Amber Wallis 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, 2019), Tamworth (2013), Lismore (2013) and Bendigo (2008, 2019) 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 Artist Profile in Melbourne Art Fair Special Edition, 2012 and issue 48, 2019. Her work is held in the Artbank and Arthur Roe Collections as well as various private collections in Australia and internationally.
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THE HEROINE PAINT (WITH KYLIE BANYARD): 29 JUNE TO 17 JULY 2021
The Heroine Paint, Melbourne is a joint exhibition of new and recent work by Kylie Banyard & Amber Wallis.
The exhibition follows the artists’ exhibition The Heroine Paint at Lismore Regional Gallery, curated by Kezia Geddes, current to 1 August 2021.
The Heroine Paint brings together the work of Kylie Banyard and Amber Wallis, highlighting their visions of painterly utopia. The artists pay homage to American Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 50s, which rejected representational norms within art and painting. Spontaneity stood at the centre of this, and a purist’s distillation of materials. The counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, which had similar aspirations to breakdown boundaries and initiate change, is also present in both artists’ work. Despite intentions for a new agenda that went with these movements, power remained largely patriarchal. Women have continued to be marginalised by this status quo. The Heroine Paint reconfigures this inequity to the advantage of women.
Kylie Banyard draws on Black Mountain College’s (1933-1957) photographic archive to realise lived and imagined narratives. Based in the picturesque mountains of North Carolina, the College had a non-hierarchical structure and students and teachers lived side-by-side. In addition to their education in art, design, architecture, theatre, costume, and the written word, students grew food, worked the land, cooked and ate together, and participated in construction projects. Tasks of the day were all artful and of equal importance. It was a community where art, life and education were intertwined.
The photographic archive that Banyard has used documents what was happening at the college. It shows that women were not only present, they were active in all aspects of college life. However, as careers progressed it was evident that the art world and market still favoured men. There were female students at the school who gained recognition, and Ruth Asawa, Susan Weil and Elaine de Kooning were among them, however their reputations do not match those of the men. Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning are some major names associated with Black Mountain.
In Banyard’s work, canvas (the heroic material that was used by American Abstract Expressionists as a field for colour and form and expanded to macho proportions) connects the work to the history of painting. However, the material also links to the feminine. The large spans of fabric connote the American tradition of quilting and ‘women’s craft’.
The repositioning of the historical images invites us to look towards an alternative future. Women are strong and capable protagonists, working outdoors and using their hands to make art, tend fields and build alternative futures. Banyard has long been interested in intentional communities, and she has choreographed one that presents women in ways that appear nurturing, cooperative and non-combative. In highlighting these traits that are often associated with women, she brings a shifted lens to what is valuable.
Amber Wallis is similarly drawn to reimagining the utopia to tussle real and imagined stories in paint. Although she is very much connected with the here and now, her work follows some of the principles of American Abstract Expressionism, including those of the painters of the Black Mountain School. Her art is characterised by gestural brushstrokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity. Paint leads her on a journey from start to finish. It sits into the canvas, staining it like in the work of the great Abstract painter, Helen Frankenthaler. Banyard also uses this technique of staining and the two artists are drawn together by the softness this brings to their painting. The figurative stage of Banyard’s work creates a kind of stage for she and Wallis, collapsing time as though they are practicing in the period of the Black Mountain College.
Structures from countercultural architecture often provide a framework which sets in motion a wrestle of remembering and forgetting through and in paint. As a daughter of the counterculture, Wallis’s early childhood was set on Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands in New Zealand, in hippy shacks without water or electricity. Her family grew marijuana to sell on the mainland, the Islands providing distance from mainstream society, but also from possums and goats which would otherwise eat the crops. Wallis’s paintings reference handmade houses including those from a book belonging to her father (Woodstock Handmade Houses, 1974). The book and the homes in it were projections of the life they were aiming towards. On the dark side of this utopia, Wallis and her mother left due to early childhood sexual trauma within the countercultural community, and because the freedoms and opportunities that her mother had imagined were being eroded.
