Jenny Sages

July 28, 2016
Jenny Sages, Totems - group shot, encaustic, pigment & oil on board @King Street Gallery
Jenny Sages, Totems - group shot, encaustic, pigment & oil on board @King Street Gallery

“As artists we’re not nearly as interesting as writers,” Jenny Sages once confessed. “We’re all just finger painting, but when someone gives me a sentence I can remember, it triggers something very strong inside me.”

In one of her new works Sages quotes a poem by Anna Akhmatova, the words picked out in tiny perforations on a waxy board impregnated with colour. Akhmatova’s lines are combined with Sages’s distinctive brand of finger painting, on a surface on which she has rubbed handfuls of yellow pigment. The poem celebrates the peace that comes with forgiveness as the writer frees herself from the contemplation of a great evil. She rediscovers “space and even silence”.

The yellow that envelopes the bottom part of the panel is a sign of the pleasure the Russian-born artist takes from these lines. Space and silence have been a big part of Sages’s life ever since she gave up her job writing and illustrating travel stories for Vogue.

In her fifties Sages traded in the life of an illustrator for that of an artist. She ceased travelling and buried herself in the studio where she worked obsessively from morning until night, pausing only for the meals made by her devoted husband, Jack.

Sages had always wanted to paint full-time but when she finally committed herself it proved to be a source of overwhelming anxiety. She found that being a painter meant constantly reinventing oneself, transforming anxiety into creative energy. “I felt like a twig on the edge of a cliff,” she said.

Apart from the annual distraction of the Archibald Prize for portraiture, in which Sages has been hung on 21 occasions, without ever winning, her only respite from the studio has come from trips to the outback. She has returned every year to the Kimberley and Arnhem Land, where she walks around an ancient landscape, soaking up inspiration. When she first started visiting these remote locations she would sit and make studies in gouache, but gradually she realised it was only necessary to walk and to look.

Back in the studio she would work from memory, barely glancing at a few photos tacked to the wall. The real work was condensing and distilling the images in her mind into paintings that might be described as either landscapes or abstractions. She developed a method that allowed her to overcome her facility with a brush or a pencil, applying layers of encaustic onto boards which were then scored with dots and lines.

Sages has used this technique to create works of great beauty and originality which can conjure up visions of the vast open spaces of the desert or the patterns of leaf litter on the floor of the forest. These pieces could hardly be described as ‘pictures’ – they are sculptural objects whose shape and texture echo the sensations we experience in the bush.

Like Nature itself, Sages’s method embraces randomness and repetition. One of the reasons for her anxiety is that she is never really sure where a work is going, although it is always pushing towards a resolution. “By the time you’ve been through a hundred layers of mistakes,” she says,”you can’t go backwards.”

Jenny Sages: On the memory of the imagination
King Street Gallery on William, 19 July – 13 August 2016