The Influence

Author Charlotte Wood explains how the still-life paintings of Jude Rae help her write. By Kate Holden.

Charlotte Wood

Jude Rae’s oil on linen SL441, and Charlotte Wood (inset).
Credit: Jude Rae (above) and Chris Chen (inset)

Author Charlotte Wood is best known for her multi-awarded Animal People (2011), her Stella Prize-winning novel The Natural Way of Things (2015), her Stella-shortlisted The Weekend (2019), and three other highly praised novels. Much of her work explores the creative process through anthology, mentorship and podcasts, and she’s known for her deep engagement with the literary community. Her new book, The Luminous Solution: Creativity, Resilience and the Inner Life, has just been published by Allen & Unwin. Wood was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019. She’s currently at work on a new novel.

For The Influence, she has chosen to discuss the work of Jude Rae, who has a new exhibition due to open at Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane in late October. Like Wood, Rae is based in Sydney and has been a finalist and winner of many awards. Rae is represented in major collections internationally and in Australia, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which recently acquired her On the Beach (Malua Bay, NYE 2019) (2020-21). Her works, in paint, range from interiors – often of empty public spaces – through portraiture to an extensive sequence of still lifes. Earlier this year Wood interviewed Rae on her occasional podcast, The Writer’s Room with Charlotte Wood.

Tell me how you first came across Jude Rae’s work.

As happens a bit to me these days, I first saw her work on Instagram. I saw one of her still lifes and just really loved it and couldn’t stop looking at it, and then I followed her and any work I could see, I did. I realised I’d already seen some of her portraits and the big, beautiful interiors of the High Court building, airports and stuff. But it’s the still lifes that I’m compelled by. It’s taken me a long time to work out why they’re so arresting. And recently I’ve become obsessed with her work because I feel like it’s helping me write my new novel.

My influences change so often and depending on each book I have a few touchstone works to look at, and listen to, and read. Every book has some kind of problem inherent to it and I have to work out how to do it. With the one I’m writing now, which is about a woman in an enclosed religious order, there’s a great deal of stillness in the story – or non-story! I was looking at Jude’s pictures and thinking: It’s a still life, I’m writing a still life. And that is a kind of horrifying prospect in a novel, which depends on movement in lots of ways. That’s why I approached her to do the podcast: I was like, “Great, you can tell me how to make a still life that has so much energy and depth and authority in it.” I wanted to know from her, how do you get this almost humming energy into what is, at first glance, a fairly static scene?

She talked about breaking up the surface, doing things with the form with the painting, not with the things that she was looking at but how she was looking at them. You get this sense that at first they’re very intimate and very recognisable: you see, that’s a gas bottle, that’s a jar, that’s a fire extinguisher. But as you look at them they start destabilising you as a viewer. The edges of the picture start breaking up. And the surfaces these seemingly solid objects are on begin drizzling away or dissolving. When she has water in vessels and refraction or reflections, the reflected thing is shifted out of alignment. There’s this constant movement within the picture just from the way she has arranged things. But most importantly, from the way she has paid such close, lavish attention to them.

There’s one quote I wanted to read you, from Yeats: her pictures remind me of this. I’ve really taken it to heart for my next book. He said, “Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible.”

I feel like a lot of contemporary literature, including my own at times, has become a bit overly concerned with saying things about society, or messages, or lessons, and I’m really tired of that in my own work [laughs] and I don’t want to do it anymore. So this idea that you can make an incredible compelling piece of art that does none of those things – persuading, teaching, explaining – it’s what I aspire to. We’ll see if I can do it.

But the other thing about her composition is that the objects are very dignified. The verticals in the arrangement are almost stern in their arrangement next to each other. And then you have a sweep coming down behind them, an extension cord or something that swipes right across the picture diagonally, that breaks up the harmony. Another thing she does is have the light coming in from different directions. There’s so much complexity in this picture that you look at, thinking, “Ah yes, I know what that is.” But it throws you back into uncertainty all the time. I think there’s so much in these pictures: the more you look, the more and more and more there is to find.

I love that they’re extremely beautiful but there’s nothing remotely romantic or sentimental about them. And that comes, I think, from the objects that she chooses, often quite industrial, functional, like a plastic bucket or a gas bottle. They’re next to a beautiful antique vase. There’s a juxtaposition and dislocation that comes from putting together things that don’t belong together, which is one of the hallmarks of creative thinking: the joining of unlike things, which creates energy and creates new thinking about what each thing is. There’s a kind of moral quality to her attention. It says that this ordinary, rusty old functional stuff is as worthy of our attention as this beautiful vase with flowers in it.

I made a note as I looked at them: “elements in adjunct”. The objects are implacably placed, still, but there’s an implied narrative about how. And what’s happening out of the frame with this destabilising? Something’s happened here.

Personally, when I love a painting there’s a sense that I could go into the painting. It’s not flat; you feel you could go among these objects. But then the painting suddenly goes flat at the bottom, there’s the underpainting: she’s always reminding you, as she said to me, “I always want the viewer to be pulled up short by the knowledge that this is a painting. It’s not real. This is a piece of art that is being imagined by someone else.” So there’s so much life in the stillness. That’s why they’re so magical to me.

She said in your podcast that real beauty is hard work. But there’s also the idea – a feminist idea perhaps – that simply holding things together, assembling and cherishing them, is sufficient.

I love that. And that’s what’s going on in these pictures, right? Bringing things together and letting them speak out of the stillness. It’s almost like just because she’s painted those things they have authority. I wish I had one of her pictures on the wall because I could look at it forever and find new places to go inside it. Maybe that’s all you need to do in a book.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Charlotte Wood".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.