Wallis’s paintings often commence with images of pornography, which initiate a call and response to mark making and erasure in order to traverse these risky beginnings. Sex is raw and exhilarating territory of titillation and drawn by a woman it throws complex light on ‘appropriateness’, and how sex speaks to empowerment and disempowerment. Imagery is obscured because there comes a point in Wallis’s mind where it is less relevant. The subject is a means into form, colour, and texture, and how they sit against one another to activate the picture. The reference material is there, however, it is pushed into the background like subconscious memories.
While women have been peripheral to the major thrust of much of art history, The Heroine Paint positions Kylie Banyard and Amber Wallis at the crescendo of their declared ‘influences and references’. The exhibition builds an alternative history and places the artists in it as current day heroines of paint.
catalogue essay for The Heroine Paint at Lismore Regional Gallery by Kezia Geddes, 2021
In response to Amber Wallis’s Women, shown at Nicholas Thompson Gallery in 2020, Amanda Maxwell wrote:
‘I’ve never seen a ghost
Bit if I was to I know it would be the ghost of a woman
I don’t know why
Is more of a woman left?
Did she touch more?
Wallis’s paintings in this new show figure their characters in a ghostly way, too. We see women, in these compositions, through a glass; that is, through something which obscures them, absorbs them into the canvas, siphons them out of our layer of reality and into some elsewhere. In Holding Companions, 2021, for instance, washes of colour simultaneously render and obscure our titular pair – one, seemingly, a woman, the other, seemingly, a man – in a drapery of paint at once resplendently sensory and somehow immaterial. The ‘seeming’ of our pair here is important: this painting doesn’t spoon-feed us its content, or sit at a comfortable place of representational rest. Within the abstract space of the picture, the flesh of the figures shifts and moves impossibly. What is clear, and significant, is that they hold each other. This holding – this communality – is at the centre of Wallis’s and Banyard’s shared concerns.
Wallis’s earlier work has, often, been interested in sensuality, sexual desire, and the dynamics of secret-keeping and revelation. Here, however, there is a shift to thinking more about what togetherness, both in body and in spirit, can be beyond the sexual. Figures embrace, support each other, and come to define each other in gesture, shape, and colour.
Maxwell’s ghostly women ‘hold more,’ and a feminist visual poetics indeed underpins Wallis’s work about holding. For Wallis, this is accomplished in part through the reclamation of Abstract Expressionist visual vocabularies. Wallis defiantly uses the tropes of a movement which, despite its professed radicality, remained historically the domain primarily of superstar male painters – and certainly continued to exist within patriarchal art and social worlds. Wallis’s feminism is also expressed through the way that these paintings figure the self: as deeply contingent upon others, and as bound up in relationships of care and community.
Banyard has been interested over the course of her career in finding, and telling, feminist histories. Her work in Nicholas Thompson’s ‘Holding Ground,’ 2020, like her work for the second iteration of ‘The National: New Australian Art’ in 2019, pictured the radical pedagogies of the mid-20th century American art school Black Mountain College. For these projects, Banyard drew from archival images showing pedagogical practice at the college, where women teachers and students shared moments of discovery, mutual learning, and co-creation. Here, too, was a vision – historical, rather than speculative as Wallis’s are – of women holding each other.
Banyard’s work for this latest show retains the aesthetic that was developed in ‘Holding Ground,’ picturing women at work, play, creation, and rest. In Lady Macbeth in Boone, 2018, one woman dons a crown to become Shakespeare’s feminine anti-hero, while another paints what seems – ‘seems,’ again – to be the set on which a play might take place. In these pictures, creation reiterates itself, over and over: Baynard paints a woman painting, so that another woman again can perform.
Even Banyard’s solitary subjects are creators and collaborators. Does the crown resting next to the figure in Elaine, 2017, make this woman part of the same production? Is Anni, 2017, constructing part of the same set? Attending to the connections between paintings, here, we can find in Banyard’s work not only an under-examined, utopian past, but a time more conditional, or even subjunctive.
Banyard, like Wallis, paints a world removed to some layer above (or perhaps, more rightly, rippling beneath) our own. This is a world in which we can see flashes of touch, teaching, and togetherness which are imaginative – and corrective – in a way that both encompasses and exceeds the feminism with which these artists are frequently aligned.
Artist Profile online, 28 June 2021
SUMMONED PAINTINGS: 8 TO 26 JULY 2020
In the spirit of Summoned Paintings, this time I have not written about my work.
