Review: Of Ghosts and Angels


Human Smoke, 2018, oil on Time Life book cover, 29 x 49.5cm by Derek O’Connor.

In times of disruption and danger, we need our artists more than ever, because it is through engaging with the arts we find reassurance, hope and possibility when there seems to be so few other alternatives. As the American singer/songwriter Paul Simon succinctly explained: “The purpose of art is to bring joy to darkness and find truth through imagination,” and at this time in our planet’s chaotic history, we are in desperate need of such solace. 
Channelling the German Romantic Poet Rainer Marie Rilke, Paul Uhlmann explores the visual artist’s crucial role in society in an exhibition that does indeed bring both joy and hope. According to Rilke, angels appear when we need them, and it is similarly the artist’s role to cry out in the hope of being heard against the babble of doom. Artists work in a respectful relationship with their angels and ghosts to find balance and make sense of an often-threatening world. They find succour when confronting their fears and then externalise them in artworks, marking out a space in the world they can inhabit. Establishing this balance is fundamental, said Rilke when offered the opportunity to undertake psychiatric counselling, protesting, “don’t take my devils away because my angels might flee too.” He was aware this counterbalance in life provides the richness and complexity that defines us as individual human beings.
Fortunately, the insights of artists are accessible to others through the creative work they share with their communities. Their creative practice is a mechanism allowing internal narratives to unfold in the controlled environment of their studios and which, when exhibited, provides instruction and illumination for their audience. Like modern-day Sharman, visual  artists are locked into their communities and share the same life experiences, but through their practice, they can create a safe place when external pressures have the potential to overwhelm them. Most importantly, it is a place where ghosts and angels can be harnessed as an incubator to generate new ways to manage and find that solace we all crave. In this way, artists use their creative practice as a positive force. 
Their practice is a mechanism to comprehend their world. By externalising their fears and hopes (their angels and ghosts) they give visual form to their existential musings. This process of delving deep, of spending time in the safe space of their studios, provides solace and insight that offers hope and fulfillment to society at large. In an increasingly stressful world, the creative practice of artists showcases our shared humanity. Most importantly, as Uhlmann explains, this positive human act, “achieved through contemplation and creative work, underscores our capacity for resilience.”
Galliano Fardin’s paintings are his response to the enormity of the cosmos. “The workings of nature through its endless mutations and adaptations to changing circumstances are a creative endeavour which has inspired humanity. Whether the vastness of the solar system or a record of his active engagement with a particular place, he aims to elicit a direct and physical response from his audience through their encounter with the colours, shapes, form, and energy he fixes onto the canvas. This transference of knowledge and hope lies at the core of Sarah Elsen’s practice. She grows orchids and then casts their seeds and flowers into exquisite silver objects that offer her audience access to those wonders.
Rooted in their lived experience, the artists in this exhibition offer us all the opportunity to be more connected with the world of beauty, wonder, and disturbance we all share. Of course, this engagement model with the world is not without risk. Angels only appear in times of trouble, and Gregory Pryor’s Exhausted Angel, slumped down after another difficult encounter, reminds us there is still more danger ahead, and we must prepare. Nevertheless, the optimism evident in these works combines to generate both hope and awareness.
Uhlmann’s work has often depicted birds, and his contribution to this show they are again ascending upward in a flight of aerial imagination. Lesley Duxbury also looks up but instead sees a vast empty canopy and an absence of avian life. Due to our poor custodianship of our planet, the biodiversity of life has been dramatically depleted, so her ghosts are the three black cockatoo species now close to extinction. As an act of warning and remembrance, she re-inscribes their vanished song into the clouds, calling on us to actively confront the challenges ahead and read hope as a verb that must be actively embraced rather than salvation passively expected to materialise.
As this exhibition so eloquently illustrates, the arts are not a place of retreat but of acknowledgment and acceptance that gives us all direction and focus. 
Of Ghosts and Angels is on show at Art Collective WA until 17 December and includes works by Lesley Duxbury, Sarah Elson, Galliano Fardin, Derek O’Connor, Gregory Pryor and Paul Uhlmann.

Of ghosts and angels, 2022, oil on canvas, 168x152cm by Paul Uhlmann.

The Tired Angel, 2022, oil on linen, 60 x 80cm, by Gregory Pryor.

Prior to Allelopathy, (detail) spider gum chain mail. 2021, recycled copper,  by Sarah Elson.


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