and layering of paint.’
Marion Borgelt has referred to her concern with ‘optical resonance’ in the tension between colour and form in her paintings.  She works with big brushes lightly loaded with pigment and gradually, painstakingly impregnates the pigment into the jute support, retaining suggestions of the imperfections in the jute to create a subtle texture.  In a symbolic palette of black, reds, greys and white, she renders a recurring vocabulary of imagery - the maze, the slit, the coil, the circle or mandala.  
Psyche of Landscape: The Wimmera Plains (2000) conjures up the sense of infinite expanse of the flat, open lands near Nhill (so close to the Latin word ‘nihil or ‘nothing”) where the artist grew up, while metaphorically evoking a metaphysical state rather than a physical landscape. The matt black and pigmented red vibrate, sing together, drawing the eye to the infinity of the central vanishing point and generating a meditative aura.
Ildiko Kovacs applies progressive layers of paint, working and re-working the surface and rapidly using her brush and fingers to keep a sense of intuitive spontaneity in her linear markings.  The textural finesse and resolved structure of the finished painting contains the memory of this layered process.  Her elegant meandering lines overlap and form loose organic shapes, intriguing the eye to decipher their progress.  There is something inherently satisfying in the balance of the composition, the wandering, wavering lines that neither begin nor end.  While it may be tempting to infer metaphors of organic growth and of a life journey, there is a self-sufficiency and poetry in the materiality of the painting that does not require this additional layer of meaning.
Aida Tomescu’s powerful evocations of landscape as an elemental force, emanate sheer command of the material medium of paint.  In her richly textured canvases, there is a finely honed balance between disciplined control and expressive improvisation.  She elicits infinitely subtle chromatic permutations, shifting in changing light as the thickly applied contours of paint cast shadows and throw areas into relief.   Albastra III evolved over a long period, with many under-layers of paint until the finished painting achieved the ineffable balance of serenity and drama that the artist was seeking.
In conclusion, the paintings in Indecorous Abstraction bear testimony to the re-invention by women artists of abstraction as a means to explore the nature of visual perception, through the use of the materiality of paint and the power of colour to stimulate intuitive zones of the mind.  For some artists this is a purely formal and material effect and for other artists their painting aspires to a spiritual dimension.  
The abstract language of paint, like music, is non-verbal.  The difference between a significant abstract painting and mere ‘décor’ art comes down to the painting’s material embodiment and transmission of the artist’s perceptions, emotions or vision so that the viewer is enriched by the experience.  In the end, that is what this exhibition is about.
Margot Osborne
    • Margot Osborne is a South Australian based curator and writer
    • Special thanks to Arts SA for their support in the development of this exhibition
(1) Jacki Fleet, Pulse Enigma, 2001, Mixed Media on Canvas, 120 x 120 cm
(2) Wendy Kelly, Diamond, 2001/62, Mixed Media on Canvas, 183 x 122 cm
(3) Marion Borgelt, Psyche of a Landscape: The Wimmerra Plains, 2000, mixed media on canvas, 137 x 152 cm
For further information about the artists visit:
Marion Borgelt
Jacki Fleet
Cathy Blanchflower
Angelina Pwerle
Gloria Petyarre
Ildiko Kovacs
Aida Tomescu
Wendy Kelly
Savanhdary Vongpoothorn
Dorothy Napangardi
And featured in the cupola room, glass works by Clare Belfrage
(selected by Margot Osborne)
Clare Belfrage
Born 1966, Melbourne
Lives in Adelaide
Clare Belfrage graduated from Monash University, Melbourne, in 1988 with a major in hot glass. She trained at the JamFactory Glass Studio from 1991-2 and has lectured in glass at the University of South Australia since 1996. She was Visiting Artist at Ohio State University 1999-2000.  She was awarded project grants by the Australia Council and by Arts South Australia in 2001.  Her most recent solo exhibitions were at Brisbane City Gallery, Brisbane (2003) and Quadrivium, Sydney (2002).  Recent major group exhibitions include Tom Malone Prize, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth (2003); Ranamok Art Prize, Object Galleries, Sydney and Australian Embassy, Washington DC (2002); Meister der Moderne, International Crafts Fair, Munich (2002); Resonance Within, Chappell Gallery, New York (2001). Her work is represented in public collections including the Museo do Vidro, Portugal, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, and in private collections in Australia and abroad, including the collection of Elton John. She is a current and founding member of Blue Pony glass studio, Adelaide.
CLARE BELFRAGE’s current blown glass sculptural forms are a further development of her practice over several years of ‘drawing’ with fine glass threads(known as stringers) to create loose but intricate textural patterns on the surface of her sculptural forms.  Her work originates with preliminary black ink drawings of natural forms and vegetation and there remains a reference to drawings in the flattened two-dimensional effect of her opaque vessels and the illusory linear curves of the surface texture.  
Works in her Quiet Shifting series are inspired by primordial rock formations, organic lines and muted hues of the Australian bush landscape.  In this series the artist moves away from the vertical sculptural forms of her previous work towards earthed, enclosed female forms suggestive of containment.  The ephemeral effects of light captured by the delicate surface texture of fine glass threads contrasts with the solidity of the underlying opaque glass form.
In her approach to abstraction in glass, notably her interest in optical resonance, textural nuance, layering and organic line, Clare Belfrage reflects similar tendencies to the abstract women artists in Indecorous Abstraction.
Above: Clare Belfrage, Quiet Shifting Group, 2002, (detail of group), blown glass with cane drawing, acid etched, courtesy Quadrivium
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