Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia
Louise Hearman is a rhetorician of the fantastic and the macabre. For her first museum retrospective, curated by Anna Davis at the MCA, a comprehensive selection of paintings and drawings spanning 1993-2016 conveys a world bristling with eerie menace and unhallowed couplings. Implausible vistas and nocturnal forests with velvety atmospheres are punctured by inexplicable sources of light and populated with animal-human hybrids and mutant plants whose fleshy forms radiate unnaturally. The paintings conjure scenes from science fiction yet meld these with lustre and texture of the Australian wilderness.
In Untitled #1293 a giant succulent branch swings across an open field, deserted save for the presence of a small child whose distant contours are dwarfed by the obtrusively phallic form. If plants are irrevocably menacing here, in other paintings such as Untitled #1294 (2009) something more sinisterly consensual occurs; an adolescent with a trance-like expression communes with a mysteriously protruding penile branch, drawing dark carnal energy from its blackened stem. Variously suggesting alien colonising plants in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) or the human-destroying pods in Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1956) – adapted a generation later into Philip Kaufman’s horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Hearman’s plant life has equivalent liquidating potency.
If stalks and flowers are ominous and heavily genital in these paintings, they are counterpointed by the more ambiguous role played by animal life. In spite of similarly farfetched shifts in scale, these, by contrast, seem far less threatening. A giant puppy’s head with a beatific expression emerges from a clearing in a nighttime forest in Untitled #891 (2002) and a horse’s head with glistening eyes thrusts improbably from coursing rapids, as if stepping out from a parallel universe in Untitled #980 (2002). These animals are endearing, cute and lovingly rendered, switching the tone of Hearman’s paintings from endangerment to schmaltz. At times the artist entirely gives over to mawkish rendition, as in Untitled #999 (2003), where the jowly imploring gaze of a Boston Terrier – its oversized head filling the picture plane – is nothing short of kitsch.
But this is where Hearman gets interesting. For buttressing her oppositional loves of animal sentimentality and Twilight Zone eeriness is a robustness of painterly technique that is astonishing. Hearman is a painter who has assimilated the pre-modern Western tradition; her virtuoso technique displays lessons learned from Dutch 17th century painters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt with their bravura brushwork and shrewd modulations of light and darkness producing images of palpitating drama and depth. Hearman is comparably technically masterful. She displays closer kinship, however, with Goya; the Spaniard’s attraction to the otherworldly and the demonic, such as the gleeful menace of Witches’ Flight (1798) and the magnetic bleakness of his murals at the Quinta del Sordo, better known as the Black Paintings (1820-23). The floating malevolence of Atropos (The Fates), (1821-23) and the poignancy of The Drowning Dog (1820-23) are revivified in Hearman’s correspondingly fiendish worlds.
This is most apparent in the multiple paintings featuring children. Akin to the ways in which animals burst forth from land and sea, her pixie-like child figures sprout from the earth and are bathed in light from an obscured source (Untitled #739, 1999) or hover enigmatically on ocean waves (Untitled #410, 1995), more spectral than real. More often though, the children are rendered as dislocated presences with missing bodies – heads floating in expanses of dusky and darkened skies (Untitled #838, 2000; Untitled #1288, 2009) or irrupting through a blanket of clouds (Untitled #1279, 2009). These are farcical compositions yet Hearman’s deft and accomplished painterly method means that her repertoire of weird imagery has arresting force. On the one hand her taste for the freakish undercuts the potential solemnity of her technique, but on the other her human and non-human presences have a vitality that is unnerving. In a word, Hearman’s paintings are fey. But their brooding mysteriousness, profanity and kitsch are defiantly category-shattering and form a powerfully bewitching universe.
Main image: Louise Hearman, Untitled #1279, 2009, oil on masonite. Courtesy: © the artist