Reviews/Visual Art

Sonia Payes: facing the past to face the future

1 February 2022

In her Fringe World exhibition Sonia Payes portrays humanity under stress but, as Craig McKeough observes, there is hope in the heat of adversity.

Taking just one human face – a photograph of her daughter – Melbourne artist Sonia Payes offers a multitude of possibilities, transforming that one picture through manipulation of colour, form and texture.

Her digital photographic prints, light installations and bronze sculptures spring from that single-origin image, and in this exhibition, curated by Ted Snell for Fringe World’s visual arts program, it becomes much more than the familiar face of a family member. Rather it is a symbol of humanity in its broadest sense, as Payes grapples to harness her response to the big issues facing all of us.

These universal themes emerge in the Alchemy series at the heart of this exhibition – a stunning sequence of 14 photographic prints of that face, each with bold shifts in colour and showing exquisite detail in the variation in line, shape and layering.

The striking images are of an obviously human form but the decision to print them on metallic paper and to use such a kaleidoscope of iridescent colours suggests something different. If not quite an artificial life form, then perhaps a human who is altered by the changes in their environment.

Sonia Payes is known for incorporating themes around climate change into her sculptural and photographic work but this collection, produced amid a global pandemic, feels like it extends that idea to explore the ways humanity has to evolve to adapt to a different sort of existential threat.

This transforms the message in her work from a theoretical, universal commentary to one that is deeply personal. This single face may be an archetype, representing humanity as a whole but it is also an expression of family and the most important connections of all.

The repetition of this image of a face in various forms throughout the exhibition space makes a powerful statement about our resilience. We are surrounded by constant reminders of the threats we face, but the overriding impression from “Alchemy” is that something positive can be forged from the heat of adversity – that individually and collectively we are capable of better.

While the burst of colour from the walls demands immediate attention, with a little time to absorb the collection as a whole, it is Payes’ sculptures which emerge as the quiet heroes.

These works in bronze carry the motif of the face into 3D form and an assortment of surface finishes from a sleek polished sheen in black and gold in the Emergence series to a weathered weariness in the Phoenix series – faces that look to have gained a patina of wisdom through centuries of exposure to the elements.

Each of the sculptures features multiple faces, allowing the viewer to observe different aspects simultaneously. This approach recalls depictions of the two-faced Janus – Roman god of beginnings and endings – a reference that seems apt for this collection as a whole.

Sonia Payes’ “Alchemy” is grounded in a one of the oldest imperatives to create art – to help human understanding of the world around us. But the processes and mediums she employs, digitally manipulated prints on metallic paper, 3D lenticular images and the use of electricity and light to create illusions of movement – offer a distinctively forward-looking approach to art-making.

She hints at a way forward without losing sight of the very human mistakes and missteps that got us to this point.

“Alchemy” continues until 12 February 2022.

Pictured top are three photographic prints from Sonia Payes ‘Alchemy’ series. L-R: ‘ALCHEMY X’, 2021, Edition 1/3, 50cm x 42cm, Chromogenic Print, Metallic Paper, Box Framed, Glass; ‘ALCHEMY IV’, 2021, Edition 1/3, 50cm x 42cm, Chromogenic Print, Metallic Paper, Box Framed, Glass; ‘ALCHEMY V’, 2021, Edition 1/3, 50cm x 42cm, Chromogenic Print, Metallic Paper, Box Framed, Glass

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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