Celeste Chandler’s latest solo exhibition ‘be my eyes’ at The Gallery at Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre is a visual story nearly 150 years in the making.
The starting point for the exhibition is two anonymous historical paintings in the Bayside City Council collection dated 1859. Little is known about these portraits or their sitters – a young woman and a young man who both look directly at the viewer – and the works have never been publicly exhibited. A letter from the donor in 1976 confirms that the female subject is also the artist of both works, but her name or the history of them remains unknown.
After exhibiting in the Bayside Art Prize in 2016, Chandler was invited by the gallery to work with the collection. The mystery surrounding these portraits provided a rich source of inspiration for Chandler, who has had a long fascination with figurative painting and the traditions of portraiture.
Originally from Tasmania, Chandler completed her PhD at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 2014. Working in the traditional art form of oil painting, her works interrogate and challenge the male-dominated history of painting. By inserting herself into her works, the artist raises broader questions of identity and representation through a focus on female perception.
In ‘be my eyes’, Chandler exhibits a series of paintings that directly respond to the Bayside portraits. Fascinated with the way painting can take on the subjectivity of its sitter and become personified, the artist attempts to ‘become’ the portraits by re-imaging herself in their pictorial realm. With limited information about the original works, there is wide scope for artistic intervention.
The resulting presentation is an intriguing meditation on the blurry nexus between the past and present; between fiction and fact. Displayed together as a single installation, the paintings invite us to contemplate the repetition and connections within the works rather than singular details. Like a painterly Cindy Sherman, Chandler’s installation draws our eyes to the fluidity of self- representation.
Accompanying the historical paintings is a wallpaper designed by Chandler herself, its pattern derived from the artist’s previous paintings focused on the depiction of eyes. A portrait of Chandler is also displayed next to the unidentified portraits, her face obscured by the collaged eyes of the historical subjects. The motif of eyes here is significant as it brings to light ideas surrounding the idiosyncrasies of identity and the embedment of perception. It also precipitates the notion of understanding another person’s lived experienced through the act of seeing. Chandler is not merely placing herself into the narrative of the Bayside portraits; she is revealing the ways by which the past and present can collude through a conception of empathetic imagination.
‘be my eyes’ is a fascinating rumination on the legacy of figurative painting and the endurance of female creative expression through a contemporary lens.
Sophia Cai is a Melbourne-based early- career curator and arts writer.
The Gallery at Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre
Until 6 May, 2018