If you enter Studio 52 from the door facing the railway tracks, you will see tacked onto the wall opposite, a photo of five women. They are looking straight out at the camera: defiant and full of gravitas. They are all dressed in black. One is seated at the centre of the group, like the matriarch of a family dynasty, her power and influence radiating out in ever widening circles. Another woman sits to her left, her Blundstone boot dangling from a bare leg, straw hat shading her eyes, the sort of spirit you’ll never nail down. On the ground in front of them, on a faded Moroccan rug, sits a third woman, all curves and grace, like a discovering deep pool of water in the dry scratchy bush. Behind her, at a distance though in no way diminished, stands an ironbox Ariel. The fifth woman stands side-on, arms crossed, as though she is taking your measure – and believe me, you are coming up short!
These are the Granite Girls and the photo was taken on Dja Dja Wurrung Country at the foot of Mt Dharrengower where they met periodically during shut-downs to talk art, art-making and life.
Denise Martin, Sue McLeod, Catherine Pilgrim, Zoe Amor and Hilary Finch are established artists with distinctive visions and aesthetics. Studio 52 is a big enough space that each artists’ work is given room to breathe, whilst also allowing spontaneous connections to be made between the works.
Sue McLeod is showing 13 small oil on linen paintings, nearly all of which are set on the Dja Dja Wurrung country she lives and works on. Each piece is like a moment that extends vertically, offering us the chance to go beyond the brain’s capacity to categorise (landscape, oil, country) then move on. Three of the paintings show roads into the landscape, as though the artist is asking, how do we move into this landscape, how do we really see it? To further emphasize this, three of the pieces – She-Oak Light, Late Autumn Light and Pink Sky are almost ‘out of focus’. There is a shimmering here, a vibrational hum: the country is alive, and the artist is acknowledging that it cannot be fixed onto the canvas or authoritatively stamped with her mark. Sue said to me that her intent is to portray how she feels on country, and these works speak of a relationship, a to and fro, a movement that rejuvenates endlessly.
Across the studio you’ll find Catherine Pilgrim’s works Bendigo Jug (coloured pencil and graphite) and Dudley House Blue (stone lithograph with coloured pencil layered on frottage from Dudley House unique state). In both works one object, a ceramic jug and a chocolate lily respectively, is suspended within the frame. If you look closely at Bendigo Jug you’ll see the fine lines of the original city grid of Bendigo run across the page and intrude through the jug, while behind the chocolate lily is frottage, a rubbing from the walls of Dudley House, one of the first and most intact buildings in Bendigo surviving the gold rush era, and where Catherine first exhibited the Mrs Larritt series.
It is helpful to know (there is extra reading available on the long table) the context for these works. Mrs Larritt was the wife of Richard Larritt, the first official government surveyor of Bendigo, the man who mapped out then drew up the city grid. Catherine’s Larritt series investigated the tensions between colonial and indigenous histories, domestic and public space and private and public experience. Significantly many of the works were rendered in the same blue – the colour used for official town documents.
There is tension between the two prints shown in Studio 52: the colonialist’s jug and the native flax lily. I immediately feel the threat, the imposition of the English object that would have been housed on land never ceded. I am afraid for the chocolate lily, so finely and intricately drawn, so fragile, so easily crushed by the heavy tread of white people. But the relationship between the two prints does not end there. Although they belong to different cultures, the oppressor and the oppressed, both are drawn/printed in the same blue. There is a connection here between what has been mapped, claimed and contained for both the indigenous people and women in our white Australian history. The relationship between the works continues to unfold as I stay longer, and take in the care and attention Catherine has brought to each picture. It is this care that draws me into the work. They are meticulously drawn, intimate, personal. It makes me want to touch the objects and to know who touched them, who considered them, for whom they held stories. You could love these things and they in turn are objects of love and care: a jug that holds cool water on a hot day ready to be poured out for the ones you love; and a chocolate lily that knows intimately about listening to the secrets of country, and will tell them if you lean in gently, tenderly, and with care.
You can follow the blue in Catherine’s work to the blue in Zoe Amor’s, though they are blues of a very different kind.
In Biome – the waters within are the waters without (monoprint ink + ground pigment) the blue is alive. It is of air and water, currents and sikes. The colour swirls, fulminates, flows, leaks sweeps and scars. Within the picture cells are dividing, forms manifesting then slipping away. It is a work that teems with life; the miniscule life within a cell or the story of evolution caught within the moment of a single picture frame.
Then allow your eyes to travel upward and you’ll find a darker mystery; Black Earth – the chaotic waters of nigredo (monoprint ink + ground pigment, white clary). In alchemy nigredo, or blackness, is putrefaction or decomposition. In analytical psychology it becomes a metaphor for ‘the dark night of the soul’ when an individual confronts the shadow within (thanks Wikipedia).
