The Textures of Desire

Catalogue essay for the Survey Show – The Divine Burlesque 2006

You have to slow down. There are so many things to take in as the eye moves across these richly textured and luxuriant surfaces of paint and colour. It is like an experience where there is an excess of pleasure, where one senses both the excitement and danger of losing control. Sustained by this lush brushwork and evocative palette, Rosemary Valadon creates in her work a dynamic space for female presence and self-identity that is powerfully generative and productive. 

Using all the painterly conventions that have been applied to the female figure in art, she turns the implied gaze around, to create a space where women are the active originators of their worlds. In looking at her works we find our eye returned by women who are in control and in fact command their worlds with self-pleasure, who donít need the viewer to complete the cycle of their reality.

You'd Look Pretty in Pink '04 122 x 137cm_1

You’d Look Pretty in Pink (detail), 2004

Valadon explores the nature of the feminine through the theatrical worlds of fairy tales and ancient mythologies, places where women have been codified and limited in their actions and responses. This is a scenario that is broken open; through the representation of the feminine she embraces the power of sensuality and confronts the implicit violence that often underlies such narratives. This makes her work deeply disturbing and confronting, a realisation that arises only after one has entered what appears to be a playful world of set designs and benign characters.

This particular survey of her work ranges from early portraits and prize-winning works through to her more recent interest in feminine rituals of identity. In this overview Valadon takes us on a journey that explores the politics of gender and identity in a manner that is playfully seductive. She leads us through recognition of the shadowy secrets of sexual politics to lighter moments that are full of humour, ribald suggestion and mysterious intrigue. This is the underworld of her otherwise attractive scenarios of warm appearances and softly promised intimacies. This survey provides an opportunity to identify some of the major concerns that animate an artist concerned with the life of the body and its representation. These interests have created for Valadon, a distinctive place in recent Australian art.

Valadon’s development of her craft as a painter continues to see her work included in regular major shows such as the Archibald Prize and Sulman Prize. A number of works included in this exhibition were first seen in such distinguished company. These works prove her to be a student of the history of art with a gifted eye for the ironic and dissonant effects of gender representation. Valadon effectively exposes the often-implicit patriarchal order of seeing that has been encoded in art history especially around the site of the female nude. Here femininity is presented at both its most vulnerable and powerful moments, an ambiguity that in turn reinforces the implicit and dominant role of a male viewer.

These concerns received wide public attention in 1991 when she won both the Blake Prize for Religious Art (Before the Fall, 1991) and the Portia Geach Prize for portraiture (One Flesh, 1990). Both these works evidence a lush and confident articulation of the painted surface that gathers up a familiarity with the possibilities of this surface garnered by an interest in the very contemporary concerns of female identity and self-actualisation. 

Valadon’s success came at a time when female artists were receiving increasing attention for their works. In the context of the tradition of the Blake Prize, she offered quite a distinct perspective on the often-tired genre of religious art, with a luxuriating naked female form surrounded by a lush garden and writhing snakes. Potentially offensive to more narrow religious concerns it identified Valadon’s assertion of a positive feminine sense of spirituality and virile self-identification.

Valadon followed up this success with a series of portraits of well-known Australian women characterised in the form of a goddess figure that enhanced what she saw as their essential attributes. She chose women she admired, who demonstrated strong intellectual and imaginative presence, such as Noni Hazelhurst, Dale Spender, Germaine Greer, and Ruth Cracknell in the fabulously confronting image of the goddess Sibyl (The Sibyl (Ruth Cracknell), 1995) that now resides in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Ruth Cracknell (the Sibyl)

Ruth Cracknell as the Sibyl

Valadon’s attention shifted towards a heightening of the sensual capacity of painting that included magnificently lush flower studies that were charged with an innate sexuality, filled with gaps, shadows and pungent aromas. The human figure also received an intimate observation as exampled in the Offering, 1996 where she demonstrated her focus on touch, as figures reach out in support and nurture. In these works the viewer is invited to use all their senses in experiencing the painted surface as the veritable skin of the work.

These works are her most intimate and arousing in terms of their sensual engagement. They are about touch and its power to constitute humans, not as ideas or things, but as organisms that are loved and who know the power of loving. Valadon describes her intentions well in exploring this notion of skin. 

