Wendy Stavrianos: Paintings from a room

Wendy Stavrianos has a distinctive artistic vision – an artistic personality that is authentic, unique and identifiable from twenty paces and one that is impossible to confuse with the work of any other artist. Her art is deeply autobiographic and consists of symbols and motifs that she has gathered over a lifetime and, with her guidance, it is sometimes possible to decipher the etymology of some of her symbols. However, her art is not illustrative of a personal narrative but alludes to broad, universal themes.

As one of her favourite writers, Jorge Luis Borges, once observed, “A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”[1]

Stavrianos recently observed, “I have now found my own symbols”[2] and these symbols frequently recur in her art in different configurations. She was born in Melbourne in 1941 and spent her childhood years in the 1950s living in the inner Melbourne suburbs where her father worked as a hotel keeper. It was from a window in a hotel room that she, as a child, observed the world, and years later, as an artist, she has returned to the metaphor of a room as a place in which to gather her memories and from which to comment on the world. As Gaston Bachelard famously observed, “the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”[3]

A significant painting, City’s Edge, Disjunction, 2016[4] measures slightly under two metres square and, like most of Stavrianos’ work, is executed in acrylic on canvas in a subdued almost monochromatic palette with a high degree of crispness and figurative precision. Although all of the individual elements – the underside of an old metal bridge, traffic signals, suspended nets and fluttering pieces of paper – are all recognisable, meaning remains elusive. This curious composition is pierced with a glimpse of a landscape and a sliding metal surface and despite being painted with a high degree of fidelity and a loving realism they seem curiously incongruent and out of place. The artist explains, “the railway bridge was in front of my room that I could see from my window, when I lived in a hotel in Newmarket as a child … the carriages were full of sheep being transported to the nearby saleyards and I could hear them moaning all night.”[5]

City’s Edge, Disjunction is to some extent a memory painting of lambs being taken to slaughter, as remembered from her room at the Doutta Galla Hotel as a publican’s daughter, but it is also a broader statement about a world that is out of joint – in a state of disjunction – and about crisis and a threatened environment. The wires and the suspended nets may randomly catch floating memories and at the same time, the wires are also things that may string us together. The bolted rusting metal girders of the bridge may evoke permanence but they are also crumbling and the traffic lights may be alluding to the command to stop before the destruction becomes irreversible. Are the floating papers some sort of portent of change that is blowing in the wind and a hint that reality is in a state of change and flux? Stavrianos creates highly immersive paintings, like installations that we are invited to enter and inhabit with our imaginations.

Stavrianos initially trained at the art school at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and then spent many years travelling, especially in Europe and throughout Australia, and decades teaching in Australian art schools. As an artist, she is a superb technician, whose practice extends to sculpture, textiles, graphics as well as painting. In some ways, it is important to appreciate this broader context for her art to understand that the past few decades that she has spent working in her shearing shed studio at Harcourt represents a gathering or the bringing together of decades of experience. In her studio, in front of the large central window is something resembling a shrine, or what the artist calls ‘Gathering matter’ – an assembly of skulls, shells, plants and other miscellaneous objects, or what many artists refer to as ‘source materials’ – gathered over decades of travel. These weathered objects that bear the scars of existing in harsh environments are her touch stone on the many realities that she has brought together in her studio and in her art.

When looking back at a cross-section of her art, including the works Lagoon Fragment, 1976-78, Night Edge, 1986, Room for Borges, 2011/12, Fragments of a Room, 2016, Night Veil, 2018-19 and Archaic Twilight, 2018-19, despite what may appear as a rich diversity, there is also an intrinsic unity. They are all memory works, created spaces that are inhabited by the artist that frequently bring together polarities of being. This is not only the cycle of birth, death and regeneration, but the dualities of light and dark, the spiritual and the physical, the natural environment and the man-built structures, ecstasy and pain and the terrestrial and the celestial. The paintings generally reflect a toughness of their passage through life – the canvas is pinned to the wall or spread on the floor and becomes an arena that preserves the energy of the artist and her performance in the creation of the work. This aspect of expressionist painting is tempered through careful glazing and exactitude in detail in the final execution. Ultimately, each work, is part of a grand self-portrait of the artist.

Borges, evocatively wrote, “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”[6] In a certain manner, this is also true of Stavrianos’ art, where despite its rich diversity and fecundity of invention it is essentially a delineation of a very personal quest into being and a plea for survival and preservation. Stravrianos is an artist who adopts an ethical stance in her art with a muffled cry of despair over the carnage that she is witnessing being inflicted on our natural environment. Although expressed from a distinctly feminine perspective, it is all inclusive and universal.

Working in rural central Victoria involves a degree of isolation, but it also enables the artist to adopt a broader perspective than is frequently possible when one is completely submerged within the art scene. Wendy Stavrianos is one of our most neglected and yet most significant senior artists working in Australia today. Although she has held over 50 solo exhibitions and has been represented in scores of Australian and international group shows, she has yet to receive the recognition that her art deserves. As a young art school student she recalls, “people didn’t want my intensity”;[7] perhaps in this changing threatened world we may now need some of her intensity.

Sasha Grishin


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983

[2] Wendy Stavrianos, interview with the author, artist’s studio, Harcourt, Victoria, December 18, 2020

[3] Gaston Bachelard, The poetics of space: The classic look at how we experience intimate places, (1958) translated by Maria Jolas, Boston, Beacon Press, 1994, p.6

[4] Wendy Stavrianos, City’s Edge, Disjunction, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 195cm

[5] Wendy Stavrianos, interview with the author, artist’s studio, Harcourt, Victoria, December 18, 2020

[6] Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, (1949), Penguin Classics, 2004

[7] Wendy Stavrianos quoted in Laura Murray Cree, Wendy Stavrianos, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1996, p.6