The Figure Work in Progress
DR. CHRISTOPHER HEATHCOTE
Susan Wald is an artist of a high order. She is not as celebrated as her contemporaries, although there is a simple reason for this, and it involves fashion. Wald works from the nude figure, wrestling to forge images in the tradition of Western figuration. But she practices at a time when cutting edge Australian art has been enduring one of its periodic ‘painting-is-dead’ phases. And, history tending to repeat itself, we well know what happens to artists who paint or draw the figure during such episodes; their work is deliberately ignored as if it does not exist.
Curatorial trends my be presently aligned against Susan Wald’s discipline; then again, drawings and paintings made from life are not sneered at by professional artists. They know how demanding the practice is. They know that it takes a certain temperament to persevere with the nude, a combination of stubbornness and humility and maturity, and even if you possess these character traits it is still no guarantee that you will be good at rendering the unadorned figure. Because you also need an understanding of what your drawing instrument and brushes are capable of, as well as an ability to look closely and precisely at things, an understanding of shade, a grasp of human anatomy perhaps, and of course, a mixture of graphic and painterly inventiveness.
Misperceptions abound about the qualities required of an artist who works from life. Many people – alas, even some art students – mistakenly assume that drawing and painting the human torso consists of using a repertoire of tricks or mannerisms: insert this squiggly smear for the shadow at the back of a knee, or twist the charcoal thus to put a contour around a pectoral. This is to confuse the artistic process with anatomical illustration – an easy enough thing to do – as if what you are doing is a question of technique, a skill steeped in firm competencies. Pick up the know-how and mastery is assured: you can knock off clever images nearly every time. But, to focus on these exhibits by Susan Wald, and if we look at the work seriously, taking time to consider what she is doing with them, we can appreciate that the achievement is not so shallow.
What to examine in them first? How about the erasures. Wald clearly is a most accomplished and disciplined draughtsman who can put down exactly what is before her eyes. She gets it right with an empirical precision: what is there on canvas or paper describes what was there. The shape of an ear, the position of a toe, the form of a wrist. It is accurate. But as you look you will also see that the artist has rubbed out a part of the figure and done it again; and, as you look further, another part, too, in another painting or drawing; and other parts in other works as well. Wald is not easily satisfied. She criticises herself, and finding herself wanting, purges any trace of superficial cleverness. (Some drawings and paintings never get through this correction process, being discarded.) And as this happens the composition ever so subtly evolves through a means of tensed concentration into something more. Through the erasures, the revisions, it gains.
Even more telling – from an artist’s standpoint – are the blanks in her drawings, the areas in the depicted torso or face where Wald has chosen not to set a line. Each of them is a record of hesitation, a decision not to do the obvious. Some readers will be baffled by this claim – how can a blank in the paper, a nothing, be something? – and here the layman will have to take me on trust. Although it is apparent when you scrutinise one or two works, really looking into them, that much deliberation has gone into deciding where to place each line. Consider the renderings of heads, how a concentrated web of lines are set over the cheek or neck. There is no recipe or formula to their placement: they do not necessarily follow certain muscles or sinews under the skin, or act to establish volume in a repeated way. Those configurations of lines, where and how they appear, their number, density and graphic value differs each time. Dexterity is clearly mated with graphic inventiveness in these works. Much of what we have been considering here involves ways and means, how the drawings and canvases were developed formally, and how they start to operate on us perceptually. But these issued do not clarify their content, the meaning that coalesces into thought as you gaze at the pieces.
Every week hundreds of artists around the country draw or paint from the nude; and many of them, too, use a mounting indecision about process to rethink the rendered figure. What sets the pieces in this exhibition apart, what elevates them, is an imaginative transformation that has occurred.
This is hard to define if you see just one or two of Wald’s compositions in isolation; in such situations the viewer can appreciate that they are accomplished, very fine works within the terms of painting and drawing, and that is all. However, if you have the good fortune to see these images displayed en mass an overarching theme, or a higher level of meaning, insistently comes our (this is especially pronounced in the artist’s studio where the drawings and painted studies are pinned around the walls in a contiguous working sprawl). The difficulty of drawing, especially life drawing, is that it requires maturity. With time and application most students will reach a point where they can complete a competent rendering of the figure. Making a meaningful drawing is another matter; it is as different as making a good botanical drawing is from making a decent still-life. The latter is harder, intellectually and emotionally harder, because something has gone into the creative process that ends in a ‘statement’. It is weightier, and has psychological substance. And with life drawing what we mean by maturity usually involves an awareness of our vulnerability. This is why young people in good physical condition seem temperamentally unable to produce mature drawings. They have not discovered the mortality in their own limbs. Those who have encountered their frailties, who have felt the years pass and have come to know the measure of their bodies, they draw with a different eye. There is an awareness – a visceral quality – flowing into the drawing process.
I once taught a life class with students pretty evenly matched in their graphic ability, but one individual soared. Everyone in the group could see it. The issue did not come down to talent. Something else was at play. Each week the figure in her drawings seemed at once to be delighted in and wept over, as if she was savouring the model’s physicality and also mourning an imminent passing of youth. It made tragic sense when I learned later in the year that the student was struggling against an incurable illness. In some unconscious way her feelings gave those drawings an edge, a maturity. This was why she surpassed her technical talent. The experience of illness, or of ageing, marks us; and for figurative artists it will affect what transpires in the studio, investing the act of making with an experiential reference, with felt meaning.
Looking again at these paintings and drawings, they are not literally self-portraits, but in the stronger pieces the artist seems to treat the model as a potential image of the self. Indeed, Susan Wald appears to be handling the solitary nude as if it is a vehicle for stating human mortality. This is why depths appear here, upsetting things for some viewers, no doubt, because the compositions almost throb with aloneness. Not loneliness, or solitude, but the sense of being quite alone. There this person stands or lies, naked, comfortless, in a bare, shadowy anonymous room somewhere in suburbia. You can almost hear the slow low click of a clock marking fragments of time, ever running by, never to be reclaimed.
Words like ‘melancholy’ and ‘indifference’ cannot start to elucidate the desolation distilled in these drawings, and the paintings that have evolved from them. Some inexplicable thing about the way the figures are realised, their pictorial psychology, brings back for me that nervousness I once experienced in the hours before undergoing surgery, the quiet, carefully contained dread as one lay propped up in a hospital bed waiting, waiting, waiting…There is an implicit level of expression in these pieces, an agony, that is not faked. This is difficult work – insightful art always is – the equivalent in static terms of an episode in an Ingmar Bergman film, or a brooding poem by John Ashbery. It is made the more difficult still because there are two interlacing groups of work here, the drawings and the paintings. and each edges along differently. In the drawings we cut down to an existentialist image, while in the paintings we also grapple with an existentialism of process; hence the harrowing physicality of Wald’s paintwork, the way it is racked with misgivings. This is a mature art for grown ups, the knowing few who do not crave in pictures mere entertainment, the tickle and slap of Norman Lindsay or Brett Whitely. There is no frivolity here, no pictorial confection. These are glimpses of naked mortality – not cliched nudes – and that is rare. And uncomfortable. No wonder the images unsettle on first encounter; then again, it is also a trait of art struggling with existential profundities that it invites appreciation. We think about it, then come back for another look, a probing one, and find our thoughts nudged deeper. As I said at the outset, she may not be as celebrated as her contemporaries, but Susan Wald is an artist of a high order. Her work is good, very good.