Fellow ANU School of Art alumnus Clare Thackway is currently exhibiting recent works in Broken Hearted Attack, on show at Blindside in Melbourne. Thackway is an artist of formidable talent and her readiness to explore personal worlds in her painting results in works that are thoroughly engaging and devastatingly beautiful.
I was thrilled when Clare asked me to write the catalogue essay for the show, as this collection of paintings has given me a lot more to think about than any body of work has prompted me to for some time. For those that can make it to the exhibition, it is on show until September 19. For the rest of us, read on to get an idea.
The artist is informed not only by a subject’s outward appearance, but by their every interaction with it. The likeness created cannot be separated from the artist’s memory and lived experience up to this point in time. Painting, in particular, offers the opportunity to meld visions of the past and present with the alternate realities and imaginings of the future that operate in our dreams and fears.
In this way, a painting transcends time and gives form to that which is not otherwise visible. It becomes a vision set just outside of reality, far enough removed so that we, the viewer, may project our own experiences onto the experience of another. As such, a painting holds the ability to simultaneously encompass both the personal and the universal.
Broken Hearted Attack sees Clare Thackway eloquently harnessing this ability. Through paint, Thackway delves into her family history, exposing not only a series of deeply personal accounts, but the universality of family. Although drawn from her own reality, these are shared stories, shared characters and shared dreams – mirrors of our own lives.
This body of work emerged following the sudden death of Thackway’s Grandmother, and gently investigates the effects of this loss, particularly on her Grandfather. She captures the sadness and confusion that follows the loss of a loved one, but also the urge to remember, and to ‘take stock’ of what remains.
Memory, that ragged patchwork of dreams and waking life, is laid out before us in paint; Vignettes of family life, intertwined with a thread of darkness. Alongside fond recollections there is the tension of guilt and regret. Thackway does not romanticise, but presents us with a series of occurrences, delicately balanced between joy and grief, the familiar and the strange.
These paintings near realism, yet allow room for the embellishment and exaggeration afforded by memory. The works are charged with a dark magic, in part alluding to some of life’s bigger questions, in part a reminder that truth can be stranger than fiction. Present too, are elements of the ‘tall tale’ as the stories shared grow ever more vivid and a little further from fact.
Bower Take the Blue Away, Thackway’s portrait of her Grandfather, asleep in his chair, combines his image with that of a bower bird, standing before its carefully constructed nest. ‘Gramps has lived most of his life on a property in the New England Table Lands. He throws out his milk bottle lids to a bower bird in the garden.’
In a sort of talismanic dreamscape Bower Take the Blue Away captures an unnerving intimacy. We feel we are witness to an old man’s dream, his respite from long days and lonely hours, and perhaps his desire for a more simple existence.
It is the male bower bird who constructs a nest for his mate, famously adorned with blue objects it has collected. In this way the image of the bird positioned proudly before his nest becomes a reference to the patriarch, a nod to the role of the male in the traditional family unit.
Domesticated animals and bird life join the human subjects as recurrent themes throughout this work. As with the bower bird, they take on a sort of totemism, yet there is also a sense that human and animal are being compared, perhaps to find that we are not so different.
This is most potently sensed in The Lost Sheep and Boot Who Can Go To Hell, depicting a young boy cradling a lamb, alongside a plaintive looking dog and a bower bird’s empty nest. The boy and the animals all share the same haunting blue eyes and imploring gaze. Each appears lost and desiring of acceptance, while the empty nest behind suggests desertion. Thackway explains: ‘My Grandfather was going to kill Boot for being a terrible cattle dog, but after Gran’s death, he became his companion.’
The inclusion of multiple elements within a single view echoes the power of visual association and the brain’s insistence to relate seemingly extraneous images and experiences to poetic effect. Haunting imagery and fragmented moments, stored in the mind indefinitely, visited time and time again.
Under the Japanese Maple draws our focus to one such point in time. Two older men stand side by side, eyes cast downward, the surrounding garden creating a shroud about their shoulders. What meets the end of their gaze exists outside of the image frame, but there is a palatable air of melancholy and ceremony. It is clear that we are witnessing an important and solemn occasion, as if through the artist’s eyes.
The imagery seems fleeting and transient, like it may shimmer and fade, to become lost forever. Mists and clouds, drifting, falling spots, like light behind closed eyes. For all the colour, texture and lightness, these scenes hold a silence and gravity.
Captured too, is the powerful sense of place that becomes closely associated with family life. The landscape, birds, animals and plant life that is experienced by generations in turn and becomes knitted deep into the psyche. The dry red earth, inquisitive magpies – the artist provides details to immerse us in this world, giving a true sense of who these people are.
Thackway’s visual representations mimic the realities which inspired them; intertwining tales, tangled relationships, all pieces of a greater whole from which they can never be separate. She effectively reminds us that we are but a combination of people we’ve known, places we’ve been, things we’ve seen. All we are is the sum of our parts.
In this body of work Thackway encapsulates the feelings of fondness and admiration, intrigue and shame, that inevitably come from uncovering the past. People who seemed strong are now vulnerable, our heroes: only human. Revelations and devastations, the allure of the unknown and untold, of secrecy and mystery within that which is otherwise so familiar. As mirrors of ourselves, our family represents our greatest strengths and weaknesses, where we’ve come from and what we will become.