‘Becoming’ Exhibition 2011
Cooroy Butter Factory.
2011 – Essay for Meaghan Shelton
The Fluid World of Meaghan Shelton
As you enter Meaghan Shelton’s exhibition ‘Becoming’ you are drawn to a small portrait of a young child as you might be to a key that has suddenly appeared next to a strange door you have never been able to open. This is not surprising because the painting titled Lucia is on surface appearance very different than all the other works in the show. It is very minimal, sharp and the only image in the room of a person, who also happens to be an innocent, fresh-faced child. But don’t be deceived; Lucia is far more complex than simply being a beautiful portrait of a child and holds the potential to unlock the secrets of all the other works in the exhibition.
Take a close look at this painting. The child’s expressionless face is boldly front lit, the one eye, emphasized by the other hidden eye is piercing and relentless. The simple act of holding the feather in front of the eye is at first playful, but, given the symbolic cultural connotations of the peacock feather as either a gateway to beatific vision or as an evil eye, it becomes a much more complicated gesture. Likewise, the sensuous curving lines of the hair, the chin and the feather, do not so much create an organic softness but appear to be more about animating the painting and keeping your eyes forever tracing a circular movement around the image. This is a mesmerizing image that holds your attention, not so much on the personality or character of the child but on the painting itself.
Lucia appears then to be less about emotional attraction and more about stripping the act of representation bare. And in the context of Shelton’s other works in this exhibition the painting could in a sense be the artist as a young child looking back at herself. I mean this not in a wistful romantic sense of looking back in time but more as a trope for the artist interpolating the space of the painting; dealing with the drive to break the nexus between the artist’s gaze and representation.
Shelton’s paintings reflect a dialectical struggle. The artist in her embrace of the painterly process, which she alludes to as a journey with no clear ending, somehow appears, maybe unwittingly, to position herself in difficult places between the viewer and the work. Is she looking in or looking out or is she simply a Janus figure looking both ways? She paints within a landscape of ambiguity and positions herself on edges and precipices; in the folds of space; within the transparent medium of other matter; and within materials that display negative and positive space.
As a viewer you keep going back for more – to share with the artist this gnawing, unsettling feeling, that for all the apparent clarity in the world nothing is stable; everything is fluid. The artist herself talks a lot about the raw experience of creating and how you have to surrender to the work. You can’t be responsible for what comes out of your own unconsciousness.
Water, the sea and other suggestive dark ambivalent places are a continuing reference in Shelton’s work. She tends to use these places as intimate scenes for the acts of her own unconscious. Whilst the sea or more specifically the surface of the sea is a domain of masculine adventure Shelton journeys to the sea floor to create domestic scenes, introducing the products of human handiwork – boots, lace and ribbon that coexist with plant forms that also take on a decorative form. Sea creatures start looking like fine lace nets or anthropomorphic membranes or human clothing transforms into swirling seaweed forms.
In Philtre the boots become animated, almost like a water filter, as the laces in the form of ribbons stream upward. It is as if the life force is still in these boots. Openwork features a mythical sea creature, which could be trapped or possibly protected by a Victorian lace net. The Oldest Baby in the World portrays a Victorian Christening gown that has transformed into papoose like membrane or even a sunken canoe against what could possibly be either a muted landscape or a location under the sea. In all these atmospheric environments life seems contained and delicate. Water or the darkening atmosphere fixes objects but also moves or animates them at the same time like an otherworldly invisible force. These works are definitely not gothic but more Victorian in their domesticity, containment and colouring.
Many of the works in ‘Becoming’ start with a rough stencilled lace doily pattern applied to the canvas, generally from the edge inwards. Whilst this is part of the artist’s painterly process as the stencils usually transform into denser objects such as coral, rock or more indeterminate substances, it actually alludes to a more complex conceptual process. It is not coincidental that lace making and a Victorian decorative tradition runs within Shelton’s family. Shelton implicitly links the intense labour women put into this craft with her own labour of painting, particularly, the meditative and the psychological space that is opened up. As she builds space within the work she paints herself into a three dimensional world that she is always in danger of falling out of. The lace becomes a metaphor not only for displacement but also for connectivity. Like a colander you can be trapped in the lace or fall through. This movement of uncertainty or of fluidity is aligned to the artist’s sense of ‘becoming’ or what could be described as sensory experience or feminine intuition. In her world we are never far away from nature; a world of growth and decay.
A closer look at Shelton’s painting reveals more and more disintegration and temporality. There are holes everywhere – from the small lace spacings to large gaping holes where we are not sure we are looking in or out – into an open sky or into a cave. In other works a transparent wall of falling rain or fine lace curtains, where forms behind these veils are somehow temporal and ready to vanish or will wilt and die, confronts us. In Becoming the dress fabric has become plant like whilst in in the fold, the lilies seem to be in a direct symbiotic relationship with the fabric and by association become transparent and dreamlike.
And yet amidst this fluidity and falling away we are still confronted by the unflinching eye in Lucia. We are held in an embrace that enables us to continually experience the dislocation of Shelton’s work, to edge into our own unconsciousness and to exist in her fluid world.