This Dark Earth hangs above the studio door as a vision of another world. It is black and shades of black, scratchy, smooth, blown, hidden, obscure and clear. At times mottled patches of darkness appear like dark clouds across this earth’s sky, or perhaps these patches are dense, dark, rich soil, seen at a distance but if plunged into they reveal a microscpic world of bacteria and microbes that decompose and purify in an act of benevolent destruction.
At the bottom right-hand corner, this universe recedes into deeper darkness. What is this mysterious world that evokes nightmares and werewolves and the terrors of night, a wonder that would break your heart and yet is somehow strangely enriching. As I stand in front of the work I still my fears and wonder if there is also here that phrase ‘luminous darkness’, the paradox of dark and light: that darkness and light inform each other, feed each other, replenish each other, need each other – as they do in the hearts of us all.
Denise Martin has two groupings of work on show: Absence 1 – 12 (Archival Pigment Print) and three large portraits each one a finalist in different prizes. Both series are indicative for me of Denise’s ability to dwell in silent possibility.
Absence 1 – 12 is a series of 12 photographs taken in a small, abandoned village in the mountains in the south of Crete. These pictures of small corners, derelict building, empty chairs and silent rooms tell the story of abandonment, a sad but necessary tale, where culture and connection linger well after the last person has gone. What I appreciate in these is Denise’s courage to stay with the disquiet of absence, to allow the spaces to speak for themselves without imposing herself into their stories. We are given space and time in these works, to wander around, to sit in the rubble, to walk with ghosts. The artist does not flinch, and it is her patience, her sensitivity to the subtilties of quiet that helps us to dwell with the absence without fear.
I wonder if Denise’s ability to dwell with silence is the ground from which her portraiture is grown. The portrait Ron and Brodie (father and son) 2015 is stunning, in reverse. It does not dazzle you with colour and movement, but the ease and intimacy between the subjects that the photographer has managed to capture took my breath away. Similarly, in Jika 2012 Denise has captured on film a rare moment of surrender in her subject, and with the surrender utter delight. The moment itself is magical, but so is the composition, in which all the chaotic elements of the scene (including two highly energetic children) have come together like an unexpected windfall.
There is an aesthetic corridor between Denise’s third portrait Dante, first light, Milan 2019 and Untitled (Archival Pigment Print)by Hilary Finch. Both have a distinctly Renaissance feel, though each has its own unique and modern twist.
At 100 x 134cm, Untitled is a large work that commands the space. It is rich in colour, densely textured – sumptuous! It tells the story of two identical rooms – a close room repeated – with a vivid green back wall, a Tuscan tanned side wall, a midnight blue door and the same four objects: an armchair (velvety black), a cushion (cardamon red, olive, spots of white and lines in black), a Persian rug, and on the floor in front of the chair, so dimly lit they are easy to miss, a pair of women’s shoes. Besides being shot from slightly different angles, the rooms have only one differing point: in the left room a woman stands with her back to the camera, her hand on the latch of the door.
Who is this woman and what is she doing in this room? The pleasure of the work is not only its gorgeous aesthetic, but its enigmatic meaning, the puzzle at its centre.
I imagine the room is a transitory space, an abode out of time. Images of the waiting station in Beetlejuice or a dreamscape from Twin Peaks come to mind. Perhaps people come here at a time of crux or crossroad in their lives. Perhaps the room is the material manifestation of indecision. It is an invitation to sit in the armchair until things clarify. Perhaps the room asks you to take something off, leave something behind – a wedding ring, a belief system, a business tie. Perhaps you leave an imprint of self in the deep cushion of the heavy black chair. Perhaps only then can you get up and go to the door, cross over the threshold and into the beyond.
By repeating the room by two across the picture, Hilary has given us an endless present, a constructed moment into which we can step. However this piece plays out in your imagination it is a visual container for our inner worlds, surreal and generous enough to affect our deepest feelings and selves.
Once I had looked at the work, I returned to the photo of the five artists and asked Denise what was behind it, what impulse had created the unified attitude of the women? She told me that Catherine had suggested they think of Grace Tame as the photo was shot, of her refusal to smile for the cameras at the 2022 Australians of the Year celebration. This really made sense of the photo for me, and it has become the perfect background from which to view the exhibition. These women are not about prettiness or acceptability or pleasing the status quo. In Studio 52 each woman has presented a vision to be taken seriously, just as men have expected over centuries of art making. Through the work they engage with complex questions about Country, history, ecology, intimacy, the interior life and many more contemporary, problematic and unresolved issues. To take the space as a thinking person is still a contested ground in our society, as our Prime Minister clearly illustrated by his inane comments about Tame. I invite you to step into this contested space and engage with artwork that will stretch your minds, hearts and imaginations. I invite you to step onto the solid ground of the Granite Girls.