Helen Maudsley’s visual essays | Monthly

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The 94-year-old painter’s current exhibition reveals an interest in language and the mechanics of meaning

94-year-old Melbourne painter Helen Maudsley, whose current exhibition at the Niagara Galleries is a discreet revelation, takes as her subject the vivid foundations of language. Or at least that’s a way of trying to understand his small-scale paintings of an attractive obtuse, which are unlike anything you might imagine, and nothing at all to most current practices.

His paintings at first seem difficult to understand. They are traced by an ineffable quality that is only underscored by the fact that most of what she portrays – which includes familiar items such as high-heeled shoes, reading lamps, arum lilies, ladders and disembodied hands – is easily identifiable. These usually float in an architectural space with a flat rendering and often take place before your eyes. None of this is governed by the laws of physics. In a Maudsley painting, nothing is fixed; everything seems weightless. However, the meaning emerges nonetheless. One can imagine an experience in which a number of iconic signifiers are grouped together and thrown into an anti-gravity chamber: they float there in endless movement, briefly aligning themselves in ballet-like compositions that reveal themselves in the form of sentences. and sentences. If we’re lucky, we might even see entire stories.

Maudsley, who was born in 1927, identified herself early on as an artist. She started drawing seriously as a respite from an osteomyelitis attack in her childhood, and as a teenager she took informal classes. Her parents initially forced her to study music, but in her early twenties she enrolled in the National Gallery of Victoria Art School – a conventional studio school that introduced students to the principles of the tradition. European. It was there that she met her future husband: fellow painter John Brack, who established himself as one of Australia’s most recognizable post-war artists. The two have been careful to keep their practices separate, but some interesting comparisons remain. Both displayed a penchant for the angular when painting or sketching the human body (Maudsley’s early work was more strictly figurative than what she is now known for) and for slightly off-putting color palettes (greens, mustard yellows). , brown). But it’s the differences that are really illuminating.

Brack, who died in 1999, was an artist of his time. He has found his voice in downright critical portrayals of modern Australian life. Think of the iconic Australian art of the 50s and 60s and its famous austere visions – of Melbourne during rush hour (Collins Street, 5 p.m., 1955), for example, or the suburban family (The car, 1955) – will probably come to mind. For me, such paintings have not aged well; they are too illustrative in their style, and the comments they offer on the modern condition may now seem slightly trivial. It’s a way of saying that they are linked by history. Brack isn’t the only one – many post-war Australian artists have been caught in a similar trap – but it does give us something worth considering in light of Maudsley’s practice. She shares nothing of her late husband’s apparent desire for a clearly definable subject (which she characterized as her desire to speak directly to “the common man in the street”), let alone a subject that is easily passed on. to its audience. Maudsley’s work is distinctly timeless – current paintings could have been made at any time during the past half century. It is likely that in 50 years they will still look fresh.

There is also something deeply internalized about Maudsley’s work. Perhaps this is because there initially wasn’t much room for art in his life. In keeping with the day, she would stay home while Brack worked; the couple raised four daughters in quick succession and, as they did, Maudsley’s practice fell through. When she has devoted her full attention to it, she seems to have painted primarily to satisfy her own curiosities rather than to make large-scale statements. The results were disconcerting to audiences and critics alike, and his place in the firmament of art history was, for the most part, not immediately clear. She showed from the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that her work began to be widely seen. Even then, attention has been sporadic: In 2018, Maudsley candidly described his career at Goalkeeper Australia‘s Stephanie Convery as “lower status”.

One feels that she would be the last to complain about her slow start, nor her enduring position as a cult figure on the fringes of Australian painting. As analytical as they are, Maudsley’s paintings are also supernatural good-naturedness; free from anything like cynicism or bitterness. Any comment that I have read from her regarding her late husband clearly shows a deep respect for the man and his work. And while some artists enjoy the limelight, many prefer the position Maudsley ultimately secured, albeit late in life: enough attention to sustain the practice, but not enough to risk compromise. In recent years she has been the subject of institutional exhibitions, including a major solo exhibition at the NGV in 2017-2018 (which holds in its collection a relatively comprehensive selection of paintings and drawings from Maudsley’s entire career), but she was also well served by the elusiveness of such attention. Many viewers – and this includes young painters, on whom she is said to have a great influence – probably don’t know much about Maudsley’s paintings until they meet one for the first time. This may lend to such an encounter, when it occurs, the accusation of a new discovery. Not to mention the fact that not knowing is a perfect condition for discovering Maudsley’s painted world for the first time.

So when we look, what do we see? Maudsley herself has often claimed that she painted “visual essays” which is as good a description of her work as any I have come across. Some of these essays are relatively brief, especially in the current exhibit, and read more like aphorisms: they’re concise but coded, and don’t waste time on unnecessary explanations. Obtaining them takes effort.

Take the perfectly titled Thinking takes place in words. Our minds think with words (2019), a rare image in which real words appear. The top right is decorated with fine capital letters painted on a mint green background. These state “WHAT, WHY, HOW, O, WHEN”, which in turn are repeated (except “WHY”) on two folded forms – let’s call them sandwich panels – below. A brown radial star, reminiscent of an origami chrysanthemum or the blades of a windmill, balances the left side. The whole thing is gnomic, but deeply resonant. Words are of course questions of the most basic kind; the kind a toddler might ask their parents when they first realize cause and effect. They are as potentially endless as they are random. Maybe that’s the point: maybe the radial shape turns to provide answers; maybe the painting is about chance? In case I spoil it with words, I’ll stop there, but trust me when I say that the job – however simple it is – is instantly memorable. It’s the visual equivalent of an earworm: it sits inside the head and doesn’t release easily. I’ve been thinking about it for days.

A similar quality animates the entire exhibition. None of these works are as dizzyingly complex as his larger paintings of the late 1990s and early 2000s – paintings which, at the risk of stretching the metaphor of Maudsley’s essay, are masterpieces. – of long duration – but each of them presents succinct and often convincing visual arguments. It always surprises me what can be constructed from the building blocks of language – how complex emotions or ideas can be conveyed so effectively through basic sounds and symbols – and I suspect that something Similar Maudsley plot. In keeping with the entire exhibition, a painting, Our souls that meet. The Viennese waltz, 2020, is brimming with potential meaning. Two signs, seen behind the dark form of a reaching tree, face the viewer; a series of intersecting ladders cascading over an eggshell blue floor; a section of balustrade is suspended. But asking what that means in literal terms is a bad question, because a painting like this surely is about the mechanics of meaning itself: those simple blocks that can be reconfigured into potentially infinite structures.

In an attempt to explain how Maudsley approaches his subject, curator Andrew Gaynor has already aptly used the example of laughter. Easy enough, he pointed out, to paint a laughing figure – head thrown back, mouth wide open – but another thing entirely to capture the laughter itself: that contagious explosion of sound and breath that dissipates in the air. . But this difficulty is one that each of Maudsley’s new paintings faces head-on. It may not be laughter (although The bell shapes, and the reverberations, 2021, may indeed do the trick), but it’s still something so alluring, not to say fleeting and indescribable. It is no wonder that her calm and studious practice has engaged her all her life.

Helene Maudsley 2021 is on view at the Niagara Galleries until December 18.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer and author of The foreign artist.

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