TRANSFORMATIONS - The hidden beauty of ordinary things
Exhibitions are short in this city and good exhibitions seem shorter still. By the time you read this review the exhibition will have finished. A state of affairs requiring art lovers to pounce on the exhibitions they love and remember them. My job as a critic is to make you care about something you can’t see, except in reproduction.
Barb Henderson’s ten day show at the Steps Gallery on Lygon Street is just such an exhibition. Henderson’s art practice has evolved from a career as an art teacher and the body of work that makes up ‘TRANSFORMATIONS - the hidden beauty of ordinary things’ has evolved over the last five years not teaching. It is rare that we get to see such a complete body of work that extends over a period of time that’s neither long nor short.
Henderson works across a diverse range of media including oil paint, gouache, coloured pencils and embroidery and she is equally at home in all of these mediums. A treat in this exhibition was a collection of Ukrainian pysanky decorated Easter eggs – a technique involving layers of wax and dye on chicken eggs to form colourful patterns. This, I think, clearly indicates the delicate nature of Henderson’s practice, everything contains a lightness of touch and attention to detail that only comes from a developed ability to observe the world at hand.
The world that Henderson observes is the ordinary, domestic and suburban world of her home and her focus is to find beauty in this seeming ordinariness. Many of the paintings in this exhibition take as their subject the detritus of household life. An old blue desk, pots and jugs, Styrofoam boxes, plants growing through buckets and other broken things. In other words, the objects which come into our lives but never quite find a home. These are things that have accumulated around Henderson’s studio and just as they title says, they are banal in the extreme. Or so it would at first appear. Just like many modernists in the twentieth-century, the artist is able to not only find beauty in these overgrown and lost things, she is able to use their thing-ness to explore light, colour and the interesting shapes that are formed by a desk, a bowl and a teapot perched together surrounded by branches and leaves.
I’m reminded of the paintings of the Impressionists, particularly their still lifes which depict ordinary objects as vehicles for exploring their new techniques. Certainly Henderson follows an impressionistic interest in light and colour. In Window (2009) we see the outside of the shed with branches coming down and old chair legs sticking up in the foreground. The light through the branches gives the effect of a stained glass window as reflects the garden in the glass. The background in a collage of greens and oranges, flower pots and hinted at gardens beyond. The wall of the shed is turquoise with what appear to be primitive sketches applied in blue and pink paint.
The viewer is left with a strong sense of the importance of this space for the artist. It has a lived-in quality, as well as a sense of tranquillity. No one need worry about the hanging braches or the accumulation of stuff around the place – the inhabitants of this world are at ease. They are artists and artists see these things differently. The beauty of things which would otherwise find their way to the dump are repeatedly the subject of emotive and engaging studies in this exhibition. A repeated object are the Styrofoam boxes. In Scarf and Polystyrene Boxes (2010) we are struck immediately with vivid red and blue, a scarf hanging behind some gum tree branches. Following the shape of the branch to its end and the gumnuts themselves we see the geometric shapes of white boxes. Once our eyes focus there is that moment of surprise, which I experienced often in the exhibition, of realising what these shapes actually were.
A supreme example of Henderson’s approach is found in Polystyrene Boxes under tree (2009) in which the partially obscured boxes reveal themselves slowly through branches and collage of detritus. Unlike the previous painting, which was gouache, this painting is in oils and has time spent building the layers of light and detail which capture our eye, and then surprise us when we realise what we’re looking at. Henderson’s brushstrokes are precise with a relaxed quality, loose but not irreverent. She is at ease with the subject matter and when I look at these paintings I am convinced of the beauty found in everyday things.
Throughout the exhibition the sense of surprise is repeated. Henderson includes abstract acrylics which evoke an interest in process and colour – leaving behind any semblance of form. Perhaps only the artist knows the subject of these arresting compositions. One in particular stood out to me, it is a naïve seeming pastiche of colours, composed of yellow patches, blue squiggles, cream areas, maroon and black and green lines. It is unlike the focus and tranquillity we find in Henderson’s other paintings. It is titled Joy (2010) and it captivating because of the movement and life it gives off. Playful brushstrokes again reveal a lightness of touch and complete mastery of colour pairings.
Another media which sits alongside the gouache, oil and pencils is embroidery, which is a nice way to finish a review about ordinary things because embroidery, like many textile arts, requires such a focused reflection that I am unsurprised Henderson has such a keen eye. Attention to detail and more evidence of colour and line come out in the stitched compositions. Working from plain fabric as well as Japanese flower prints Henderson has picked out a design and drawn our again, yet again to something otherwise unseen.
This exhibition was a reminder of the beauty of ordinary things and the importance of reflective and heightened observation of the everyday. If we cannot learn to look at the world around us with keen eyes we may lose our ability to appreciate its unique beauty.
‘TRANSFORMATIONS – the beauty in ordinary things’ was on display at Steps Gallery, Lygon Street Carlton, 4 to 14 April 2013.
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