Art

Surprisingly, proximity to Patricia Piccinini’s unsettling hybrid forms brings the darker themes of painter Joy Hester’s work to the fore, in the joint exhibition Through love... at TarraWarra. By Andy Butler.

Patricia Piccinini & Joy Hester: Through love…

Patricia Piccinini's ‘The Comforter’ 2018.
Credit: Graham Baring

Patricia Piccinini & Joy Hester: Through love… is an exhibition at TarraWarra Museum of Art that brings together two large figures in Australian art. It is an astute pairing of artists from different times. Joy Hester died five years before Patricia Piccinini was born, but the intergenerational dialogue between Hester’s modernist brush and ink drawings and Piccinini’s contemporary hyperreal sculptures of spliced-DNA creatures shows a deep attention to love and the human condition in the practices of both women.

Piccinini is one of Australia’s most celebrated living artists. Her career has been one of storied major solo exhibitions at national and international institutions. In 2003, at 37 years old, she represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. In 2016, Piccinini was ranked the most popular contemporary artist in the world by The Art Newspaper, based on visitor numbers to her exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. Earlier this year, she was the subject of a major retrospective at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, called Curious Affection.

En masse in a solo exhibition, Piccinini’s work creates a world teeming with hyperreal creatures of an alternative universe – silicone, fibreglass and hair sculptures that appear rendered from DNA splicing and transgenic experiments between animals, mythical creatures, humans and machines. The work has the feeling of science experiment gone wrong, with ethical questions at the centre. Placed in the presence of Hester’s drawings, though, these creatures take on a deeper emotional register.

Hester may now be revered in the Australian canon but she found little success while she was alive. For the most part, she was panned by male critics of the time for being too emotional and feminine. She died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1960, aged 40, with only a few solo exhibitions to her name but was written into art history posthumously, through the concerted effort of major institutions, biographers, family and connections with the Heide group.

Initially, Hester was married to fellow painter Albert Tucker. In 1947, she was told she had two years to live and left Tucker to live with painter Gray Smith. Her first son, Sweeney, was left in the care of Heide’s owners John and Sunday Reed, who eventually adopted him. Through love… has completely taken over the cavernous TarraWarra gallery – I’ve never seen so much of Hester’s work in the one place before. Her work in this exhibition is from the period of her life with Gray Smith in Sydney, and later on the outskirts of Melbourne.

There’s a strong sense of disquiet in the extensive selection from Hester’s Love (1949) and Lovers (1955–56) series – both feature a repetition of motifs, of fluid strokes, abstracted and shifting forms that constitute images of heterosexual lovers. These depictions of couples in various Expressionist and poetic forms have a weight to them – a sense of the memory and feeling that is being brought to bear. Love consists of abstracted depictions of faces of a man and a woman blending into one another, sometimes sharing an eye, a mouth, with no demarcation of where one person ends or the other begins. In some, it’s obvious the two are kissing, or the male figure looms shadowy alongside the woman, or it seems the woman is losing her form entirely. To see these drawings all together, one gets an impression of Hester working through a complex web of deeply held emotions, which may never have been resolved.

While the emotion emanating from Hester’s drawings accentuates the complexity of the relationships between Piccinini’s transgenic and hybrid creatures, with Piccinini’s hyperreal lab experiments so close, Hester’s works seem to ask darker and more unsettling questions. What will this love and intimacy turn us into? How will our capacity for love shape us, with all its complex, monstrous and uneasy elements?

Two of Hester’s pieces from the Mother and Baby (1955) series are also included here, work from the period between Love and Lovers. The pair of drawings of a mother and baby – made following the birth of Hester’s second and third children with Smith – are two of the most powerful works in the exhibition. Across the images, the expressions differ; in one, the mother’s pointed eyes look down at the baby, expression ambiguous, in what may be delirium or a grimace. In the second, the mother stares forward, glassy-eyed, while the baby is near faceless. The mother may be imagining an alternative life, one with or without a child; perhaps it is other possible iterations of personal history and futures playing in her mind, or she is simply overcome with sheer exhaustion and boredom.

In front of these drawings sits Piccinini’s Kindred (2018), a sculpture of a family of three figures, each at different points of a spectrum of animality. The mother most closely resembles a primate. Her face is eerily similar to the mother in one of Hester’s Mother and Baby drawings that is hung behind it. The dialogue between these works draws out the emotional connection between the family figures in Kindred. As with many of Piccinini’s sculptures, it’s upon closer inspection that the fine details become more apparent. One of the human-looking children latches on to its mother’s back so tightly that her skin is stretched visibly taught, shaped under the weight of the child’s grip. The mother’s giant hand reaches out to another baby in an action of maternal devotion. This humanity and depth of feeling holds the attention of the viewer more than the hyperreal, monstrous features of the work.

At times in Through love…, the ethical questions that drive Piccinini’s practice, around the distinction between the human and the natural, are eclipsed by the complex love between her figures that’s highlighted by Hester’s company. In The Comforter (2010), an impossibly detailed pre-teen girl, covered in hair, gently cradles an amorphous baby-like creature with no eyes and stubby fingers for a head. She looks at the child lovingly. Or The Lovers (2011), two motor scooters hybridised with deer – their necks leaning intimately into each other.

Much was made of Piccinini’s The Young Family during its first outing at the Venice Biennale in 2003 as a representation of a creature bred for harvesting organs, one that questions the moral justifications of how we use technology. The work features a mother figure, a mutation between a sow and a human with beautifully textured skin and hair, sitting atop a plinth akin to a medical bed. Around her, three “piglets” vie for her attention. In Through love…, although the ethical questions are still present, it is the complexity of and contradictions within the mother–child relationship that come to the fore beside Hester’s Expressionist work. And it is this uneasy love between the subjects, uncanny and familiar, which draws you close.

Through love… sets out to contextualise a contemporary art practice through the lens of Australian Modernism. Piccinini and Hester sit in easy conversation together, both artists mining questions about love, relationships and maternal devotion, in ways that ask us to confront the anxieties, uneasiness and disquiet that comes with them. Each artist brings much to the other. Given the force of Hester’s work alongside Piccinini’s, it repeatedly comes to mind that Hester was panned during her lifetime, that the art establishment – of which both women in this exhibition are now regarded a part – lacked the capacity to engage with her work meaningfully, to see its deep critical and emotional potential. 

Hester is one woman who was written back into the canon. And while Piccinini certainly is a towering figure, hers has been a hard-fought career – she’s one of very few women at the top of the art world. Countless others have been overlooked or forgotten. Many more still face the closed doors of a contemporary art world still predominantly white and male, to the detriment of a more multifaceted and robust culture. We can at least be grateful these two women have been awarded due attention and that the dialogue opened by bringing them together in this exhibition, across a generation, is a productive one.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "The big uneasy". Subscribe here.

Andy Butler
is a Melbourne writer, curator and artist.