Monday, September 27, 2010

Jenny Fraser

Jenny Fraser

The hammering on the front door was reminiscent of someone bringing bad news; a warrant perhaps, or a death in the family. As I hurried down the corridor I could see a dark figure silhouetted against the street light. There was a familiarity about the stance that I wanted to deny. The door rattled into life once again, more persistent this time. This was more than bad news. I opened the door before it fell off its hinges.

‘Tom. It’s late. What are ………..’ There was no point in finishing my question. Tom Dinning was already halfway down the hallway and heading for the kitchen. I checked outside to see if the police were in hot pursuit. The street was quite with the exception of two dogs arguing over the intensity of their bark. By the time I got to the kitchen the fridge was open and Tom was helping himself to the orange juice.

‘Want something to drink?’ I asked, emphasising sarcasm in my manner and voice, all of which was ignored.

‘I’ve got a problem’.

You’ve got a problem, I thought. Its 10 o’clock, I’m heading for bed, I have a madman in my house and you tell me you have a problem. Still, it could be worse, although the logic of that eluded me at the moment.

Tom took another swig from the orange juice bottle and returned it to the fridge. I made a mental note to throw out the rest in the morning.

‘I’ve just finished an interview with Jenny Fraser.’ Tom’s voice was trembling. His eyes were red and wet; he was as agitated as an alarm clock at six am. He was in no condition to respond to a sensible question like ‘Who’s Jenny Fraser?’ but I asked anyway.

‘Who’s Jenny Fraser?’

‘You really should get out more and mix with the right people. Your circle of friends and associates is very limited.’

I just love how Tom can turn a simple answer into an indelible insult. I allowed my self-esteem to lower itself to ground level before responding?

‘Sorry, I should know’ seemed apologetic enough. I must discuss that with my therapist.

‘Jenny is 39; last Wednesday in fact’

I hope he knows more or I will be no more informed than I was during dinner.

‘She’s ….. an artist, I think. That’s the problem. I can’t figure this one out. She contacted me for an interview so I thought she was some doily maker from Humpty Doo. Then I googled her and discovered she was someone really important. She’s done some serious stuff. But I can’t quite make much sense out of it. It’s not the sort of art you hang on your living room wall to impress your relatives and friend, not unless your relatives and friends are Che Guevara or Andy Warhol. And she’s black. I don’t mean black black. I mean culturally and politically and family and a bit genetically. It’s the sort of black a blind man can see. It’s not in the name; it’s in the context. She even apologises in a Jenny Fraser sort of way for being a bit white or not black enough. ‘Recessive genes’ she says. And has she got some genes!! Scottish and Italian got a mention as well.’

‘Does this bother you?’ I asked, hoping we could get to a point and I could go to bed.

“Well, I’m supposed to write about her and I’m stuck. I don’t quite know what to write about. We had a look at a video clip she did with Shelley Morris’.

I was about to ask who Jenny Morris was but there was insufficient space in the conversation.

‘It was part of a PhD project she is doing. She was kidnapped by her old man when she was four, you know. Lee Kenny played the part of the father. I taught him. Nice kid back then. A bit hostile but no more than most fifteen year olds.’

There was a chance Tom was heading for a long diatribe on the psycho-social profiles of past students. I sensed a time to bring him back to the topic in hand. I avoided glancing at the clock for fear of retaliation.

‘Tell me about her art’

‘Who’s art?’ See what I mean. If it’s not about Tom it’s not worth talking about. His wife, Christine did warn me.

‘Jenny Fraser you……’ I took a deep breath and counted.

‘Oh, yes. Jenny Fraser. Well, it’s…. different. It’s political. Her art has a message. Some of it even reads like a comic book. It’s in-your-face kind of stuff. If you wonder through a gallery on a Sunday afternoon looking for tranquillity, Jenny Fraser’s stuff would slap you in the face and bring you back from your peaceful existence into the ‘real’ world’: Jenny Fraser’s real world.; something akin to frontline news on Sky Channel. That’s if you haven’t fallen over it. Some of her stuff sort of sticks out a bit. ‘Installations’ she calls it.’

‘What would you call it?’ I asked inquisitively. Jenny Fraser was beginning to sound like someone I wanted to know, especially since she had agitated Tom so much. Anyone who puts him into an uncomfortable place is OK with me.

‘Art with lumps’ he responded crassly. And this was the person who took it upon himself to write about artists.

‘Is her stuff any good?’ Not that I value Tom’s opinion. I was more interested in annoying him enough that he might leave.

