Amber Wallis is an enigmatic painter whose work holds a mirror to the present and past. In her latest show, with a title that hints at the highs and lows which are inevitable for a new parent, she confirms how motherhood spells a renegotiation of her time but has also encouraged the artist to tap into, or share a different part of herself and trove her signature landscapes for a nuanced and personal history.
I spoke to Wallis as she was preparing for a solo exhibition that promises to represent an artistic and personal new frontier. She shared, “The positive side to the change is that I now think about a concept or mull over imagery in the periphery of my thoughts for a lot longer than I used to… I now spend so much time thinking about my works rather than painting them. I’ve become more conscious of my conceptual underpinnings and where I look for subject matter.”
Since 2007 Wallis has travelled the world, with residencies in art capitals such as New York, Montreal, and Paris. Today, based in regional New South Wales, the story of her domestic life comes through in colour field compositions and luxuriant landscapes with architectural forms and interiors, where they used to house anatomy and flesh toned symbols of desire and sexuality. But these new compositions aren’t necessarily limited to the here and now. The artist holds onto three items that belonged to her father – all books; ‘Woodstock Handmade Houses’ from the 1970s, another on houseboats and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. The artist elaborated, “Those three books really sum up who my father is. He lived within the extreme side of counter culture life in New Zealand, yet it was more like a failed utopian experience for me. Those home made houses from my childhood are inaccessible or gone so to make sense of what it was like back then, I have been referencing my father’s books.”
Do you think viewers miss these national or autobiographical cues because landscape dominates, less symbolism?
I think so. When you look at my paintings it’s easy to see the landscapes first, and then that remains at the forefront for the viewer. A lot of it isn’t really about landscapes, though they feature a lot. My process of creating is complex. I tend to veil my work; I hide a lot of the more complicated material behind landscapes and nature, and I use my practice to explore darker pockets of memory. I use it to get things out and then erase things that I don’t like talking about.
So it is a cathartic expression? Has that changed over the years as you have evolved as a painter?
I think I have always approached work cathartically; it’s just now as I get older and as a parent I am more willing to talk about it. My childhood had times of inappropriate environments and experiences for children, having a daughter made me feel hyper sensitive about my own experiences. But now I feel a stronger sense of responsibility in a way to talk about those experiences, and so much of them relate to my work.
I understand why motherhood would be a catalyst for that. I noticed a lot of anatomy in some of your earlier paintings, juxtaposed with the landscapes. The colours and shapes evoke human form and bodies. Are those images of significance to your past as well?
In the past I painted a lot more of that content; it was related in a fragmented sort of way. I don’t like my paintings to be representational but I also try to avoid making them heavily abstracted.
I really like the suspended space between representation and abstraction. In terms of the figures, I was and am really interested in sex and sexuality. I realised that during an experience with death and grief; my mother was dying when I was 30 and I cared for her during that process. Those kinds of experiences are hard and aren’t meant to happen when you’re that young. There are a lot of conflicting feelings and you feel like you should be having fun, being young and having a sexual life. But at the same time you have a duty to be caring for someone, who you love, who is dying. That was when my work started to become eroticised in the way it did; out of my desire to explore a side of myself I was unable to explore at the time.
My paintings are one way that I found to access various internal dialogues without them being too overt, but instead heavily veiled. But in linking back to the landscape – land is fecund; it’s alive, and that makes it very sexual in a way.
Sabina McKenna is a Melbourne based writer.
Edwina Corlette Gallery
3 to 10 October, 2017