16 MAY - 19 JUNE 2012
Melody Willis doesn’t indulge herself in the illusion of a fresh start. She paints on Belgian linen, but first she soaks it in bleach, stains it with pigment, and leaves it hanging on her back fence to decay. The canvas is often so degraded that she needs to darn the holes rent by the bleach before she stretches it. When she paints, her canvas already has the mottled look of a discarded food container, a battered rag, or something left in the soil by a mining company.
The images she adds to the canvas are seductive, jumbled still-lifes of décor objects from junk-stalls and garage sales, sometimes tied with string to bits of building equipment, pot plants, ladders, or public infrastructure that seems to be either in-construction or abandoned, out of date, or just awfully compromised by bad design. Amid piles of domestic detritus are fragments of modern art – a face after Picasso or a Minotaur beside an equally dated, Oceanic objet d’art of the kitsch-touristic sort. Bits from the history of modern painting and nicknacks redolent with childhood are cast against the stained backgrounds, which now glow and bloom in gorgeous colours like sunsets, happy memories or disasters.
There is a poignancy and heaviness to the stuff that we once liked, or that once was new. Bric- a-brac can be tragic because it gives our memories and past hopes a material obduracy that it out-lasts our optimism. On one level Willis’ mnemonic objects are deeply personal, but on another they are about the way we inhabit the constructed and virtual spaces of art, design and fiction. Willis favours late modernist and ‘70s decor that weaves symbols of community, nature and harmony into the material stuff of everyday life, to the point where textures, fabrics, mud walls and bricks are drawn into powerful narratives of the future.
Willis has a complex relationship with utopia, and the tradition of projecting ideal ways of living into the future. Utopianism, as we all know, has a fraught history, but it also represents the hope that things could be different and, in our current ecological crisis, different is the only way we can hope for any future at all. This may be why she makes intimate reference to interior design, landscape architecture, crafts-workers and intentional communities. Her interests cluster around the ways hu- mans inhabit spaces, but that includes a very real uncertainty as to how well humans will continue to inhabit the planet.
The climates of Willis’s paintings are the furthest thing from the crystalline space of a Piero Della Francesca in which perspective goes on, unchanged, forever. This space is much closer to the thwankin, polychromatic fogs, or “sun-shot dust,” that Bataille finds in Miro. In these works perspective, and prospect, is blocked by the weight in the atmosphere. The air compresses space, shortens our sight, and leaves us almost tangled or tripped up on the surface of the image.
So it is time, and paradoxically the future (a nostalgia for the future), that is at issue in these paintings. These works come out of a very long, beat-down tradition of painting, in which the fictional space of the canvas has been invested with heroic futures and collective dreams. But painting is old now, and these are dreams that have become tired from so many reiterations and failures. Willis doesn’t just paint on a scarred canvas. She carefully repaints, repeats, and recycles painting itself, but without the over-confidence that sustained it a century ago. Even old canvases and failed paintings are not thrown out but, in a nod to cottage-craft up-cycling, they are sewn into cushions, or cut in strips and woven to form new images. Again and again, worn out materials are refashioned or reclaimed for a deeply uncertain future. Without naivety, without aggression, without a horizon, she renews a very fine thread of hope.
Gallery 9 9 darley st darlinghurst nsw 2010 t: + 61 2 9380 9909 firstname.lastname@example.org www.gallery9.com.au