Tales of the Unexpected
Aspects of contemporary Australian art
He has passed into wakefulness. The door to the hallway, the latch not quite seated, has been swinging back and forth as if at a ghostly touch, clicking, nudged by the drafts that circulate through the house now that the cooling weather has turned on the furnace.. . . The sharp noise rings through the silent house. Not quite silent: the furnace sighs, the refrigerator throbs. His mother in the next room sleeps with a man not his father. It used to be his parents’ room, he used to hear them cutting up some nights, making more noise than they thought. The two front bedrooms are empty, staring out at a Joseph Street bare of traffic. Nelson wonders why, no matter how cheerful and blameless the day’s activities have been, when you wake in the middle of the night there is guilt in the air, a gnawing feeling of everything being slightly off, wrong – you in the wrong, and the world too, as if darkness is a kind of light that shows us the depth we are about to fall into.
I think that the childhood intuition that things are beyond our understanding is one that we later cover over with certainties that maybe make life easier to live, but which cut us off from our potential to be moved by our own predicament as humans. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is when we are faced with the limitations of our own understanding that we are most alive. Anne Wallace2
Anne Wallace 'Pensive girl' 1992 oil on canvas Private Collection enlarge
Anne Wallace’s paintings convey ambiguities at the heart of human experience. Wallace is interested in creating images that are about something not shown, ‘that are not finally readable in spite of all the signs of narrative being present’. Her works spring from certain themes and mythologies, ‘myths that we may be familiar with, which have accumulated a kind of cultural power’. Evocative and provocative, they are imbued with a sense that time has been forever stilled. It is as though beneath the surface of these haunting, dream-like works, resides a repressed energy and emotion, on the verge of exposure.
In Wallace’s intimate painting Pensive girl 1992, the inanimate becomes animate as a dancing pair of scissors suggests the incisive shaping of imaginary worlds. In The exhibitionist 1993, the girl herself becomes performative – a contortionist exposed to the gaze of a group of male spectators, entrapped in an arena that recalls De Chirico’s empty, yet claustrophobic spaces. As in much work around the early 1990s, Exemplar 1993 (page 47) suggests the uneasy passage between youth and adulthood, focusing on girls and their implied psychological interactions with each other and the world.
In the course of a period spent at the Slade School of Art in London (1994–96), Wallace felt the need to reassess her sense of direction. This corresponded with her growing awareness of how complex and strange life actually is. She recalls that seeing films such as Marguerite Durras’s India Song made her realise ‘how powerful, mysterious and “nonsensical” artwork like that could be’. In paintings such as Boudoir 1997, Wallace creates a world imbued with subtle mystery and, in this instance, with a sense of the presences of those who may once have occupied this empty bed, sealed in its luxuriant satin sheen cover. The combination of attraction and alienation has now become integral to the artist’s manipulation of her images inhabiting close-up viewpoints.
A sense of enclosure and of unknown forces informs Sight unseen 1996 (cover image), in which water creeping from under a closed door recalls the palpable, heightened tension of Hitchcock films. At times there is a feeling of a camera lens observing the action from behind, as in Late home 2001 – gazing with the close-up man and the viewer (or voyeur) through a screen at a Lee Remmick lookalike who is, in turn, facing us with the moon in her eyes. While there is something of the mood of Edward Hopper’s paintings in the work, the artist points out that, unlike Hopper, she is not a chronicler of her own times but rather draws upon a particular look and atmosphere to enable her to enter into aspects of human experience.
I have ‘lifted’ a style and transplanted it, certainly, but I have not done so out of some sense of nostalgia. In fact, the very subject of my painting is the unattainability of ‘glamour’ – a trope for an idealised existence free from pain, boredom, dross; and which we might associate with some representations of 50s America, specifically with Hollywood. It is a visual style with which I am not alone in finding myself fascinated, but it is one which I also feel alienated by. This sense of simultaneous fascination and alienation is, I would argue, what we derive from many things in life – especially art, religion, romantic love.3
The trope of glamour and questioning of identity is central to Wallace’s memorable painting She Is 2001. Recalling Colin McCahon’s famous painting I AM, she raises questions of self-identity, of the struggle to establish a sense of self in a world of illusions. In this image of a woman writing with lipstick on the bathroom mirror, Wallace is not suggesting that she is leaving a message for another (lover?) but rather that the dialogue is with the self. As she writes:
What I hope will be the effect of her slightly mad eye is to suggest that in fact she is writing a message to herself. Just as we all at times require mirrors to convince ourselves that we exist, this woman would seem to be suffering a crisis of identity which has led her, beyond her attempt of proving the fact of her existence via the mirror, to seek certainty through words. But here the letter ‘I’ is only half-formed . . .
Who has not looked into a mirror and been disturbed at the lack of self-recognition, the uncanny sense that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we do not in fact exist? When the seamless normality of our lives is at times interrupted for whatever reason, the mirror becomes proof that we are the impostor while the reflection that stares back is somehow the ‘real’ us, to whom we have no access.4
This crossover between the real and illusory is at one with an art that is deliberately non-naturalistic and theatrical. While Wallace has an interest in film, she is as much fascinated by literature; by writers like John Updike, Kenneth Anger (with works such as Hollywood Babylon) and James Ellroy. What is significant to her art practice is not their narratives as such but rather the mood engendered by their ideas and ways of writing, allowing her to re-conjure her own visual take on the world.
Exploring themes of love, anxiety, childhood and the search for identity, Anne Wallace does not finally present us with images of certainty. Instead she creates spaces for questioning and for contemplating the profound, inexhaustible ambiguities of human experience.
Butler, Rex Anne Wallace's confessions Art and Australia, vol.32, no.3, autumn 1995, pp.390–395
Anne Wallace - Recent Paintings essays by Edward Colless, Toni Ross and Anne Wallace (ex. cat.), published with the assistance of Darren Knight and Arts Queensland, Brisbane, 1999
Helmrich, MichelleOut of exile and into the nineties (ex. cat.), Contemporary Art Services Tasmania, 1994
Murray Cree, Laura 'Anne Wallace', in Australian Painting Now eds. Laura Murray Cree and Nevill Drury, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, pp.304–307