Instead, I invited ten of those I communed with during my year in and out of the studio to respond to a painting each in text.
For their support, communion and contributions, I give thanks.
Bedroom Interior and Drapes After Your Painting Apple Orchard Orgy
oil on raw linen
150 x 150 cm
The sun breaks through the leaves, momentarily blinding me. I hold the waxen apple in my hand and press my thumb against the skin, anticipating the flesh cracking open between my teeth. Fragments of orange light cut across the scene of Amber Wallis’s painting, Bedroom Interior and Drapes After Your Painting Apple Orchard Orgy. At first glance a study in abstraction, then from the centre of the painting a dense patch of pubic hair emerges. Unfolding around it is a bedroom scene where blurred, faceless bodies writhe together, enveloped between blocks of blue and grey which both support the figures and the composition. A swathe of deep green runs diagonally across the top, a stand-in for the canopy of leaves in Justin William's referenced painting Apple Orchard Orgy. In the tradition of making an artwork after another artist’s, the ambiguity of the title also suggests that this could be the next in a series of orgies.
Eleanor Louise Butt is an Australian artist based in Melbourne
Tent Sex/A Structure for Freedom and Containment
oil on raw linen
150 x 150 cm
Standing on the edge of something, not able to jump off, yet unable to hold back.
Seeing without sight, listening to the veil of light washes, pigments and stains. Like a guided touch that both informs you to move within the frame of the painting, but not wanting to hold your hand through the land around you. Tent Sex/A Structure for Freedom and Containment is a perfect example of both a painting for painters and also a painting for those who are open to the gift of the quiet, more silent, more subtle gifts that exist in our world.
If I choose not to see, it will never judge me for walking past
Never wanting, never using tricks or self-indulgent seduction aesthetics to draw me closer
Not needing light or darkness to be seen and felt
For it is more than just a fleeting vessel or a passing ship at night, guided to a new destination
It will not carry me, it will not apologise to me, it is not yet for me, I am not yet ready for the gifts that unveil themselves. They are more than singular, they are more than one moment. They are open to me and will return to me, when I am ready, and when I am open to it. Years might pass, it unfolds only one gift, then space and time pass, unfolding another.
I learn, it shows, not with force or attachment, but with love and warmth, this is why it will always be, like air, like water, like skin, like dirt, like life, like death, like love.
Justin Williams is an Australian artist based in Sydney
Two Watching and Waiting
oil on raw linen
150 x 150 cm
We wait for the right time. And to have time. And for our turn. And to feel ready. And to be validated. And for our stupidity to be revealed. And to discover that hidden talent. And to be rescued from boredom. And to be abandoned. And for a loved one to get sick. And for news of the inevitable car crash. And to feel whole. And to be judged. And to be finally happy. And for life to begin. And to take our last breath. That's the only guarantee. That's the driving force. I wish I could wait well. I wish I could be the kid who's willing to delay gratification on the promise of a second marshmallow like in that stupid 1972 experiment. But I hate that greedy, smug kid. They haven't learnt yet that there ain’t no guarantees in life. Lucky bastard. Promises are made to be broken. Eat the fucking marshmallow in front of you, kid! Eat it and move on.
Rachael McCully is an Australian artist based in France
Cowboy, Kneeling Girl and Upside-Down Wisp
oil on raw linen
150 x 130 cm
Can you think of anything more loaded than the cowboy? He is free on the range and trapped in pursuit; so very hetero and so very homo; juvenile and aged. We load him up. All this sex, all this national pride, all this violence and historical terror. I spent a long time looking for the cowboy in this work, and then I wondered, amongst these lines and colours, what shapes am I actually searching for? How would I recognise him? Whip and spurs? Noble profile? What I see most is rain on a window outside, and a woman taking something in. I see eyes and breasts. It's not about him at all. The cowboy can be anything you want. The cowboy is our raw linen.