There is a different response as you are looking over the body. There is a slowing down because of the layering from warm to cool. The eye has to slow down to take it all in. This gives pleasure. It is like running your hand over an uneven surface. I am trying to literally touch through the eyes.

kThe Offering IV '96 Oil on wood 122 x 66cm copy

The Offering IV

Building on this evocation of surface, Valadon extended her interests towards a more theatrical manner of working and focusing on her own life as a lover, mother, partner, friend. In an important series of works, she explored the psychological states that had shaped the patterns of her life and self-identity. They remain some of her most intriguing works in terms of their engagement with theoretical ideas about identity formation and gender, as well as notions of freedom and dependence in human development.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, makes a significant entry as a doll held precariously in the hand of a young virile woman in Itís All in the Mind, 2001. It seems that the insights of Freudian Psychology, given their patriarchal context, are no longer required and it is time to extinguish the smoking cigar of male domination. 

This is a work of angry boundary breaking and exhilarating power. Such an exultant freedom is found in the companion work Girl on a Swing, 1999, where doll figures act out the conflicts of responsibility and the liberating choice to nurture the inner sensual child without shame.

Its All in the Mind '01

Its All in the Mind

Similar concerns are more playfully worked out in a series of drawings on the theme of the Girl and Wolf, 2001. While clearly relating to the narrative of Little Red Riding Hood they also deal with sexual power and violence as the girl playfully (we assume) de-mystifies the symbolic power of the wolf as a source of male domination by literally playing with his floppy form.

This interest in the familiar narratives of ëinnocentí childhood has become a rich area for exploration in recent years. Fairy Godmother Comes to Visit, 2003 provides us with a confronting scenario dominated by two women in a chair sharing a cigarette and perhaps a joke, most likely at the expense of the onlooker. These are powerful women who dominate an interior world filled with containers, shadows and secrets. The landscape outside is reflected only through an angled mirror. 

What is of crucial importance is the interior of things, the inner scape of things, the place where women are containers for wisdom that might appear on the surface as a joke, or as idle conversation.

This series offers something of a cabaret of characters that are loosely based on the symbolism inherent in the story of Cinderella. This is interpreted in a fluid way as some characters seem to be cross-dressing, there are secret whispers and strong gestures that all hint towards meanings inherent in these exchanges. It is like the experience of walking into a room half way through the story, where we are left to stumble and feel off balance in our efforts to find a place, or our place, in the narrative. Perhaps, it is more accurate to say that it is men, who have no permanent place to reside in this narrative. Not all viewers report getting anxious.

Valadon’s most recent work has concerned itself with the new stimulation provided by a period of working in the old gold mining town of Hill End . Enjoying the hospitality of the artist-in-residence program, Valadon stayed in the house once owned by the artists Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger. 

 Jean Bellette's Bed '04

Jean Bellette’s Bed

Rather than focus on the well-travelled environment of the landscape, her interest was drawn again to the theatre of the interior, and in particular, the grand four-poster bed that dominates the tiny house. Jean Belletteís Bed, 2005 is a fabulous piece of speculation as we contemplate a space so crucial to the history of Australian art, given that the house was host to so many famous names over the years. The bed is a place of feminine power; it opens up to a nocturnal scene of a moon lit landscape without fear or inhibition.

Perhaps it is in Valadonís dreams that we are most able to wake up. In her world of dimmed lighting and shadowy figures we are confronted with a vision that questions the edges of certainty around identity, gender and our social role. Underlying the games we play as human beings; the roles, responsibilities and seriousness of adult life, there is nevertheless a desire to be known and to have permission to join the liminal space of cabaret and circus that is passionately ruled over by the artist. It is desire that this artist is seeking to draw out of us, a desire to know our fuller selves as sensual beings with skin, rough and smooth, and with eyes that see in the dark.

I am concerned with the universal desire to know and be known. In our search for the other, our craving for fulfillment ñ this elusive promise ñ we hunger for acceptance and transcendence.
Valadon 2005

Valadon is a skilled artist who understands the power of representation. She employs all her abilities in a search for a sense of self that is both embodied and transcendent, both earthed and illusively beautiful. This search is perhaps balanced, or even underscored, by the ever-present darkness of shadows and the inherent sadness when moments of ecstasy return, half remembered.

Valadon demonstrates, that in the midst of the fragile nature of human existence, there is an impulse to create art that illuminates the beautiful grief of being.

Rod Pattenden
2006