Wendy Stavrianos campaigns for the soul of the earth and our embodied connection to it; exploring a psychological connection between nature, body and mind has sometimes been political, but mostly philosophical.
When I emailed Wendy about this article asking for explanations from her that would assist an understanding of her practice over several decades, she began by saying “throughout my practice I engage with the Metaphysical”. The works present an abstract and poetic exploration of psychological states of mind in relation to the experiences and representations of the body and nature. She writes:
‘Tracks through the landscape, threads that connect
Tracks through the body, inside and outside
Veins and arteries, roads and byways
City lines of communication and movement
Ruptures in the web of life.’
A contemporary artist who focuses on the landscape she experiences and inhabits, Wendy Stavrianos has a deep empathy for nature and understands the ontology – the living being of the natural environment. She describes herself as a humble ‘gatherer’ who collects materials during her daily bush walks to include in her work. Images of gatherers recur in her sculptures, installations and paintings from the 1990s to the present.
In her recent exhibitions the windows of her studio, an old sheering shed, provide a visual framing of her gatherings which she draws and paints. The translucent windows stream light but they do not allow a focussed view of the outside, which she says she would find distracting. Speaking with me about her upcoming exhibition ‘Connecting Threads’ at Nicholas Thompson Gallery, she said:
“My current work takes from my studio the gathering matter and the remains that I have collected from harsh summers on Mt Gaspard. They are placed against the light from my studio window. The works emphasise a linear, reinvestigation of drawing through the figure in the landscape on canvas . . . They are not narrative pictures. This means I can become the forms and make a metaphysical reality of my own. This also gives freedom to the viewer to reach deeply into their own imagination.”
Stavrianos’ practice is contemporary and experimental but don’t be surprised to find classical and mythological references. The conceptual depth is in the layering and framing of imagery. Her dexterity as an artist is based on fine drawing skills and a strong painterly approach which is seen in museum-sized paintings, sometimes incorporating fabrics and found materials, etchings, drawings and installations.
In her late works where the studio window frames symbols, metaphors and imaginations, the artist brings her love for the metaphysical to the fore. She says:
Sometimes I approach my work as a stage set. I saw Giotto’s work in Italy … in the 1960s, these had a profound effect on my art then and now. ‘The Stage’ from Giotto re-surfaces in a spared down form in the works named ‘Place’ or ‘Room’. Here I am seeking to connect with a metaphysical space in the work. In these other realities I have been attempting to delve into the mystery and wonder of the universe. Through these spaces that I inhabit as an art maker, I try to interact with environmental concerns that are so urgent today.
Stavrianos’ provenance in the artworld is well established. Laura Murray Cree (ARTAND and Art and Australia) wrote the large format monograph titled Wendy Stavrianos in 1997. The book has great colour reproductions of the paintings of the 1980s and 90s and the big installation works. Some of these are in major state and regional collections, others in private collections in Australia, Europe and the USA. But I suspect some are still available through Nicholas Thompson Gallery or via the auction houses. The book also has a range of full page black and white reproductions, including works on paper.
One of her major works Mungo Lovers (Rape of the Land) 1986-7 was not purchased until 2021. It is a shame that the painting was not purchased earlier by an Australian museum but so often these opportunities are missed by our institutions. The sale of Mungo Lovers is a good indicator that Stavrianos’ big paintings from the 1990s that explore the anamorphic and mythological relations between body, psyche and nature are talking loudly to an environmentally conscious international market.
Demonstrating her empathy with the natural environment Stavrianos told Tiarney Miekus in a 2020 podcast that “in the early days I could hardly contain the emotion while I was painting. I was almost in agony because it was so felt and I still feel those feelings now!”.
Darwin in the 1970s represented a major turning point in the artist’s practice. It was here that she fully explored how the earth had been wounded. Rape of a Northern Land (1976-8) is a large fabric sculptural drawing with lines sewn across its uneven surface. The work depicts the desolate, ransacked, environment after uranium mining in Rum Jungle. Talking about this place to Tiarney Miekus she said “I could feel the energies there, it was so negative in that country, and that was my first realisation that land can be used in a political way. To be absolutely destroyed . . . It was a very strong moment in my lifetime”. Stavrianos said she later found out that the area was a sacred site for Aboriginal women.
Celebration of Woman (1977-78) was destroyed by the young artist because of the criticism she received. She says “it was the suggested sexual content that offended them, because the lily shapes were three dimensional in the way they were sewn”. Shortly after this she got a call from the South Australian Film Commission requesting permission to reproduce the work in a film. Luckily a detail from the work is illustrated in Murray Cree’s book.
The works on paper from this period may still be available. Rape of a Northern Land is in the artist’s collection. It would be a significant work to collect, given the controversy over its cousin Celebration of Woman.
Miekus, T podcast 4th Sept. 2020, https://www.audacy.com/podcast/art-guide-australia-podcast-b48b0/episodes/the-long-run-2-wendy-stavrianos-on-landscape-nature-and-gender-barriers-843e8. Accessed 19 Aug. 2023.