Amber Wallis (b. 1978) has held solo exhibitions since 2009 in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Wallis’ work has been included in group exhibitions at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (2010), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (2008), the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne (2009), regional galleries including Hazelhurst (2017, 2014), Gippsland (2014), Tamworth (2013), Lismore (2013) and Bendigo (2008) and internationally in the USA and Canada. She has a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the Canberra School of Art and a Master of Visual Arts from the Victorian College of the Arts.
Wallis’ significant career milestones include being awarded the tenth Brett Whiteley Traveling Art Scholarship in 2008, subsequently working in New York, Montreal and completing a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. She is included in Melissa Loughnan’s 2017 Thames & Hudson publication Australiana to Zeitgeist: An A-Z of Contemporary Australian Art and Utopian Slumps: The Collingwood Years 2011. Wallis was featured on the cover of Australian Art Collector issue 58, 2011 and the Artist Profile Melbourne Art Fair Special Edition, 2012. Her work is held in the Artbank and Arthur Roe Collections as well as various private collections in Australia and internationally.
MELBOURNE ART FAIR: 2 TO 5 AUGUST 2018
Amber Wallis hopes to exhibit her new paintings on a wooden shelf, so that they look more like how she paints them – on milk-crates and sloping back. She’s not ready for them to move up on to the wall yet. The shelf seems more relaxed, with the paintings reclining. This is the position they were conceived in and this way they linger for a little more in the memory of their own birth, and don’t look so very far removed from the place they were painted, Wallis’ home studio in rural northern New South Wales. Wallis is not interested in shaking off this important space. Wallis is not interested in ‘shaking off’ spaces in general.
Works in this exhibited, untitled series come from memories of spaces, houses and homes that Wallis has known. One particular house in New Zealand is very present in these works (Wallis found images of this known-place online, through a real estate service. Soon interior photographs of almost all the places we have grown up in will be available through online real estate documentation). At one turn Wallis is exorcising these powerful places, at another she is allowing them to haunt us.
One particularly ghost-filled painting, Figure and Bed, features a room that is unusually bodily. The walls and sheets of the bed are the dull pink-and-grey of internal organs: lungs and brain-tissue (no blood). We see the ‘figure’, however, glowing in outline above the bed, in an opposing hue. It’s bright blue, the kind of blue our veins are when they are full of oxygen-denied blood (if only we could peel back the skin and look). Wallis likes to dwell on the borderline of figurative/abstract painting, but the title reassures the viewer that what you are seeing is no apparition or trick of the eye. The lump of flesh is a bed, and you do see that figure there, hovering.
The title of the largely orange Untitled gives no textual clues of what the viewer is looking at. The lean paint has soaked into the unprimed linen; if I touch it now the surface would feel so dry. The thirsty linen sucks in the first marks made, this is a technique that had the artist thinking of Helen Frankenthaler’s experimentation with the same effect. Wallis has either left these first marks visible or has painted over them, building on top an uneven layer of thickness. At first, I imagine Untitled as an outdoor landscape with a distant tree. There are figures in this scene though, and they are not doing outdoor things. I also think at first that Orgy at the Claris Pub is a landscape image, until I read the title.
The landscape, which once figured so heavily in Wallis’ paintings, have slowly been superimposed by these present/past interior views (see Bedroom 1975 and Bedroom View). Wallis’ stated reasons for this begin pragmatically (she has a young child and was increasingly domestically bound) then quickly dive into her preoccupation with the 1970s ‘Ohu’ back-to-land movement in New Zealand. In conversation she finds it important to reveal the extraordinary American book Woodstock Handmade Houses, as the occasional inspiration behind some of her recent paintings. Her copy of this book belonged to her father and in it she finds a heady mix of utopian hippy idealism crossed with the memories of its failure. Gorgeousness and nature combined with radical fuck-ups and disastrous parenting.
In the past Wallis’ paintings were process-driven, that is, she was able to paint through her ideas and her feelings. Parenting her own child has led to an increased conceptualisation. Less time physically in the studio has forced her to ruminate on the work, turning a composition over in her mind before she is ever able to touch her paint and brushes. The result is undoubtedly an increased psychological intensity. Yet how Wallis constructs a painting should not be overlooked in favour of her ever-more materialising subject. There is something of the veteran Australian expatriate Ken Whisson in how Wallis manages a picture plane. Something of his verticality, his sectioning, and his angles. But where Whisson has his bright white and saturated colours, Wallis’ recent paintings have that foggy, dry paint and the rainy-day palette that slows the heart-rate.
Then, in direct contrast, we observe sketched vignettes of graphic sex worked into the misty fields of abstracted colour. Once stating: ‘I think there was a period where I was very sexually focused in my drawing practice and it moved into my painting only slightly’, the artist clearly expresses the control she wields over this element. Sex isn’t veiled or hiding, it’s explicitly there (particularly in the foreground of Quiet Space with Adult Cartoons), just only slightly. These moments of sexuality are intense but secondary to the problem at hand, which is painting. Or how to hold a painting together.
The construction of a painted surface is Wallis’ work: what she thinks about while parenting, and what she can produce in small blocks when her child is asleep. How much these works are about sex, about place, about her childhood and the cycle of parenting is intentionally ambiguous. What can be commented upon is the deepening of intimacy in Wallis’ work, which is being accompanied by a brand-new palette.
Compare Bedroom 1975 and Bedroom View from last year, to the rest of the exhibited works from 2018. The jewel-tones she has used to such effect in the past are heavily restricted now. The brilliant blues, oranges and pinks have gone underground, under the skin. These new muted tones give the artist space to think – bright purple talks too much. It appears to the viewer as if winter has set in. Wallis is inviting us to join her in this darker place, in which we always seem to be either looking into, or looking out of, a bedroom Wallis has known.
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