Australian Financial Review, 24 November 2018
The word “love” covers a multitude of feelings that span everything from sexual desire to a connection with the environment. The works by two women artists at Victoria’s TarraWarra Museum of Art show how much richer our visual vocabulary is when it comes to capturing the nuances of our emotions.
Patricia Piccinini’s lifelike creatures, which unsettlingly fuse human and animal characteristics, display our most human emotions: tenderness, caring, nurturing, love. Her works are on show beside the paintings of Australian artist Joy Hester, who died in 1960. Hester’s works show a strength of emotional connection by blending her figures into a single entity. “It’s not a saccharine kind of love,” says curator Victoria Lynn, “there’s a kind of shadowy undercurrent to it. It’s a complex evocation of the idea of love.”
The idea for the pairing came when Lynn worked with Piccinini at the 2003 Venice Biennale and Hester’s name came up in conversation.
“Part of the reason the pairing works is that both artists are interested in the idea of the blended figure,” says Lynn. “It’s not art history, it’s a juxtaposition of two women artists and their shared sets of ideas around the condition of love.”
Hester was an important influence on Piccinini, who came across her work when she was studying economic history and art history at ANU.
“By chance I came across a book by Janine Burke [Joy Hester published in 1981],” says Piccinini. “I liked Hester’s work enormously because it came at a time when I was interested in what it meant to have connections with people. That’s one of the things about her paintings; it’s about what it feels like to love.”
Sex and ageing
Hester’s influence was key to Piccinini’s career. “When I left ANU, I got into art school on images that were very derivative of hers, except I wasn’t depicting love, I was depicting alienation,” she says.
Hester’s images, executed quickly with brush and ink, are a stark contrast to Piccinini’s hyper-real sculptures, which can take months to complete.
“In art history there aren’t that many paintings that deal with love,” Piccinini says. “There are some works where we see a beautiful young woman and a beautiful young man. With Joy Hester it was the opposite. [Her figures are] almost monstrous. She didn’t focus on what they looked like, the focus was on what it felt like. And what it felt like was they were blended into each other. That doesn’t make a pretty picture.”
Piccinini’s own work is also discomfiting; critics have described her pieces as “creepy” and “weird”, but in this exhibition the focus is on the expression of love in its many forms.
Piccinini has created a new piece for the exhibition, Sanctuary, inspired by her interest in bonobos, a relative of chimpanzees, which live in matriarchal groups and use sex as one of their key social bonding techniques.
The work depicts an elderly couple. “I do believe as we age we still have a sexual life and it’s still really important to us,” Piccinini says of the work, which was completed just before the exhibition opened.
Patricia Piccinini and Joy Hester: Through love, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Vic, until March 11, 2019.