Anne Wallace / Fiona McMonagle / Sophie Cape

February 19, 2011
Sophie Cape, Sinking, mixed media, on paper, 185 x 270cm
Sophie Cape, Sinking, mixed media, on paper, 185 x 270cm

As floods follow droughts, the art dealers are hoping a new year will bring clients rushing back through their doors. The previous twelve months were so quiet and visitation so poor, that 2011 simply has to be better. This may be an optimistic view, but only an optimist would ever open a commercial gallery. The problem has not been the quality of the shows but the dogged reluctance of buyers to succumb to their acquisitive impulses. The money was there, but self-denial was practiced with a rigour that is rarely seen in Sydney.

As usual there are many shows crying out for attention, but at the risk of making an arbitrary connection, I’ll look at three exhibitions by three young painters working in completely different styles. Anne Wallace at the Darren Knight Gallery is the veteran of the trio, with an exhibiting career that stretches back twenty years. Fiona McMonagle at Rex Irwin’s has been showing for about ten years, while Sophie Cape at the Tim Olsen Gallery is making her debut.

In an artist’s statement written for the Queensland Art Gallery, Anne Wallace once regretted that she had ever said her works had “some relation to film”, and that they might be considered “unfinished narratives”. One can understand her regrets because these are the very first things that most viewers – and reviewers – recognise in her paintings. Anything may become a cliché through repetition but clichés have an irritating habit of being true.

It is partly that we are all unconsciously conditioned to read images cinematically, but there’s no denying Wallace’s pictures resemble film stills. By definition a film still is a fragment taken from a narrative, a frozen moment in a complex sequence. Every painting in this new exhibition could be classified in this way. But why stop there? Wallace’s entire oeuvre lends itself to this interpretation. Her use of gloomy shadows, her dynamic cropping of images, and the way so many of these paintings seem set in the past, bring a highly theatrical dimension to her pictures.

In a painting such as High Windows, which depicts a knotted sheet dangling out of a window, we are not looking at a complicated metaphor but a standard plot device. Other works are more ambiguous or opaque, the most atmospheric being a wintery landscape titled London: February 1963, based on a photograph taken by the artist’s mother. This painting represents Wallace at her straightest. In Spontaneous Combustion she is at her most fanciful, depicting a pair of smouldering shoes in front of a pale brick, sixties apartment building. Despite the science fiction scenario, it is the apartment block that makes the most vivid impression: a monument to suburban sterility, complete with a few rocks arranged in a row to fence off a dark corner.

Wallace’s style bears a superficial resemblance to that of Rene Magritte, but she could never be called a Surrealist. There was usually a philosophical idea behind Magritte’s puzzling imagery, but Wallace is apparently unwilling to impute any fixed meanings to canvases that remain just as mysterious to the artist as they are for the viewer. The chief exception in this show is Blindness, which is some kind of private joke, showing Wallace’s academic husband, Rex Butler, with blank eyeballs. Perhaps she is suggesting that those who are too enamoured with art theory can be blind to art.

Ultimately Wallace is a realist with an incorrigible taste for drama, ranging across a spectrum from low-key to high Gothic. It’s clear she is far more interested in content than in technique. Her pictures are painted only as well as they have to be. They look a little awkward and amateurish if compared to the works of artists who have been through a really rigorous education, such as Shen Jiawei and other Chinese emigres. Over the past twenty years Wallace’s painting style has never developed to any great extent, although she has been consistently inventive with her imagery.

There is a wry humour in her work, a touch of nostalgia, and a bottomless pit of ambiguity. What she lacks is a touch. Some artists seem to breathe the paint onto a canvas, others pile it up in volcanic profusion, but Wallace toils away with the dedication of someone tiling the bathroom. Her paintings are scrupulously finished, with no hint of bare canvas, even at the cost of a mild claustrophobia. They are easy enough to like, but too locked-up to inspire enthusiasm.

Fiona McMonagle’s exhibition, The Ball, is another transmission from the twilight zone of suburbia, where the aliens have taken over. Anne Wallace leaves only a neat pair of shoes smoking in front of pale bricks, but McGonagle shows us the leering, drunken faces of teenagers posing for the camera at some high school function. The girls wear too much make-up, red lipstick smeared across their faces. The boys look so dazed they’ll remember nothing in the morning.

McMonagle’s preferred medium is watercolour and gouache on paper. She uses plenty of water, delighting in the blurred, fuzzy images that result. She leaves so much blank space that many of her pictures have an air of incompletion. Two works, Timothy and Amanda, light of my life, are portraits of the artists with whom McMonagle shares a studio: her brother, and Amanda Marburg. Both figures, dressed in evening clothes, are like ghosts set against a grey washed background. It is as if McMonagle were concerned that any accumulation of detail would spoil the masquerade.

This delicacy, which occasionally seems overdone, suggests that the artist feels a lingering affection for all her hapless subjects, not just friends and family. The fragility of the medium reflects the ephemeral nature of childhood memories, perhaps the fleeting nature of youth itself. It sounds profound in theory but the execution leaves much to be desired. While a picture such as Shae and Frank adds a degree of poignancy to the mechanical ruthlessness of a snapshot, many of these works have virtually the opposite effect: the confronting nature of a photograph is transformed into a limp sketch. Figures of flesh and blood become cyphers.

Once again, there is question mark over McMonagle’s skills, which might be characterised as hit-or-miss. This may be partly due to the nature of the medium, but a really accomplished watercolourist is distinguished by his or her control of this slippery material. A more practiced technique would not spoil McMonagle’s little sensation.

This brings me to Sophie Cape, who is the youngest of these three artists but perhaps the most confident. As opposed to Wallace’s dogged realism and McMonagle’s exaggerated delicacy, Cape has produced a series of large, abstract works on paper that roar aggressively from Tim Olsen’s demure white walls.

One could argue that it is much easier to get a convincing result with a vigorous splash of ink or paint than through the painstaking construction of recognisable images. This may be true, but an abstract expressionist work succeeds only when it conveys a feeling that short-circuits our habitual urge to discern a figure in every brush-stroke. Cape’s work could never be seen as wildly original, being reminiscent of a school of gestural abstraction that flourished in the fifties and sixties, but it has a forcefulness that is impossible to deny. Part of that impact comes from a severely restricted palette: nothing but black and white, grey and brown, with fragments of collage and splashes of bitumen.

The background to these pictures – and to their rather melodramatic titles such Wreckage of the Past and Darkness Descends – is the artist’s history of skiing injuries that left her laid up for a year looking for some outlet for her surplus energy. As the daughter of the painter, Ann Cape, art came as a natural progression, but the style that has emerged is entirely personal. Even though we have become rightly skeptical of the idea of an artist expressing their innermost turmoil on canvas, there is a cathartic, explosive aspect to these pictures that does not feel self-conscious. It’s the sort of opening blast that one associates with Richard Strauss, yet as even he found, a dazzling debut may be exhilarating but art is a long-term game.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, February 19, 2011

Anne Wallace: The Shades.
Darren Knight Gallery, until 26 February.

Fiona McMonagle: The Ball.
Rex Irwin Art Dealer, until 26 February.

Sophie Cape: New Works
Tim Olsen Gallery, until 27 February.