What is it you can’t face? WRITTEN BY KIRSTEN FARRELL
1. Gooyooyaroo/colour fields
We rode to Gooyooyaroo one day. So close to the city and yet pretty soon you feel like you are riding off into the blue. We saw echidnas and a kookaburra that flew beside us on the sweeping downhill on our way back to the gate. As I looked towards the hill horizon, as I barrelled down I felt that it might/should/does go on forever.
But then, one day, riding a bus along the highway I registered with a small but significant shock that it doesn’t. A sign near the fence indicates the edge of the not-endless horizon just beyond that same hill.
When seen from the other side, with the knowing of its edge, the illusion of endlessness is mysteriously greater.
I have felt this way often looking at Emma Beer’s paintings: an evidently endless space suddenly has essentially the opposite quality. The paradox between endless abstract space and the finite-ness of the material of her paintings is their generative force.
I’ve had a painting of hers in my bedroom for a bit over a year now. I see it daily. But there are still days that things about it that were obvious to me suddenly reveal a different set of observations.
I’m looking at it now. Why have I not seen the way the layer two films back is actually divided into two parts? And today I see that instead of black, the top layer is very dark green. And I knew that one edge of the painting was magenta and the other ultramarine, but when I see this again in light of just one more new revelation within the work’s boundary, it reorganises the way I see the whole. Like the boundary fence on the unseen side of the hill at Gooyooyaroo.
2. What can’t you face?
Colour is something EB and I often argue about. I have no hesitation in resorting to name calling:
Chromophobe, I say.
Yeah, I hate colour, she needles me.
You do not.
Yeah I do. It’s a cheap trick.
How can you be so absolute about that?
Can you handle the truth? There is a lot of white in these paintings. And there is a lot of joking about. It’s the white Aussie way of saying true things, or heartfelt things: make a joke of it. You can’t face it directly, abstraction is confronting enough in this country. Facing something abstract is surely easier than facing something concrete, and yet these paintings are both abstract and concrete. They are paint itself, by turns gauzy and and dry, heavy and wet. The paint’s viscosity, the smoothing of it across the surface, thick or thin, is observed precisely in the screens or planes that divide the canvasses.
And the colour: this time she has favoured an ochre-orange-ginger instead of the ultramarine blue of her preceding body of work. Something of the trouble with colour is that its power to evoke is unavoidable. If you’re trying to talk about painting and paint itself then it gets in the way of the stuff, because stuff is always coloured. But stuff is not colour and colour is not simply stuff. White is not simply a colour but a condition.
White and the idea of whiteness is, in this place and time, freighted with difficult relations, issues that gravitate around the idea of white that we wish we could avoid: white supremacy, white Australia. While in no way do I suggest that Emma Beer is making politically charged paintings, the way white is used in combination with one other colour, allows these works to evoke the idea of difference itself. In a sense, they are paintings of colour. Emma Beer is painting painting, colouring colour.
They are also, therefore, quietly but defiantly queer, in both the original and contemporary meaning of that word. Paintings of painting can only be strange. They are subversive: they do not conform to the strictly non-objective with their sometimes suggestive and sometimes cryptic titles, references to the character of Maria in The Sound of Music. Could I call her an abstract nun and get away with it? There is gesture and humour in the titles, no need to be too serious. The paintings themselves are the serious bit.
Emma Beer’s Maria is, like painting itself a delightfully unsolveable riddle. Maria eventually faces facts: she’s fallen, in spite of her convictions. Time to face the music, time to face the colour.
- MARCH, 2017.