Diedre But-Husaim: Redirecting the Gaze - Art Collector

Issue 62, October - December 2012

The troubled times have shaken Deidre But-Husaim to the core. with the news filled with reports of disasters, the world had begun to look like a foreign place to her. as Louise Martin-Chew discovers, her new work shows just how dramatically her gaze has shifted as a result.

There is a sense in Australia, and indeed the world, that a new phase is under way – economically, culturally, politically and, most urgently, environmentally. Recent natural disasters – fires and flood in Australia and earthquakes and tsunamis internationally – present like a planet in rebellion.

Provenance, her upcoming exhibition for Melbourne’s Helen Gory Galerie, painter Deidre But-Husaim indicates that a shift in the subject matter of her realist imagery has been driven by this new and unfolding paradigm. Recent years have seen her thinking carefully about where painting may take her, particularly after she was saddened by the significant loss of life in natural disasters such as the Japanese tsunami, the Queensland floods and Christchurch earthquakes.

Best known for her tattooed images of beautiful young people – aspiring models selected for a certain look and then overwritten with her own patination and aesthetic – these paintings described cultural phenomena. Titled
Lonesome Doves, this series looked to the history of tattooing, the tribal identification that it embodied in history and its infiltration into mainstream Australian society in recent years. They were informed by But-Husaim’s interest in beauty, her pursuit of a blank canvas in the form of individuals who were unknown to her.

A trip to St Petersburg stimulated the imagery seen in the
Swan Hunters series of 2010 – the baroque nature of the city overwriting the decoration on young faces. These works dally with voyeuristic tension – adolescent faces and figures, their youth and vulnerability exposed – and speak to the Facebook phenomena of living life in a public domain, the shrinking concept of personal space and privacy, and the unfolding revolution of cultural mores.

Yet the rash of global disasters in recent years have seen But-Husaim examine her own world – one oriented around her own life, the spaces in which she works and the act of painting itself.

Initially this was in a series of portraits of people she knew well. Other artists, friends – people she described as “tangible and present, real individuals” – became her subjects. Her process, too, was immediate, with each person painted from life, over one day, in her studio. In this, it is possible to read But-Husaim touching base amid uncertain times. One of these paintings,
Still Life (5 Days), depicting five artist friends, was a finalist in the 2012 Doug Moran Portrait Prize. None of the artists have well-known faces. It is possible to see this as memoirising. She is showing us her world without exposing the identities of her friends, allowing them to speak to those who know them but not, outside the artistry with which they are rendered, to the rest of us.

Provenance extends this inward view to an examination, or rather a self-portrait, of her studio and immediate environment. This series began with a series of still lifes. “Representing things, thinking about the act of painting itself, creating my studio as a record of this moment in time,” as the artist puts it, became her way back in to a world that had begun to look foreign.

“It is a lonesome pursuit. I can focus on what I’m doing. These paintings are as much about painting as about my own history,” she says. Always intrigued by images of other artists’ studios, she is interested in the way these paintings address technical problems artists face such as lighting. The past paintings in them function like visual diaries. “
Studio (thinking chair) has a reflection of one of the other paintings in the exhibition in the mirror, the unfinished Studio (collection desk). Some paintings refer to each other. I like how they talk to each other about the space.”

Her earliest paintings from this series are stark and minimalist still lifes.
Studio (willow still life) presents bare branches standing on white paper against the white canvas behind, a marked contrast to the busy studio interior rendered on either side. Studio (succulent palette) is an almost aerial view of the palette and exposes its chaos of colours and brushes, speaking to painting’s process of making order from a multiplicity of stimuli. The Painting, an earlier work from 2011, takes us back to But-Husaim’s visit to Russia, and the view of a group of uniformed men crowding around a painting. This enigmatic image indicates the seriousness with which culture is regarded and focuses on the tension in the crowd rather than the art that focuses the group’s attention.

But-Husaim’s new paintings redirect her gaze, showing the progression of her artistic vision into the subject that has, perhaps, always been at the heart of her practice – paint, its history, veracity and purpose.

Deidre But-Husaim’s exhibition
Provenance runs from 14 November to 8 December 2012 at Helen Gory Galerie in Melbourne.

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