RAGE, MEMORY AND DESIRE: REVISITING THE 1980s
16 SEPTEMBER TO 8 OCTOBER 2017
“Nicholas Thompson presents an exhibition that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Wendy Stavrianos’ first solo exhibition in 1967. To mark this significant point in Stavrianos’ career, the exhibition ‘Rage, Memory & Desire: Revisiting the 1980s’ looks to a powerful and potent period… Loaded with narrative from Australia and Europe, the visually intense paintings need to be experienced in person in order to be immersed in Stavrianos’ poetic abstraction….’
extract from Lucy Stranger’s preview for ‘Artist Profile’
Link to full article here
Wendy Stavrianos 2017
When Wendy Stavrianos and I discussed staging a survey exhibition, we agreed that we should revisit and acknowledge the powerful, uncompromising and potent work in her archive. Rather than a broad career overview, Wendy preferred from the outset to focus on one particularly charged period – the mid to late 1980s. This concentration in chronology adds to the intensity of the works, when experienced as a group their impact is undeniable.
Wendy Stavrianos occupies a unique position in contemporary Australian art. Her work demonstrates expressionism in its purest form, where emotion and technique, poetics and pragmatics are inextricably entwined. Her images simultaneously engage with the external landscape of the tangible and the interior landscape of the self. Stavrianos’ practice over the last fifty years has spanned painting, sculpture, construction, installation, drawing and printmaking. Her work is informed by rich life experience. She has lived, worked, taught and exhibited in Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, Canberra as well as internationally. Stavrianos settled outside Castlemaine in the 1980s, where she continues to work, exhibiting throughout Australia.
I am delighted to present this survey exhibition of Wendy Stavrianos at Nicholas Thompson Gallery, in the milestone year of the fiftieth anniversary of the artist’s first solo exhibition in 1967.
Nicholas Thompson 2017
The Sick Rose
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The fire that consumed the body of an Aboriginal woman after her death at Lake Mungo more than 40,000 years ago is palpable in a small selection of paintings and drawings by Wendy Stavrianos titled Rage, Memory and Desire. Revisiting the 80s, exhibited at Nicholas Thompson Gallery in Spring 2017.
The works draw on landscape imagery from sites that gathered significance for Stavrianos during a decade when she experienced periods of intense personal transformation. Among them are the fossilised dunes of the dry Willandra Lakes in Mungo National Park, where the remains of ‘Mungo Woman’ were discovered; the wet black rocks of coastal Tanja in New South Wales; and the old rose garden at the artist’s rural property in Victoria, where she relocated from Canberra in the mid 1980s. In the previous decade, she had also experienced the accelerated cycles of nature in Darwin’s tropical climate, and the pollution of land and waterways as a result of uranium mining at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory.
Equally important to the development of her art was exposure to masterworks during European travels. In the works on exhibition, Uccello’s Rout of San Romano, c.1438–40 at London’s National Gallery and Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512–16 are of particular importance, along with Jungian psychology and the feminist project of academic Camille Paglia to unite the Apollonian male principle of the sky gods and the Chthonian body of mother earth.
The bound, masked, human form seen in the drawing Unearthed (The Struggle), 1988, had its first incarnation as part of an installation by Stavrianos for ‘Australian Perspecta 1985’, held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.[i] Titled Trinity, 1984–85, the work comprised a mummified sculptural form lying on an alchemical bed fringed with triangular fragments of waxed and painted cloth. The bed was connected by loose chords to a painting depicting the reanimation of the chrysalis-form within an ancestral womb softened by pink and blue light.
The Mungo Woman drawings, taken from the artist’s 1985 Night Series, were created at Tanja a week after her first visit to Lake Mungo. They express the vulnerable beauty of the creature birthed in the metaphysical space of the Trinity painting, while also recalling Botticelli’s mythic Venus-figure emerging from the sea on a shell.
The Rose and Thorn canvases from 1987 represent the betrayal of innocence. In these works, partially hidden female forms are found in archetypal shelters under night skies or plunging beneath torrents of cascading blooms and treacherous severed stems. The diagonal force of these extraordinary paintings owes much to the bold composition and dynamic arrangement of staves, spears and mounts in The Rout of San Romano. But where Uccello creates emotional distance by eliminating the bloody aspects of war and pairing linear perspective and foreshortening with the stylised forms and decorative qualities of medieval painting, Stavrianos accentuates emotional extremes with lashings of luscious colour as roses of exceptional beauty are pinioned or scarred by spikes and thorns.
Mungo Lovers (Rape of the Earth) from 1986–87, a pivotal work within this exhibition, is operatic in scale and composition of the landscape across two horizontal panels; in the repetition of layered, sweeping, diagonal forms; in the resplendent, glowing colours that unite figures and landscape; and in the morphing of staves and spears into a rich, heavily veiled canopy for the lovers, where imminent penetration has become a literal pointing of the bone.
Stavrianos had in mind Grünewald’s magisterial altarpiece depicting Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension when she created Mungo Lovers (Rape of the Earth). Both are highly ambitious undertakings, raising eternal questions about Nature, Truth and Love. Both, in their different ways, can be read in spiritual terms as Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End. For contemporary viewers, Stavrianos paints a brutally honest picture of humankind in relationship with each other and with the earth, that is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s – and perhaps 2000, or even 40,000 years ago.
Laura Murray Cree
10 June 2017
[i] Trinity isn’t shown in the AGNSW online archive of works from ‘Perspecta 1985’; it is, however, reproduced in the catalogue with an essay by Peter Haynes.