Considering intimacy in a pandemic world at Holmes à Court Vasse Felix

ANNETTE PETERSON

The Outing, 1968, by Anne Marie Graham. Copyright of the Artist’s Estate and Copyright Agency 2021. 

Intimacy, currently showing at Holmes à Court Gallery at Vasse Felix, Cowaramup, illuminates what is most important to human existence. Drawn entirely from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection, the exhibition includes works by predominantly Australian artists including Rick Amor, Hans Arkeveld, Merrick Belyea, Josl Bergner, William Boissevain, Charles Conder, Robert Dickerson, William Dobell, David Downs, Russell Drysdale, Emanuel Phillips Fox, Anne Marie Graham, Guy Grey Smith, Paddy Jaminji, James Linton, Francis Lymburner, Mary McClean, Alexander Nganjmirra, John Oldham, Margaret Priest, Thea Proctor and Peter Skipper.
 
Curated by Laetitia Wilson, Intimacy responds to how the COVID-19 lockdown has affected proximity and closeness with others. “In the last year, we were all told to stay apart to be together again,” she writes in the exhibition publication. “This not only had a profound physical but also an emotional and psychological impact on humanity,” Wilson affirms. She says in light of COVID, it is timely to stop and think about those we are closest to, and to ask what intimacy and the absence of intimacy means.
 
Wilson encourages the artwork of the past century to be viewed with the eyes of the present, to gain new insights into each painting. Anne Marie Graham’s The Outing, for instance, a painting of older ladies in a café seated metres apart, are isolated from any interaction. Pre-COVID, the painting’s significance centred on the predicament of female ageing and loneliness. Graham created The Outing in 1968, long before social distancing was an issue, yet the painting is now timely and relevant.
 
Intimacy represents the multifaceted panorama of close human interaction and emotions, and has been separated into sub-themes. The exhibition begins with a series of paintings related to the intimacies of rest and respite. Whether in sickness or sleep, these paintings portray a physical connection to more nonsexual intimacies transpiring in private. In this group is Convalescent (1890) by Emanuel Phillips Fox – a painting of an unwell girl who glows in candlelight. The painting is dramatic due to her luminance – as if her life hangs upon the light.
 
The intimacies of relaxing feature works by Proctor paired with Conder. Both share the colourful and intimate moments of their subjects partaking of informal interactions in public, and both depict people relaxing in small groups at the beach, entertained on a swing, or even at a party. They generate a sense of celebration, departing from the more sombre works in the exhibition. 
 
A third group considers closer relationships in a more private setting, concentrating on unguarded moments. All the paintings depict ease and comfort with those around them. Belyea’s Midland 111 is moody and intense. The near abstract image holds enough information to portray two figures moving together and interacting. Lymburner’s Two Dancers captures an intimate aside gesture of one dancer to another. Sketchy pen marks and ink enhance the fleeting nature of the scene. On an adjacent wall, Downs’s work depicts two people talking and sharing important information. Nganjmirra, Jaminiji and McClean, in their own ways, express informal private gatherings signifying closeness.

Midland III, 2000, by Merrick Belyea. Copyright the Artist.

In the Wall Jaffa, c.1979 by Josl Bergner. Copyright the Artist’s Estate.

As the exhibition progresses, so does the depth of intimacy, turning more inward. Skipper’s Self Portrait – Standing on the Shoulders of Men and Amor’s The Turning Season II displays internal thoughts and psychological interiors exposing the artist’s minds. However, Israeli/Australian artist Bergner goes further in the painting, In the Wall, Jaffa. He investigates the interior of people’s lives, revealing private details about them they might not think are on show. It is like a mirror is being put up to the viewer. Evident in this painting are signs of longing for touch, to be seen and to be hidden. It is an arresting work that aims to interrupt the facade we all wear in public, evident in the darkness behind their eyes.
 
The last few paintings in the exhibition also challenge the viewer’s personal beliefs on ageing, loneliness and vulnerability in romantic relationships with works by Graham, Boissevain and Priest. Life with Everlastings by Grey Smith, likewise, unveils deeper internal considerations. A naked female figure is portrayed using expressionistic colour, pulling the light forward and back. The intense colours evoke a desire to touch. Quick brushstrokes show finesse and confidence. Using contrasting colours to indicate a hot-cold moment makes it hard to tell whether to pull in or pull away. The image depicts an intimate but uncertain moment, and we are left to wonder if the figure is crying or waiting.
 
Public outings all but ended during lockdown; so too were extended family gatherings, yet COVID has amplified the probability of looking inward and asking deeper questions regarding relationships with other people and ourselves. Like COVID, this exhibition makes you ask yourself questions and invites the viewer to become more aware of our concepts of intimacy. The longer you experience the exhibition, the more these layers it will unveil. Be prepared to make the most of the experience and the deeper considerations. It is well worth seeing, then discussing with others with whom you share intimacies with.
 
Intimacy is on show at Holmes à Court Gallery Vasse Felix, Cowaramup until 16 May. 

Intimacy, exhibition view, 2021.

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