Still life, recycled
A Space of Measured Light, an exhibition by award-winning artist Jude Rae, is showing at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery until October 15, as Ross Peake reports.
Jude Rae is known primarily for her still life paintings, portraits and architectural interiors.
Jude Rae’s art is staunchly based in firsthand perception and is supported by a technical mastery worthy of a seventeenth-century Dutch realist.
Over the past 30 years, she has exhibited her work in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the USA.
She remembers being a bit bored by still life when she was a student but later began to realise it could teach her about painting in ways that perhaps other genres couldn’t.
“I found it presented me with a kind of laboratory for painting, and was teaching me about the relationship between my perceptions and painting,” she says.
Her still lifes feature objects such as gas cylinders and bottles. “I can thank Canberra’s recycling stations for them,” she says.
“I’ve used a variety of gas cylinders and fire extinguishers and things I’ve picked up. I started to use those objects when I came to Canberra because I found them at the recycling centre at Mitchell.”
She uses low-key, non-narrative imagery to allow the attention to dwell on the formal and material aspects of representational painting.
“I find it encourages a more reflective and considered approach to the complexities of visual experience,” she says.
Rae has been awarded residencies in France, Italy and New Zealand and has taught at a variety of arts schools, including ANU, Auckland University and most recently at the National Art School in Sydney.
In 2005 and 2008 she won the Portia Geach Memorial Award for Portraiture and in 2016 she was the recipient of the prestigious Bulgari Award presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of NSW.
The exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery expands the range of her work to be seen by the public.
“I work across a number of different genres including interiors and portraits – this exhibition is largely still life and interiors,” she says.
“I guess people are very taken by the use of unusual objects in still lifes, like gas tanks and so on.
“I was interested in them, not so much for their associative connections, as their industrial modernism – they’re twentieth century objects if you like.
“We’re rapidly leaving the era of manufacturing into something else – I’m not quite sure what it is – but these objects are very much about what they do, they’re functionalist objects that contain gas under pressure, and there’s a sort of formal beauty that embodies their purpose.
“I like finding ordinary objects and trying to avoid the symbolic and narrative interpretations that are associated with the still life genre – the traditional “memento mori” subjects or a domestic tableau suggesting human presence, for instance that somebody just got up and left the table.
“I’m interested in the formal issues and ideas that informed modernism, as well as questions of perception and description that belong to the tradition of realism in Western art.
“For someone who is not an aficionado of the genre in painting, it’s still possible to see the abstract quality with the still lifes but I also like description – so I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too.”
Gallery director Terence Maloon is full of praise for the exhibition.
“Jude Rae’s art is staunchly based in firsthand perception and is supported by a technical mastery worthy of a seventeenth-century Dutch realist,” he says.
“Her acute sensitivity to atmosphere, local colour and illusionistic space is channelled into highly formal renditions of the technological world of the twenty-first century.
“Vital questions are posed about the protocols of vision, the nature of realism and the validity of technique.
“As well as a full complement of superbly composed still lifes, there are large drawings and paintings of capacious interiors exploring devices of spatial framing.”
Rae has an association with the ANU School of Art and Design which is celebrating its 40th year in 2017.
She has been commissioned to paint many portraits, including that of former ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb AC – and later Chief Scientist – which hangs in the Scarth Room at University House.
She also painted the portraits of Chubb’s successor at ANU, Professor Ian Young AO, and his successor as Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO.
Rae says Ian Chubb was engaging and generous with his time. “I was a little apprehensive at first because I had heard he was forthright,” she says.
“However, he was pleasant and relaxed. He wanted to wear a Sydney Swans tie – and that was perfect as turns out, because it lifted the colour of the painting.
“I need about six sittings for each portrait and the project sort of takes over my life for the duration.
“That’s why I’ve got to be careful about how many portraits I take on because they can take between six weeks and two months, depending on the availability of the sitter as well.”
Rae says still life is almost by definition an art of limitation. “This, at least in part, explains its lowly status,” she says.“I like the limitations. Finding that moving an object slightly to one side causes the relationship between colour patches in the painting to be enlivened, or that a refraction can solve a formal problem – these things give me enormous pleasure.”
For me the sense of light seems to be an even stronger vehicle for feeling than colour.
Rae says the most important thing for her in painting is the feeling it generates.
“Sensitivity in painting can take on many, many different forms, and tone and colour certainly carry feeling with them,” she says.
“Tonality arises from a series of relationships that generate a sense of light. For me the sense of light seems to be an even stronger vehicle for feeling than colour.
“When I leave the raw linen edges of a canvas exposed, it is an acknowledgement that painting is more than an image, that the canvas behaves as an object and the painting is a kind of skin.
“These are tropes of abstraction that have entered the tradition, along with others, and the tradition will continue as long as there are painters.”
The Drill Hall was built in 1940 to train soldiers for the Second World War. In 1984 the interior was remodelled to create an art gallery which is considered one of the most beautiful of its kind.
While the National Gallery of Australia waited for the completion of its building, temporary exhibitions of the national collection were held in the Drill Hall Gallery.
In 1992 ANU took over the Drill Hall Gallery as a showcase for its art collection and as a venue for temporary exhibitions.
Sidney Nolan’s nine-panel panorama, Riverbend – nominated among the 10 must-see art treasures of Canberra – is on permanent display at the Gallery.
The Drill Hall Gallery supports the arts in the Canberra region by presenting exhibitions developed in conjunction with the University’s wide-ranging academic interests and to coincide with major conferences and public events.