Abbey McCulloch: Sting in the Tail - Art Collector

Issue 45, July - September 2008

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Abbey McCulloch wanders shopping malls taking the photos she uses to paint women snarling at one another or teetering on the edge of violent outbursts. Text by Natalie King.

When Abbey McCulloch was short-listed for the 2007 Archibald Prize, her portrait of actor Toni Collette was rendered with a dreamy candour. Painted at close range, vast expanses of flat colour and wide eyes stare beguilingly. McCulloch continues her investigation of youthful women in various emotional states in her latest offering at Schubert Contemporary Gallery. Her new exhibition, The Sting, is metaphorically biting as semi-naked girls snarl and sneer – luring us into a paranoid and tormented realm. Captured with an honest frankness, her signature wobbly lines also suggest a cute vulnerability that teeters on violent outbursts.

McCulloch’s ambitious suite of 29 adjoining paintings unravel like a contemporary frieze. She described her episodic format as “like film stills or linked animation”, which imbues the series with an emotional gravitas. Here are women in various states: “With this show, I wanted to portray women turning on themselves and each other. I visualised a streaming dialogue of relationships set out in multiple canvasses like a tapestry.” This composite format allows for a loose narrative to unfold as encounters between her characters intensify.

This is McCulloch’s third exhibition at Schubert Contemporary. Based on the Gold Coast, she studied painting at Queensland College of Art, where she completed a Masters in Visual Arts. The wide appeal of her girlies has led to magazine coverage in Vogue, Frankie, Oyster and Harpers Bazaar. Her source material is diverse, ranging from tabloid magazines, fashion photography to television, as well as her coterie of friends. McCulloch has been influenced by photographers such as Nan Goldin, Ellen von Unwerth, Steven Klein and Lauren Greenfield.

For The Sting, she was directly inspired by a recent experience: “One evening I was lying in bed listening to two women fighting and screaming in my street. From their banter I gathered they were mothers, from their language I gathered they were drunk, but I was mostly struck by the hatred…I wanted to harness something unsettling about the whole experience.” McCulloch lends an allegorical incarnation to this voyeuristic encounter. Dark and complex interactions emerge as her characters engage in tumultuous confrontations.

McCulloch depicts raw emotions with skeletal yet revealing lines. Often, she commences these linear compositions with charcoal sketches directly onto the canvas: “I like the idea of exposing the processes and, in doing so, the final product is left with a more restless conclusion.” Her palette comprises ochre, gold and yellow tones gradually changing into a spectrum of orange, green and ending in bright blue. The overall effect is light transforming to dark.

We are reminded of Marlene Dumas’ unabashed simplicity and scorching emotional candour. Both utilise gestures to uncover complex emotions. Cute and menacing, McCulloch’s style is reminiscent of childhood sketches as her line drawings are filled in with wide expanses of paint. Accoutrements – umbrella, ball, black heels, swan, tiny cake – add to the charged frisson between her characters. At times sexual, she takes us into a garish world of shrill silhouettes where fantasy and reality merge. McCulloch deftly manipulates proportion and scale with exaggerated lines, giving her subjects a sinister charm.

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