Reviews/Visual Art

A blaze of glorious people

28 September 2023

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery blazes a trail with an exhibition of remarkable portraits, writes Belinda Hermawan

There’s power in the word blaze, hence the expression “a blaze of glory”.

So it’s a fitting word to title an exhibition that speaks to portraiture’s ability to empower individuals.

In BLAZE: people made known, curator Lee Kinsella showcases portraits by Australian female artists that not only celebrate their subjects but the way they demand visibility. Drawn from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art – Australia’s largest public collection of women’s art – the works range from mid-20th century to recent acquisitions.

Angela Brennan uses a bold colour palette in her 1998 oil painting Self Portrait, which depicts the artist standing, holding her young child on her hip. With the vivid red of her shoes and blouse the same as the background, it is as if she has emerged from – and is still embedded in – a place of strength.

In contrast, the neutral tones in Dorothy Braund’s 1967 oil painting Barbara Brash serve to highlight the sharper lines and pointed edges of the female subject, who is propped up on her elbows on the floor, contemplating the papers before her.

A work from 'Blaze' - a woman's face sculpted from wood, so that it also looks like a violin.
Clever use of negative space: Virginia Ward, ‘IWABWY. OTSON. NI. Self portrait as a Not Instrument with bow tie’, 2018, luthiers offcuts and glue, 54 x 36 x 13cm. Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, The University of Western Australia.  Copyright courtesy of the artist.

The woman’s white blouse and black trousers are painted so that the creases and folds in the fabric are crisp and geometric. She has been granted dimension, rejecting the softness 1960s Australian society may expect her to quietly inhibit.

Virginia Ward makes clever use of negative space in her sculpture work IWABWY. OTSON. NI. Self Portrait As A Not Instrument With A Bow Tie (2018), to portray the way she defines herself by what she is not.

Constructed with luthier offcuts – wood used for making guitars, ukuleles and mandolins – Ward’s abstract face resembles an instrument without being one. The effect is somehow both peculiar and familiar at the same time, compelling you to observe the work from different angles.

While Yarrenyty Arltere artist Rhonda Sharpe’s expressive, colourful sculptures My Selfs with Cowboy (2021) may be sewn with soft materials, the effect is hard-hitting.

Supported by the video animation Rhonda (2021), these four figures (pictured top) represent how the artist has seen herself at various points of her life, whether it be the child who cries while her mother is out drinking or the artist she is now, with tools at her disposal to weave stories. The works are a testament to the power of storytelling and how captured memories can be front and centre for discussion and growth.

A painting from 'BLAZE' of a young man wearing a black t-shirt that says 'THE MEYNE EVENT'
Glowing with vitality: Susan Cooper Wyatt, ‘The Meyne Event’ (detail), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 185 x 120cm. Collection of the artist. Copyright courtesy of the artist.

Blaze features a selection of portraits by Wongatha artist Susan Cooper Wyatt, whose acrylic paintings proudly present their respective subjects, giving First Nations people agency.

Cooper Wyatt’s striking orange-hued portrait Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara) (2003) has Pilkington – acclaimed for her writing about the ongoing impact of being a part of the Stolen Generations, including 1996’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence – standing on Country in front of the aforementioned fence. From the yellow sky to the red dirt beneath her feet, the portrait evokes a sense of a perpetual fire still burning.

The work is displayed alongside Cooper Wyatt’s Ken Colbung (2005) and The Meyne Event (2014). Pilkington, Noongar elder and activist Ken Colbung, and Wyatt’s son – actor, writer and producer Meyne Wyatt – are pillars standing tall. Each taking up the majority of their respective canvases, they glow with vitality. Interestingly, each has their hands in their pockets, which I read as an assuredness that they know who they are, what they’re passionate about, and what their responsibilities are too.

Finally, the satirical magazine covers FEMMO, Issues 1,2,3 (2014) and Issues 4,5,6 (2015) by Virginia Fraser and Elvis Richardson skewer the lack of support for diversity in the arts. At first glance, I thought the work must be older because today’s popular culture is rooted in digital media rather than broadsheets. While the medium may feel outdated, the highlighted problem brings the work into the present, as does the coverline “Free reality check inside”.

BLAZE: people made known blazes a trail across our consciousness, in the hope audiences will keep the flame alive.

BLAZE: people made known continues until 9 December 2023 at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

Pictured top: Expressive, colourful and hard-hitting: Rhonda Sharpe, ‘My Selfs with Cowboy’, 2021, installation of four stitched woollen sculptures on metal stands using recycled woollen blankets, natural dye, wool, acrylic yarn, size variable, installation:  78 x 185 x 70cm, Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, The University of Western Australia.  Copyright courtesy of the artist and Yarrenyty Arltere Artists 

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Author —
Belinda Hermawan

Belinda Hermawan is a graduate of UWA Law School (2009) and a fiction writer whose short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. She is a summer school alum of Parsons, The New School of Design in New York. Favourite piece of playground equipment: playground car on springs!

Past Articles

  • Bold and striking art from Hatchlings

    From weaponised jewellery to hand-blown glass breaths, cosplay to vibrant projections, top graduates from our nation’s arts schools have created works that are variously immersive, disruptive and discomforting, writes Belinda Hermawan.

  • Finding presence in absence

    Though bemused by its installation choices, Belinda Hermawan finds some thought-provoking art works in Tracing Absence, an exhibition that explores loss.

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