I’m very honoured to be asked to say a few words tonight I have admired Sue’s artistic development since we met at Prahran all those years ago. Her subject matter may have changed over time but one thing has remained constant: her work ethic. When she is on the run of an idea, Sue paints and draws obsessively. The walls of her studio get gradually covered floor to ceiling with drawings and paintings. Her process usually begins with drawing. Drawing enables her to figure out her ideas, to get inside her subject matter, to understand it. Sometimes this also means that she has to work ‘on location’ as in the case of this series of works. I recently asked her,
‘What made you stay in the abattoir to draw and paint in such a morbid place — couldn’t you just work from photographs?’
‘I just had to be there’ was her reply.
Sue commits to her subject matter with a passion where there is no room for the easy short cut. I guess — the animals went through a range of emotions before slaughter and if this was part of her subject, she just had to be there! The sense of bearing witness has been the persistent quality of Sue’s work and one of the most fundamental reasons why, in my opinion, she works from observation and direct experience.
I have recently been learning about the writings of an amazing man, Rabbi Kalmish Shapira, the Rebbe of Piacezna (a small village in Poland) who during World War 2, while interned in the Warsaw Ghetto resisted the Nazi’s in the only way he knew how: spiritually — by teaching Jewish sacred texts to a few remaining students of his, in secret, and by writing a weekly commentary on the Torah (Old Testament) on any scraps of paper he could find. His disciples buried those scraps of writing and after the war ended, they were exhumed and just a few years ago translated into English. In the very last entry on July 18th 1942, a day before he was murdered, the Rabbi wrote a remarkable few sentences:
‘Of the various levels of suffering revealed to the prophets — whether through a verbal prophecy, the Divine Voice of God heard from heaven, or other types of prophecy — the harshest level of all was when the prophets were shown a ‘vision’. There are ten types of prophecy, and the harshest of all prophecies is the one of vision!’
For painted images to attain such power and integrity — ‘of the harshest prophecy’ — takes incredible courage on the part of the artist. The artist needs to be brutally honest, daring, perhaps even to rub somewhat against the grain of fashionable taste and so on. This exhibition, in my opinion, has such integrity.
In these paintings and drawings, Sue presents us with powerful visions — often very harsh and confronting. Her images are not just of dead animals. The reason why these images have such a strong effect upon us is because they reveal and touch our own human vulnerability. They mimic our most fragile, raw inner selves. In these images we can identify the very basic, savage characteristics of ourself and of people we know.
Although these paintings and drawings may be Sue’s response to what she observed in the abattoir, namely — a study of animals in death — as she says, leaving any ‘readings’ to the viewer, her images are nonetheless loaded with symbolism and meaning. There are references to suffering, to killing, to mortality, to human fragility, to torture, not to mention to the brutality of our attitudes towards each other and to animals etc. The hanging carcasses with their tongues poking out, dripping blood are at once just lifeless bodies of animals ready for butchering, and at the same time they conjure up religious images of mattered souls after some strange sacrificial, ritual killing. Some of the heads skinned of their flesh confront us with an unnerving judgmental stare while at the same time taking part in a bizarre deathly still like. The chill in the snow like coldness of the dirty white surface enhances the bloody redness of the heads and gives them a visceral sense of suffering. Sue brings these carcasses to a painterly presence as she describes the flesh, remaining muscle, veins and bone with a kind of ‘forensic attention’.
She presents us with a poignant vision without moralising or sentimentality, yet she manages to find, even in death, a sense of beauty and considerable nobility. To quote Simon Shema writing about Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox, because he could have been writing about some of these paintings — Sue ‘attacks her carcasses with a brush as if it were a butcher’s knife. The short, dense strokes slash, strip, hack, trim, and pare. The eerie result of all of this furiously energetic brushwork is both to bring the creature to life as well as to display its death, like a flayed and mutilated matter captured in the throes of agony’.
Christopher Heathcote’s writing about these paintings in the catalogue of the Geelong Art Gallery show, made an interesting observation: ‘The artist’s pigment is eloquently worked in such a way that the very painted skin seems abused…’ These Paintings have haunted me since I first viewed them in Sue’s studio a few years ago. They are not easy to forget.
In the ocean of exhibitions made to a decorator’s order that one sees so often, it is easy to get lured into a kind of Matrix experience where pretty muzak is the measure of art and success, but in reality — one is simply in a comfort-induced sleep.
In my opinion it’s essential to be jolted out of that sanitised sleep every now and again — I certainly have been jolted tonight by these powerful visions that Sue has presented us with.
I salute your courage and honesty.