Madeleine Pfull’s paintings start when she puts her characters clothes on, fashions from the 1980s and 90s often sampled from her mum’s wardrobe. Pfull says they create themselves after she starts from a concept, such as for the David Hockney-esqe Poolside (2019) with a view from above. For this work, the artist decided instead of having her usual pair of paintings, in which one woman is depicted in a linear sequence, there are two women lying side by side next to a pool. The artwork is built through a series of angles, cubes make up the tiles, and the water glistens in its rectangular borders. Australian leaves fall next to the women, as they lie on sunbeds getting a tan, and a shadow of the trees loom next to them. The women are emblems of the everyday, innocuous, if not for the hard line and balance of light and shadow that Pfull uses.
This work is one of my favourites from the show Pfull is putting together for her exhibition with Chalk Horse. For the artist, the works are about ‘their taste, what they want, and presenting themselves in a certain way.’ She adds, ‘I like the women eating, it’s about their choice.’ Sao Women I & II (2019) is, like many of Pfull’s paintings, a pair. A woman with oversized glasses, black hair that hangs below her shoulders, in a chunky turtleneck jumper, stands in front of a muted background and a replica painting of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), eating a Sao cracker. In one painting, she eats her cracker, the other she waves it around. For Pfull it’s an essential representation of autonomy.
These are not the bodies we see consistently in fashion, advertising, and art. Pfull says ‘I’ve always loved the secondary character in movies, rather than the star.’ They are the gestures to the everyday, mundane lives that her characters represent. Kitsch and taste are at the forefront of Pfull’s practice, acting as a reinforcement of established conventions. Pfull’s paintings relate taste to Australian class identity.
Another set of artworks that catch my eye are The Fall I & II (2019), as it embraces slap-stick comedy, the first painting sees a woman out in the garden, about to fall. The other painting is only a red sandal flying up in the air, the women’s foot pointing upward below it. Pfull shares it’s probably only going to be one of its kind, the woman is depicted on both canvases but just her face on one, her foot the other. We muse on the works exploring a ‘cultural cringe’ that seems to have shifted. It used to be you weren’t English enough, now the sentiment is turning.
As I found the artist’s work through Instagram, the paintings stopping me in my tracks, compared to the usual imagery of half-naked women on social media, I invited Pfull to reflect on her successes, if due to the platform. She shared she hadn’t really thought of that before, but really her recent show in Los Angeles wouldn’t have happened without Instagram. Rather excitingly for this young artist, she will also be exhibiting six new works in New York later this year. I asked about the reception in America and Pfull shares that it’s even better than the one here. Perhaps Pfull’s work transcends place.
What is interesting about the mundane and everyday lives of suburban white women? Familiar and yet larger than life characters are depicted in a formal painting style; as a result the women’s actions, lifestyles and taste are examined. Looking at Pfull’s work, you can see a distinct Australia-ness about them, in part built through the Australian paints Pfull uses that are colours of the landscape. Poolside and The Fall feature her larger-than-life women being at ease in their surroundings of the classic Aussie backyard. Pfull shares these women have no worries other than creating a projection of taste. It feels like a relief for her to just paint these characters, putting the issues that face our generation on the backburner; it’s a form of escapism for the artist.
Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based art writer.
2 May to 1 June, 2019