Vicki Varvaressos: Spaces of the Psyche - Art Collector

Issue 38, October - December 2006

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When Vicki Varvaressos dropped the explicitly feminist content from her work she expected to no longer be noticed. But for critic Ingrid Periz, what she paints today shows a greater willingness to suggest psychological complexity and is no less compelling for it.

When Vicki Varvaressos first began showing her paintings in the mid-70s, they were understood in terms of current critical fashions: feminist criticism of female roles and images. Her inclusion in Bernice Murphy’s 5th Biennale of Sydney, Private Symbol: Social Metaphor in 1984 confirmed this view but the Sydney-born and based Varvaressos has proved a much more versatile artist over the course of a 30-year career. Her loosely worked painting style has ranged from expressionist intensity to a lyrical gestural abstraction, and the artist’s concerns, in addition to a clear delight in paint and colour, range from examining mass media representations and social personae to a more private interiority.

While some works exploit the mask-like qualities of female images – a theme pursued in paintings of vintage shop mannequins last year – increasingly her work is concerned with intimate spaces, the spaces of the psyche.

Varvaressos trained at the National Art School in Sydney when, as she remembers it, “women weren’t treated all that seriously. Art school was just seen as filling in time before marriage.” While she may have simply “fallen into” painting – something she attributes to luck of the draw rather than long-standing ambition – Varvaressos wasn’t one to fill in time. A resident of Victoria Street in Kings Cross, she was active in the Green Ban movement’s efforts to save the street from developers and was part of what she calls “the political upheaval of the mid-70s” stretching from the end of the Vietnam War to the Whitlam dismissal. Her work reflected this and was in turn influenced by the burgeoning women’s movement, in particular its criticism of advertising’s use of female images.

Her satirical, issues-oriented painting struck a chord but Varvaressos acknowledges this kind of reception was a double-edged sword. “I suppose I was considered a radical. What was embarrassing at the time was that painting had been declared dead. It was also ‘bourgeois’. But it was my medium. I wasn’t painting issues, just what interested me. I was hoping people saw it from how I was feeling.”

With titles lampooning advertising directed at women like, Make Your Face the Focal Point This Season, Don’t Delay: Say Yes to Temptation, and Allure: What is it? Who’s got it?, or punctuating male vanity, as in With His Chic Red Carrera Quad Cam Speedster, her paintings seemed to fit a feminist agenda. As Varvaressos hit her mid 30s however her work shifted from a satire of mass-mediated appearances to the more subtle recording of interpersonal dynamics. “In retrospect,” she says, “satire is a young person’s thing. There was a drop off in interest after I stopped being so political.” Of course seventies feminism did argue the personal was political, but the newer work, focused as it was on “a much more reflective inner life” didn’t fit the agenda. Varvaressos recalls: “Feminism was a box and I didn’t want people to put me in a box and say ‘she does feminist painting’ and dismiss me. It was always important that I produced a good painting, that was my primary thing.” Dropping an explicitly feminist content risked dropping off the radar. “People would say, ‘she’s not painting about anything anymore’ but there you are, showing work every year. You just have to go on.”

Varvaressos paints intuitively. “I just dive in,” is how she puts it and her broadly brushed gestural paintings are produced with a minimum of preparatory drawing. She is reticent about her sources and when asked about artistic influences she replies: “Not enough to mention.” Critics have noted the way she marries expressionist technique to acute observation, capturing the essence of her subject. In Four Figures from 1987, for example, she used swaths of colour to hint at figures caught in socially fraught encounters, while smaller flicks and fillips of paint orchestrated a play of glances across the scene.

