Yvette Coppersmith: Chameleonic observations - Art Collector

Issue 64, April - June 2013

Yvette Coppersmith is unwilling to be pinned down by subject matter or style, yet her explorations into painting show a consistency in their intimacy and meditative engagement writes Phip Murray.

Yvette Coppersmith, Paul with Carlos, 2011. Oil on linen, 102 x 107cm. Courtesy: the artist and Dianne Tanzer Gallery + Projects, Melbourne

It is quite endearing to imagine Rupert Myer AM sitting in a little shed in the suburb of Caulfield being carefully observed by Yvette Coppersmith. In preparation for a portrait commissioned by Trinity College, Myer had numerous sittings with Coppersmith in the rustic studio that she works from – a brick garage set amongst a lovely garden with her cat often wandering through. At one sitting Myer took a closer look at one of the images stuck on the back of the studio door – it turned out that the original hung in his office; a Moya McKenna from 2010 he bought at the Melbourne Art Fair.

Coppersmith is a petite but forceful figure. Meeting her in person one gets a sense of her evident powers of observation. Even while interviewing her I felt quietly but carefully watched by someone with strong intuition and perception. She is good at building rapport and seems to have a kind of sixth sense for understanding people. This was not lost on Rupert Myer. When she asked if he wanted to give feedback in the final stage of the portrait, he said to please go on because he would rather not interfere with the process. “I feel well observed,” he said. In the final portrait Myer cuts a striking figure on a canvas that is otherwise painted in looser, more gestural brushwork. Coppersmith’s portraits often juxtapose a subject rendered with exquisite realist detail against a more abstract background. This is a contrast she works to great effect.

She first attracted attention through her expert ability with portraiture. This genre won her the Metro Art Award in 2003 and has enabled her to be a three-time finalist for the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize and a two-time finalist for the Archibald Prize. She is in strong demand for commissions, recently undertaking a portrait of Justice Rosemary Balmford for the Supreme Court of Victoria and currently working on one of Rabbi Fred Morgan of Temple Beth Israel Synagogue, St Kilda.

Portraiture has offered her a unique way to explore humanity. “The process is all about intimacy,” she states. “The intimacy that exists between artist and subject is different to all other contexts. It’s a private world. The final portrait comes out of a process of mutual respect and trust. This is built through ongoing conversations, through creating situations that enable guardedness to drop away, and through my interest in the physicality of skin and self. Plus an omnivorous gaze.”

Those who follow her work are intrigued by her chameleon-like artistic abilities. Coppersmith is an artist who pursues reinvention. She changes genres and styles often, as her curiosity provokes her to try things a different way. Initially known for her photo-realist portraits and self-portraits, more recently she has experimented with loosely painted renditions of interiors and landscapes that sometimes border on the abstract. This ability to change is underpinned by her strong technique, which enables her to – seemingly effortlessly – move across styles and subjects. The diversity of her brushwork alone is beguiling: some canvases are dedicated to a taut photorealism; some are covered in vibrant choppy brushstrokes; some contain long and languid expansive gestures

This is an artist with a quiet but very steely determination to hang on to her artistic freedom. “I take a long-term approach to painting. The first ten years have been about expansion and experimentation. In all honesty this has been at the expense of building a marketable brand – in the art world we live in, it’s almost expected that being recognisable is the path to success – woe to the gallery who has to market me! With each new body of work, I have let go of everything familiar. It can be quite destabilising to shift stylistically and in subject matter so drastically between shows. I can understand why most artists shift incrementally from one body of work to the next. However it’s important to me to reinvent myself and my art practice in order to find the voice that seems most relevant now.”

The last few years have seen her become interested in exploring interiors. These are beautifully abstract compositions, loosely defined but full of poetic potency. “The interiors I paint are creative spaces. It is an integral need of artistic life – but also of human life more generally – to be immersed in spaces that allow for the unfolding of imagination and daydreaming. We all seek out spaces where the self is free from external pressures. In depicting these environments, I try to offer the viewer a window for imaginative meditation.”

Coppersmith’s works have an uncanny ability to cancel out noise and to transport the viewer to a place of greater tranquility and transcendence. “Honestly there have been times when I wonder what can I possibly offer the world with all its troubles. How useful is it to be a painter?” she wonders. “However that fact of its uselessness is the inherent quality that makes art a spiritual pursuit. I am a person drawn to the light who looks for that in other people and places. If I can make something that has meaning or beauty for someone else, that is enough to make it worth doing.”

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