On a nippy overcast day, Helen Hughes is sitting in a corner of Monash University’s Caulfield campus. It’s the winter break and besides a construction team welding the frame of a new library, and a few despondent-looking security guards, there is almost nobody around. Across an aluminium table and its constellation of apple stickers, Helen sits upright in a khaki jacket; beneath its torn tartan lining, a pressed white collar and dark blue jumper, long brown skirt, black stockings, polished shoes. Sitting at a slight angle to me, looking very slightly, thoughtfully upwards, she reminds me of a Leonardo da Vinci portrait – Lady with an Ermine (1489-90), perhaps.
We are 50 or so metres from Monash University Museum of Art, known as MUMA, where Helen was recently appointed research curator. She nods to the occasional person behind me, sometimes enthusiastically, at other times courteously or circumspectly. With my back turned, I am forced to imagine who they might be: postgraduate sculptor students wearing black, plaster-smeared jeans; heavy-eyed lecturers trudging up concrete ramps with armfuls of books; chatty security guards.
As we talk, Helen’s voice rises and dips – an aeroplane dodging or taking on pockets of turbulence, according to the sensitivity, awkwardness and urgency of her topics. Of particular note has been her role as the co-founder and co-editor of Discipline – an art journal designating “a space for long-form, research-based art historical writing” and aiming to “respond to artworks with the same level of care they were made with”. To open a copy of Discipline is to instantly appreciate this care and substance; thick with intelligence rather than advertisements, there’s absolutely nothing cheap or compromised about this publication. In conjunction with Discipline Helen is the co-curator, along with Victoria Lynn, of the current TarraWarra Biennial: Endless Circulation.
Helen has a discernible passion for local art – what she understands as the serious, mostly overlooked examples. “The criticism people tend to have of me is that I don’t tend to look overseas that much, I tend to focus on Australia,” she admits. As to how she first became interested in art, Helen confides: “My mum taught art in schools, then she became an education officer at the NGV, so it’s probably in my DNA a bit.” It was in the National Gallery of Victoria – privy to her mother’s lengthy talks to school groups about works of art – that Helen had an illuminating experience with another Italian painting.
Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44) presents another golden-haired protagonist, this one holding a priceless pearl earring above a glass of vinegar. After winning a wager against her lover – the beastly Roman unhappily watching her from the opposite side of the table – Cleopatra is poised to drop the priceless pearl and drink it. Helen describes the way she got drawn into this painting – the “perspectival drag” produced by the chequered tiles – which she explains while drawing her fingertips together towards a vanishing point.
Perhaps more revealing is the way Helen’s curiosity was kindled by the intriguing provenance of this picture, a work that makes clear what she a few times describes as art’s capacity to get “richer the more you look into it and understand it”. In 1931 the painting, then part of the Hermitage collection, was offloaded by Stalin during the first of his five-year plans. It made its way to London before the British decided they shouldn’t be seen to be supporting the Bolsheviks; it was then sold to the NGV, with the help of the Felton Bequest, for £31,375, the transaction settled with a briefcase of small cash denominations.
The intersection of art, money and politics – part of the “endless circulation” referred to by the TarraWarra exhibition – is a theme in our conversation. “I find it amazing the way artists and curators spearhead all that,” Helen says in relation to art’s role in the market, the disconcerting example of “self-exploitation” offered by artists and freelance curators.
Conscientious forms of art history amount to serious detective work; they involve looking at objects while understanding them as pieces in the broader puzzle of society. As Helen’s mind locates co-ordinates and fetches important clues from her local cultural topography, I can’t help but think of Sherlock Holmes. At moments, while witnessing her careful scrutiny and feeling both less informed and less agile, I become the trusting and fumbling Watson – submitting to her lead across shadowy moors, despite never quite knowing where her nose might be leading nor precisely what it is she does.
As we speak, my eyes vaguely register a line of timber and metal offcuts outside what I suspect is a sculpture workshop. It occurs to me that Helen, always complicating arguments and steering away from simple platitudes, is foremost committed to the workshop of ideas. When I suggest that her role seems to be that of
a facilitator of ideas, she counters, then concedes: “I’m not very good at it … but I often end up in that role.”
Like Holmes, but with a humility he did not possess, she is very good indeed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2016 as "Puzzle master".
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