Amber Wallis & Kylie Banyard

A new show at Nicholas Thompson Gallery follows from Amber Wallis and Kylie Banyard’s success with ‘The Heroine Paint’ at Lismore Regional Gallery. In this latest exhibition, Banyard and Wallis paint into being both feminist histories and utopian futures, using the canvas as a foundation from which to think about care, communality, and the self.

In response to Amber Wallis’s Women, shown at Nicholas Thompson Gallery in 2020, Amanda Maxwell wrote:

‘I’ve never seen a ghost

And won’t

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?

Hold 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.