Bri Lee is an Australian writer based in Sydney. She is the author of Eggshell Skull and Beauty
Erotic Postcard with Haystack turned Cold Brown Oxide Apparition
oil on raw linen
150 x 130 cm
Loose forms of shelter and humanity, structure and ether weave their gentle story onto surface, dissolving into the linen leaving their ghostly impressions inconsolable yet resolute. There in the vastness of dissolution and apparitions, we find the sudden painterly forms of an artist in tune with history and in dialogue with spirit. There is a sense of spirit that some artists imbue into material and there are some materials that imbue a sense of spirit into artists. I think for Amber Wallis it is a dialogue between the two, allowing spirit of self and material to conceive pragmatic gestures in the realm of stillness and reverie. Why is it we find the gentle haunting of the raw linen so surreal? Who is the ethereal figure finding shelter between realms? What does it mean to be in conversation with summoned ideas? One might look to this painting to find answers to such questions. Seeing a painting's inception to its timely completion is a privilege not often afforded to those other than the artist who bestows its image. Luckily for me, being in close proximity to Amber's studio I see the developments as they ebb and flow on and off the raw linen, as steadily as the tides themselves. Navigating directionally through skeletal architectures, personifications of talismans and reminiscent of the female shamanic spirit worlds the work delves through the subconscious of a considered and invoked motherly energy.
Heath Wae is an Australian artist based in Mullumbimby
Four Guides and Presences Always Watching
oil on raw linen
150 x 130 cm
In the space between waking and sleeping lies a portal. It manifests as an empty space with a ringing sound and I know I’m in the place where spirits can communicate. The problem is the awkwardness of the communication, like trying to speak a language you’ve never known. I speak in muted English to send messages to the dead and wonder if they can understand. Sometimes I hear static - like the sounds between tuning into the radio. When there is too much interference and dark energies descend, I call out for the spirits of light to guide me. I will never see them, but I believe that they are there. If they’re not, then believing is enough to pull me out from the murkiness of my subterranean world.
Heidi Yardley is an Australian artist based in Melbourne
oil on raw linen
150 x 130 cm
Low self-esteem is a hell of a thing and a curse since birth. As anyone who’s never experienced the everyday knowing confident strut of an assured sexual conqueror, I’ve always been the last one to know that I was considered worthy in the eyes of others. While I considered my criminal shyness to be a personal point of pride in a society that champions predatory sexuality, it wasn’t until I attempted to exit alone from a loft of dwindling strangers that my wrist was grabbed, and I was dragged, out of a well-lit elevator, and through a doorway, and into the pleasantly mysterious darkness, and a forced invitation into an orgy, that I truly discovered the true blissfulness of being anonymous.
Brian Lee Hughes is the founder of SADE Gallery, Los Angeles, Castleface Records, Do Not Disturb Records, Skunk and The Cisca Collection
oil on linen
150 x 130 cm
Her paint is body
Her paint is flesh
Her paint is skin
You have to like it to want it... Her and the paint... then you and the paint. That’s the operation, aptly described as Peachy (threesome) – the artist, the painting and the viewer.
The idea of skin with its sense of sensuality, giving life to a surface, skin on skin contact,
the parallel of eyes contacting the skin on the paint, it is more about feeling than seeing,
like a loving exchange, suggested and demonstrated by the artist’s hand and nothing other than the act of painting.
This work is an evocative invitation into the relationship of the artist and Her paint and you.
Matt Nache is the Director of PAULNACHE Gallery in Gisborne, New Zealand
oil on linen
150 x 120 cm
I’ve never seen a ghost
But if I was to I know it would be the ghost of a woman
I don’t know why
Is more of a woman left?
Did she touch more?
Or was she always like that?
Less of a thing?
It’s pointless to wonder
But I do.
Amanda Maxwell is a New Zealand writer based in Surf Coast. She is the author of Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These
oil on linen
120 x 120 cm
We crave warmth and solace unconsciously and are drawn to things that mirror standing by a fire, such as wearing your grandfather's cardigan, the dulcet tones of the footy on the AM wireless or the scent of a dry eucalyptus leaf found on the footpath. Yet this kind of warmth, the kind of emotional heat that keeps us safe and takes us back to being seven years old again, is seldom found. So we scour, we search and we lean on nostalgia in search of the eucalyptus leaf that wraps its arms around us to make us seven again. Nostalgia has become a lifeline to a feeling that evaporates as every day passes. The warmth turns to realisation, and nostalgia taunts us with the realness of time, the cruelty of love and lost innocence of thinking that a cardigan can shield us from the cruelties of the world.
Jordy Kerwick is an Australian artist based in France
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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