A journey into intimacy: Exploring the art of Joy Hester and Patricia Piccinini

THE AGE, 30 November 2018

“Most people look at my pieces and find them repulsive,” says Patricia Piccinini of her sculptures, “but all my work is about love.”

Piccinini has spent years working across many media, but it’s her sculptures that have resonated the most – at once hyper-real and other-worldly, they throw up questions and provoke mixed emotions, with their hair and crevices and skin folds that may or may not be orifices.

Patricia Piccinini with her new work, Sanctuary, at TarraWarra Museum of Art. ”To see this connection between two older creatures, for me, is really beautiful.”Credit:Rick Liston

But it’s connection that underlies most of her work.

In a juxtaposition that might at first seem unlikely, this element of Piccinini’s work is brought to the fore in a new exhibition pairing her work with that of Australian modernist painter Joy Hester.

In a sprawling show at TarraWarra Museum of Art, Patricia Piccinini & Joy Hester: Through love, Piccinini’s often disquieting pieces will be shown alongside the ink and brush works of Hester, focused on love and intimacy, from romantic love, maternal devotion and human and non-human relationships – even between animate and inanimate objects.

Just as the meaning of some of Hester’s works become clearer after closer viewing, so too does the connection between these two significant female artists.

Hester, who was part of Melbourne’s “Heide circle” (she died in 1960), portrayed intimate scenes between couples, often so entwined that they share an eye or a face. She’s considered one of our underappreciated artists, neglected during her lifetime, unlike her male counterparts (she was married for a time to Albert Tucker). She had only three solo exhibitions during her lifetime and many of the works in this exhibition have rarely been seen.

Curator and TarraWarra director Victoria Lynn has focused on the notion of merging that figures prominently in both artists’ works.

“In Patricia’s work, there’s the merging of human and animal forms, but for this show we’ve chosen works where there’s a relationship between two entities – mother and child, and child and animal,” she says. “And the 24 works from Joy in the show are mainly focused on the idea of the couple, with a couple of works looking at mother and child. The show is really about intermingled figures.”

Hester’s works were a huge influence on Piccinini’s early practice; she describes the modernist artist as “a part of my DNA”.

“I think she is for a lot of women artists,” she says. “There are some really literal connections that you can make – for example, where two bodies connect and you don’t know where one body ends and the other begins … that’s a very direct reference.”

Hester’s portrayals of “intimacy without borders” spoke to her own interests in exploring identity and sense of self.

She first encountered Hester’s work through art historian Janine Burke’s 1981 biography of the late artist, and was immediately struck by their beauty and hopefulness.

“I’d been studying the Angry Penguins and Hester was really the only female presence there – and what a presence. She was so different,” Piccinini says.

“I couldn’t identify with all the Tucker stuff very well but with her work I could. I loved this … blending (of figures) that she did. I take what Hester did and go on to take it into a sort of commentary on the technological impact of the work on our everyday lives. One of the things I loved about her is that she makes work about everyday life, and everyday life is interactions between people, between lovers, between mother and child.”

Hester was also a poet – although she received only negative reviews of her written work – and some of these also appear in the exhibition.

“There’s one poem where she talks about ‘when heart penetrates heart’ – it’s wonderful,” says Piccinini. “How often in life do you experience that?”

Works of Hester’s in the show (drawn from the NGV, Heide and private collectors) include pieces from her series Love 1949 and Lovers 1955-56. Among Piccinini’s are some of her most well known sculptures, including The Young Family, which explores biotechnology as well as maternal love, The Lovers, in which two motor scooters embrace, and Doubting Thomas, which features a small boy curiously putting his hand into the mouth of a fantastical, hairless creature.

Her rarely-seen, 34-metre-long hot air balloon, Skywhale, whose maternal presence is unmistakable with five breasts hanging either side of the balloon, will also make an outing, expected to be tethered outside the museum.

“Like Joy Hester, Skywhale wasn’t initially well received,” says Piccinini, “But now I think people are waiting for her to come out! She has a very strong maternal presence.”

Piccinini has also created a new work in response to Lynn’s theme for the exhibition.