Imaginary Friends

Listener – May 31 2008

Femmes fatales and animal-human creatures mingle in the other worldly landscapes of Séraphine Pick.

“Is the baby crying or yawning?” a woman asks Séraphine Pick at her exhibition of paintings After Image. It’s hard to get a word in edgeways as we walk around Waikanae’s Mahara Gallery. Another woman asks if she was influenced by Tony Fomison’s work. “People do seem to come up and talk to me at my shows like that,” Pick says. “I guess my work must encourage questioning.” 

Lines of enquiry can found all over the shop. She said over a cup of coffee -earlier that she was inspired by the drawings of German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, who will be forever remembered for saying “everyone’s an artist”. Taken out of context, his utterance is, of course, a nonsense; only a few have Pick’s skills: she arguably has the touch of the Dutch -masters and the savvy of a postmodernist image thief, plundering art history, mythology and popular culture for source material for her surreal paintings. Some of After Image’s works are populated with female archetypes and animal-human creatures cast in otherworldly landscapes. 

Pick herself is reassuringly down to earth and seems genuinely interested in talking to the average punter. She says whatever people bring to her work is interesting. “It’s about the process of looking – the visionary images you have in your head.” Her six-year-old son, Joe, who she has depicted in one of several baby paintings, “wanted to know why I didn’t do paintings of boys”. 

A clue to what has formed the way Pick works from her imagination can be found in her own childhood. She said on the TV1 show Artsville last year that as a child she was fascinated by Goya’s gruesome painting Saturn Devouring His Son (1819), which was part of his demon-infested “Black” series, to which her art-teacher father introduced her. 

She tells me she’s “lucky to be here”. She was conceived by her parents when they were together at art school, but her mother contracted German measles when she was pregnant. (Although the physical effects of the virus are mild on the mother, it can result in a stillbirth or birth defects.) It wasn’t Pick’s last brush with death: when she was three, she -suffered from pneumonia, which left her partially deaf; then her father “accidentally ran over her arm” with a lawn mower and, at five, she “nearly drowned” in a swimming pool, until her mother fished her out. 

Pick used the imagery from these incidents in her early work. “They were related to me by my parents,” she says, “and became stories, really, which didn’t seem to be about me, but some other me, stories about my body. I don’t feel traumatised. I’m more curious and fascinated by the images these stories conjured up in my child-mind, in my memory.” 

She recalls being separated from her parents, the boat trip from their home on Moturoa Island in the Bay of Islands to hospital on the mainland, and remembers a gaping wound, exposed bone, her pink dress and “looking up at my mother in her miniskirt and boots above the water … 

“Making the paintings … brought these memories to mind. Visually, they became traces and fragments of thoughts appearing and disappearing beneath layers of white paint.” 

After Image, which was at the Mahara Gallery in March and April, comprised 35 works spanning 11 years. It covered drawn and painted portraits, including depictions of dogs, babies and eyeless zombie women, and ranged from minimalist to more finished works. There were also complex portraits where people and animals and organic matter engage as equals or morph into each other. 

The exhibition was developed by the Mahara in partnership with Wanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery, where it is now showing in an abbreviated form. 

For the first half of the Mahara show, it was coupled with Frances Hodgkins: Her Idea of Heaven. The Hodgkins’ paintings (1895-1921) were selected from the larger Field Collection (Hodgkins’ sister, Isabel, married Kapiti Coast farmer and politician Will Field), which was first exhibited at the Mahara in 2000. This time, there were seven portraits and a suite of loosely painted landscapes that Hodgkins made in Brittany in 1921. What does Pick think of them? She answers by walking me over to a double portrait of a mother and child called Summer Joys that Hodgkins painted in Sussex in 1906, and saying: “That’s wonderful painting.” 

Something happened to Pick’s work (which has had several stylistic shifts over her 20-year career) after she held the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at Otago University in 1999. She puts this down to dark psychological under-currents she felt in Dunedin. Her Wellington dealer, Hamish McKay, says her canvases became more intense: “What was previously hidden beneath the surface oozed out.” 

The part-autobiographical nature of Pick’s work is brought into focus in Imaginary Friends (2006), the new exhibition’s promo piece. Pick says that, as a child, she played imaginary games in the bush behind the family home. The painting depicts a young girl with her arm over a large black dog. In the background is a factory, and partly buried in the foreground is a disembodied heart. The dog maybe signifies a protector, as the girl is rendered vulnerable with delicate bowed legs. 

It would be misleading to labour the autobiographical, though – Pick’s modus operandi is slyer than that. In works such as I’ll Be Waiting (2007) and Closing In (2008), magnificently dressed femmes fatales, who wear the emotional distance of many of Pick’s women, could be characters out of a baroque novel, or some trashy romance. The longings of these women are projected into a fantasy world, and the viewer is reminded of the famous Simone de Beauvoir statement: “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” 

Every woman, as they say, has her day, and Pick (who has an affinity with wolves, which she sees as generically female) is going from strength to strength. Last year, she took home the $20,000 Norsewear Art Award for her painting Phantom Limb (2007). The judge, Sydney art dealer Martin Browne, said she was an artist working at the peak of her profession. Next year, there is to be a retrospective of her work at the Christchurch Art Gallery. 

But the 43-year-old (described as one of the hardest-working artists in the business) is perhaps too young for talk about peaking. One my favourite paintings, Surface Paradise (2008), signals another stylistic shift. The work, devoid of surreal frills, depicts a harried woman in a beautifully painted monochromatic room, sparsely furnished with a single overturned designer chair. It could be read as a comment on a section of society that, at its peril, has a predilection for choosing style over content. 

Whatever narratives are operating in Pick’s work, she can certainly, in the words of British artist Thérèse Oulton, make “that which is mute paint speak”.

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