Combining this play of glances with recognisable types can create dramatic interest. The 2003 Groups exhibition, for instance, featured small casts of characters in a variety of settings where Varvaressos provided just enough visual information to conjure up a sense of suspended narrative. In Wedding Group a bride, turned away from the viewer, passes a bouquet of ickily pink roses to an unidentified, red-gowned woman, while the groom looks off. It is not a happy picture. Three young men loom in an archway, their intent possibly malign, in Boys Group and in Funeral Group, three men huddle, mourning, while a small girl stares at the viewer. These are tough pictures, the liveliness of Varvaressos’s paint handling—a slash of orange outlining a mourner’s leg, the exaggerated modeling of the groom’s face—relieves them of what could otherwise be a morbid display of character types.

Varvaressos can treat the face as a surface created to project an image; she can equally suggest the mask-like qualities of a face and its function of concealment. In either case what she evokes is hollowness. This was of course a feature of her early work with mass media images and something she returned to in the Dolls and Figures exhibition at Watters Gallery in Sydney last year. Here mannequins and dolls displayed a blank-eyed malevolence, as in Store Mannequins and Doll and mirror still life. Varvaressos contrasted these deliberately lifeless scenes with a group of fluidly outlined, barely human figures, “floating” against very loosely painted backgrounds. These “sprites” – a feature of her most recent work as well – may lack individuation but they don’t want for vitality, barely contained in the looping, almost calligraphic brush stroke that calls them up from the worked-up background.

She is equally adept at suggesting the psychological depth of traditional portraiture. In 2002, Varvaressos won the Portia Geach Memorial Award, an award established in 1965 to foster portrait painting by women artists, with her Self-Portrait with Painting, which showed the artist walking past one of her newer abstractions. Given her capacity for conjuring up the mask-like qualities of faces, it’s not surprising perhaps that portraiture is a challenge. “I find it restrictive,” she says. “The hard thing about a portrait is to do a good painting when you are so caught up in a likeness. To try to have a life in a portrait is quite hard.” Two years later, a similarly named portrait showing Varvaressos flanked by a painting in which a pair of her painted sprites gaze out was a finalist in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. Here, Varvaressos looked away, her dancing creatures hovering above, marking out a taut space between the woman and her creations.

Figuration has remained pretty much a constant throughout her work, despite several shows of abstract paintings. Varvaressos has always been interested in abstraction because of the way it allows a purely painterly experience of space and looking at the energetic swaths of underlying colour jostling for prominence against the loosely outlined figures of recent work, it’s easy to see why she has been called “a repressed abstract expressionist.”

For Varvaressos, freeing herself from any representational demand was not a simple matter. “This was quite a challenge. It’s something that is not all that natural. The abstract paintings are much less immediate, they take a longer gestation.”

In works like Whoosh and Black Square (both 2001), broad areas of colour with overlying forms—none so reduced as to be simple geometries—are picked out with line in extremely balanced compositions. Occasionally an underlying colour—blue under pink, an aqua under a paler green— breathes through. Here the elements alone of painting – colour, line, composition – make pictorial drama.

The formal lessons of these abstract works are evident in Varvaressos’s most recent show at Heiser Gallery. Economically sketched figures occupy a shallow indeterminate space in charged scenes where a minimum of painterly detail achieves maximum psychological intensity. Varvaressos uses areas of colour to create malevolent light – there is a much greater scumbled luminosity to this series – or imply psychological estrangement, and her longstanding interest in the face continues. “The face is key,” she says. “With the recent ones I can do things with line that don’t make anatomical sense but express things.” In these works, line is never independent of the other components of the picture. The black-on-white outline of the dancing sprite in Figure defines her as much as the energetic paint handling of the background which simultaneously envelops her and sets her free. And Woman with mirror relies as much for its effect on a muted palette and compositional rhyming of face with mirror and body with vase as on the looping economy of line describing the Garbo-esque face at its center.

Almost 20 years ago, Bruce James wrote that Varvaressos could “slice through characters.” Her work today, while no less incisive, indicates a greater willingness to suggest psychological complexity beyond the earlier radical dissection of character “types” in social settings. What Varvaressos paints “about” fits no current agenda, but this makes it no less compelling.

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