‘I think so.’ There was a doubting hesitation in Tom’s voice. ‘You know my taste; Rembrandt and Turner with a smudge of Monet. Composition and colour for me. Something to match the curtains. But Jenny Fraser’s stuff doesn’t match the curtains. In fact it wouldn’t match anything I have. Yet I am hauntingly attracted to it. When we look at a painting or photograph or sculpture we start with a fleeting glance. If something catches your eye you go in for a second look. You might linger for a few seconds, make some bland comment about the detail or brush strokes, then move on; cultural experience done. But with Jenny Fraser’s stuff you can’t escape the first glance. There is too much to see. You have to linger. Then, when you leave you take a bit with you. Thoughts and ideas and questions and sometimes a little bit of anger or frustration or fear or …….’

Tom stopped talking for a moment. I made a concerted effort to look at the clock and be noticed. My actions were wasted.

‘What I can’t figure out is the contradiction. Jenny Fraser is not an ‘in your face’ kind of person. She’s inconspicuous in a nice sort of way; like a daisy in a field of poppies or a cello in an orchestra: you don’t notice until you take notice. Then you discover how nice it is … she is. So, how can someone like that produce stuff that is more akin to whitewashed posters on an alley fence or road kill. Then I discovered how. We went into the house and on the wall is a Jasmine Jan painting with all its soft aesthetic lines and vibrant colours. ‘I like Torres Strait Island Pigeon’s’ she tells me.’

Tom was smiling for the first time since he had tried to demolish my front door. It was the sort of smile one might have when you find ten dollars in you shorts or get the better of the boss. I let his smile linger and waited for him to continue.

‘It’s a bit like discovering your parents have sex. Uncomfortable at first but once you get used to it you find comfort in knowing they are normal. Jenny Fraser is as normal as I am.’

I doubt it, I thought.

‘ She is an artist; an artist with a passion to tell a story, to wake us up, to let us know we can’t live in a glass house all our lives and not see what’s outside. She also uses her art to discover what she can do, to validate her ideas, to find out about ….. about herself, probably. She uses all sorts of things to express herself. From the T-shirt she was wearing to the flickering images on the living room wall there is a cacophony of imagery, yet a harmony in its themes. She spoke quietly and softly in a poetic tone yet her voice is commanding and authoritative. Her writing is touched with humour and satire but bites hard into our perceptions of the world.’

‘So, what’s your problem?’ I asked.

‘Mmm. I don’t think I have one any more. Thanks for that. I was a bit uncomfortable talking with Jenny Fraser today. Like chatting with royalty. But thanks to you I know exactly what I need to write.’ You’re a great help. See ya.’ And at that point Tom disappeared up the hallway and out the front door. I looked at the clock. That late. Time for bed.

Unfortunately the rest of the night was spent wrestling with the sheets. A visit from Tom Dinning is as good as any remedy for a good night’s sleep. The problem I found myself facing was, as a result of my ‘input’ tonight, as minimal as it was, I seemed to have put myself into the unenviable position of having Tom return. That is not a place into which I would stay voluntarily. My thought wondered, for the first time in twenty years, of moving South.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Imbi Davidson

Charles Darwin University is not the sort of place I would expect to find an artist. Art and academia seem as distant from each other as Antarctica and aardvarks. Even in the dictionary they are held apart by words like ‘arrogance’ and ‘archaic’. After locating a car park I could afford somewhere among the mangroves of Rapid Creek, I make my way to Orange 11 Room 1.24a. The universities system of navigation has been designed by a Phd student studying abstract mathematics and its relationship to mental stability in the visiting public. I pass numerous zombie-like creatures searching for colours and numbers that have no obvious relationship to any location system. An elderly woman sits crying in the courtyard between ‘red’ and ‘blue’. She is whispering the word ‘green’ over and over to herself in a desperate and distance voice. Best not to interfere, I think, for fear of shifting the bell curve.

‘How can art exist here?’ I ask myself? How can freedom of expression and creativity coincide with such formality and rigor? I hope I am about to find out as I stumble upon room 1.24a. In the continuing effort to remain abstruse, there is no indication as to the contents bar a picture of a regal looking woman tacked precariously to the door. I look either way into the prison-like corridor for a sign of life. My IQ diminishes with every breathe. A door slams behind me and I am alone; a solitary spaceman on a distant, hostile planet. Desperation mixed with a modicum of courage and anticipation entice me to open the door. On entering, I am immediately transformed into a different world; the diffused light from a distant window engulfs me and a soft, alluring voice, the Loralie of the open seas, becons me to enter. If I were dead, and there is no evidence to the contrary, I might well have arrived in Heaven and now being irretrievably drawn to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Signs of the creative process are everywhere. Abstractions splashed across the walls, fragments of thoughts transposed into something concrete, impressions of life, the ‘tools of trade’ for the artists, chaos among order, a disordered refuge among the logic of supposition. I have found my art and my artist. Home at last.

