Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Review | Swallow Flex and Whither

It is not very often I see an exhibition that blows me away, more so one which combines my love of colour, detail and the human form. Emma Michaelis does all three in her first solo exhibition at Tinning Street Presents. The exhibition features a balance of small drawings on paper and wood and large unframed nudes in blues and oranges.

Walking into the gallery I am faced with these large sheets of archival paper, female and male nudes recline, slouch, sit and stretch; only occasionally looking out at the viewer. I note the prominence of white space and as I move closer the lightness of the artist’s touch becomes evident. There is a high degree of control exercised over these large spaces, a restraint from the impulse to fill the white void with vivid colour. Instead, the vulnerabilities of flesh and bone are intricately sculpted in a tug of war with the white page. In these large self-portraits and twin portraits of a male nude, we see such exquisite details as shadows on finger bones, veins on feet and creases in stomachs.  

The smaller self-portraits elicit quite a different emotional response to the large nudes. Where we marvel at the scale, detail and execution of the large pieces, the smaller, colourful portraits of heads and body parts communicate through colour. A red head portrait begins this series. Her eyes gaze downwards as she floats on the page, anchored by a neck and shoulder in shadow. A powerful colour has been used to render a reflective moment and the result is a highly emotive piece. She is not a hot, fiery woman but a soft, conscious being of considerable depth.

Adjacent in the series is an orange hand grasping a foot and pulling it, as though to relieve a cramp. The absence of context here increases the beauty of this tense gesture. It can be appreciated as simply an anatomical study, or perhaps, as the artist suggests, moments of tension are revealed to be beautiful and dramatic, removed from time and space.

Such fine details that are at once anatomical and observational are also highly emotive. Standing before the almost entirely indistinct yellow portrait I feel a strange sensation which must be my body responding to this colour. Sometimes a single colour does this, and I look forward to it. It is an unexpected and thrilling experience to be moved by colour. There is something astounding about the yellow portrait, something in the way its brightness obscures details but reveals an emotive vibration of colour.

Completing the spectrum of colour driven experiences in this series are an arm, hanging beside a hip, in green; a blue portrait in profile with eyes closed; and the back of a pair of legs in violet. Such a softly shaded spectrum of human emotion touches on an intangible sense of self which comes from an artist quietly spending time with their self.

Though my responses are highly subjective, due to an acknowledged love of colour, the question should be raised of the way we encounter artworks exploring the bodily dimensions of the human condition. How important is it for an audience to take away from an artwork any profound feelings? How does an artist know what will move people? Should they first discover what moves them? I feel strongly that there is a case to be made for the last question. An artist, such as Michaelis, who explores what she terms the poetics of our humanity, has, in my opinion, created a body of work which cannot but speak to the sensitive among us.

This exhibition will appeal, as I have intimated to those with a love of colour and astounding levels of detail. The observational power alone will draw you in and hold you captive while you unwittingly respond to the emotive qualities of blue, red and a spectrum of hues.

Photographs of the exhibition by Nikita.