Thursday, 27 May 2010

Thrillingly threatening art

Séraphine Pick

Wellington City Art Gallery, 20 February – 16 May 2010

If I had to use one word to describe the art of Séraphine Pick, it would be ‘disturbing’. Her paintings illustrate several stages of her development but the themes are constant. She includes spectral dresses, leaky baths and teetering suitcases in her psychologically charged dreamscapes.

I like the barely-there white paintings such as A Place of Passage and High Rise, both from 1995. They are like sketches but deliberately so. Domestic objects hold powerful memories: bandages, bags, beds, ladders, trees, balloons, shoeboxes, colanders, cheese graters; their perforated sides and leaking forms suggest the past that slips through your fingers.

Speak (1996) features two tiny central figures overwhelmed by their background. A year later, Insomnia suggests images of past relationships fraught with uncertainty, misunderstanding and emotional tension by positing half-erased doodles on a classroom blackboard.

Things become altogether more surreal with the half-forms of Room. The people with wings, skewed perspectives, and man with a rabbit head deliberately confuse and disconnect us. Pick deliberately undoes our expectations of hierarchy and perspective, piling vignette views on top of one another and causing our focus to shift restlessly from scene to scene.

Huntress with Wall Flowers (2004) has a pre-Raphaelite/William Morris style beauty with a cruel edge of hauteur. He (disappeared into Silence) (2004) references Henri Rousseau, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and Victorian styling. Sensuality, violence and unfurling imagination combine in this lush, exotic and erotic, make-believe and fairytale world of the eternal feminine.

The flowers, plants and birds (including NZ native ferns and toetoe along with large tropical orchids and a pair of huia) reclaim the landscape. The women look sideways and shifty in full-length ball gowns while the solitary male is naked; his genitals prudishly covered and he holds a limp lily in his hand. The entire affect is thrillingly threatening.

Meanwhile there are hints of Dali in Girl (with offered eyes) (2004). A dishevelled blonde in beaded flapper underwear stands holding one shoe in a desert with random images of a married couple, poodle, cowgirl, dead bird scattered about. Is there a meaning in these emblems?

Looking Like Someone Else also defies interpretation: the succession of portraits is either blurred or the face is obscured in some way; hiding behind their hair, superimposed one atop another, or revealing only the back of the head.

Pick moves on to the influence of Francisco Goya’s nightmarish malevolence with Phantom Limb (2007), Devil’s Music (2009) and Hole in the Sky (2009). The human figures look like zombies or clamouring demons. The crowd at a concert or children around a bonfire are profoundly unsettling. The colours and composition draw out their potential for violence and malignancy.

Once again Pick resumes the theme of domestic warfare with Burning the Furniture (2007). She seems to ask if there is any point in preserving symbols of the past. Personal effects are piled on the ground like a marital funeral pyre or a carefully-balanced arrangement while the figures positioned beside them seem disturbingly detached.

Her art is certainly confronting – if you like things that make you feel warm and content you should steer well clear, but if you fancy an artistic thrill, you could do a lot worse.