Imbi appears from the light as my eyes adjust to the imagery. A young woman (I guess at 30) with a strong confidence in her manner and voice. She sweeps some papers from a chair and offers me a seat. The room is dimly lit. All is still but everything moves. Flash-backs of my father walking me through musky museums surface in my frontal lobe. Creatures on the walls follow my every move. There is order here but it is well disguised. All things connected but the threads are loose and convoluted.

‘I work here and at home’ she says as we enter into conversation.  'I can’t use oils here. The smell gets into the air-conditioning and …..’ A twist on the ‘academia stifling art’ theme, I think. We launch into a discussion of the anomalies between her work and her chosen surroundings as though it is necessary to clear the air before any further discussion can ensue.

‘I’m a hypocrite, really,’ she admits embarrassingly, ‘but it provides me with the means to do what I want to do and be what I want to be – an artist. Art helps me to make sense of the world’.

Imbi explains the connection between her art and her place of work. She is part way onto a Masters Degree, which provides her with space, a meager stipend and a schedule, which she admits is ‘not one of her things’. Her undisciplined nature is somewhat evident in her work. ‘Scratchy’ she calls it. In return, the university expects a ‘plan’, purpose, research and a submission to the critical review of her peers and mentors; a process which she finds uncomfortable, to say the least.

She, like many of the artists I have spoken to, has no ‘vision’ of what will appear on her canvas. Her actions are as a result of some convoluted thought processes guided by her memories, feelings, culture, observations and thoughts about the world around her. It’s her way of finding answers to indescribable questions. Beauty is not a criteria for her work, she emphasizes, although I find beauty inherent in what she does. There is a painting of what appears to be a seascape above her head that flows and floats like a cloud, tempering the mood and answering a question I have not yet resolved or even asked.

‘Some days I just paint in blue’ she adds. I’m conscious that she might be reading my mind. ‘Its instinctive’ but we agree that this may not be the case. The learning process can be subtle and the results of that learning may manifest in different ways; like the sense of painting instinctively.

Her love of her children, plants and gardening is strongly expressed. She is experimenting with plant representation using a technique that is best described as brutal. Taking a hammer to a leaf seems a bit extreme but the results are quite fascinating. Imbi described the process but I become more interested in the results. It must show. The excitement in her voice wanes and her explanation becomes disjointed. Maybe the camera is distracting. But I sense there is more to it than that. It might well be that the process is not clearly defined or it may even be insignificant. The process is as seemingly disjointed as the mental processes she engages while painting. As I have discovered in many others, creativity has no formula, no prescription. As Imbi says,’ its what I am’. And once again, I am intrigued by the relationship between art and academia. How can one person or even a group of people, with any sort of intent, make a critical judgement on the creativity of another person. I know there are many answers to that question and I am yet to find them. My search continues.

‘Let’s go to the Gallery. There are some things you might be interested in’.

The Gallery is where Imbi has recently ‘run the gauntlet’ of her assessors. This inquisition is to justify her continuation with her Masters Degree. She has my vote.

Ansel Adams said ‘There is always two people in a photograph: the photographer and the viewer’. The same certainly holds true for paintings as well. Imbi’s art encloses the space around me like a soft blanket. It is unmistakably her work. Even after such a short time I would recognise her work anywhere. This work is truely ‘her’. It is as though she is dismantling instead of constructing; creating her images by rummaging through a complexity of thoughts and ideas with a brush in her hand. As a photographer I am reminded of the concept of 'looking behind'; when looking for the image look behind to see what is revealed. Imbi is 'looking behind' in that same sense. There are no distinguishable figures or recognizable images here but its alive with shape, form, colour and texture. As I move around the images hanging before me I am conscious of three things: Imbi is talking non-stop about her work in that unsure, disjointed uncertain manner that is evident in her painting, I am absorbed in the presence of it all, and the art has become the connection, the link, the interface between the two people Adams refers to.

So this is what art is all about.

My task is over. I have found what I came looking for. I am one step closer to finding the answer to all things. In her search to find her own answers, Imbi has provided me with my own.
Thanks Imbi.