Great Myths

The Age, 10 August 2002
Words by Robert Nelson

When an artist does something grand and stupendous, you hope it will last, that there won't be anything wrong, that no shortcomings might mar its eternal welcome upon the Olympian pinnacles. And when you do feel that something is not quite right, that there's something missing or uncomfortable, you may suspend your scepticism and interpret the upsetting element as a necessary part of the concept.

For more than 10 years Julia Ciccarone has been painting pictures grand in scale and conception. Since her early 20s she has shown the kind of confidence most artist dream of. Huge multi-figure compositions in front of mountainous heights and wine-dark seas, filled with uncanny inventions, echoes of Mediterranean myth, colonial history, a stressful sociology of family traditions and more than a hint of the psychoanalytical in circumstances that seemed personal and moving.

The energy and vim haven't flagged. The latest production at Niagara Galleries is equally bold, treating homespun clairvoyance, a minor social history of representation and theatrical projection there are even hints of a critique of science. The pictures are large, painted without strain, not e xcessively reliant on source material that has to be collaged. You sense that each picture, howeve r impressive and complicated, wouldn't have taken the artist any longer to complete than her speedy imagination to sustain it.

In Walking to the forever, six figures in gumboots shoulder a stretcher with a scientific looking orb propped upon it. Though dressed for an expedition and crossing a meadow in the mountains, they carry the sphere as if in mourning, as if their stretcher were a bier. One of them is female; another is of dubious sex, for the head sports a mask in the form of a deer. In front of them, a barefoot woman does press-ups, with her bottom raised and her chin on the ground, No detail in this bizarre panorama seems to have been fussed over. The paint is applied with little hesitation, moving seamlessly between large expanses and crisp details. The combination of illustrator's verve and ironic subtext may remind you of the American painter Mark Tansey. You don't really know what it's about, but the contrast between a scientific institution and a pathetic individual both contacting nature in incongruous ways seems maliciously ironic.

Art features often, as in Observation, where a landscape painting is unfurled over a wall beside a bunker with observation deck. The painting within the painting shows a mountain valley with a stream and a matching split in the sky. A steel frame (for a screen) with a ramp in front of the building reflects colour, while an observatory behind gathers the honeyed light of the evening. The picture brings four ways of looking (panopticon, screen, painting and telescope) into a baleful unity. A solitary figure prays in the foetal position in front of the grand schemes for systematising vision. All Ciccarone's pictures point to allegory, but not in a literal emblematic sense, They're all mysterious.

There's a question, though, of how much the mystery embodies a truth too sublime to be told, or is just incompleteness. You decide on the basis of how forcefully the paintings impress their pictorial coherence on you.

The technique belongs to scene-painting at its most unselfconscious. But sometimes it works better than at others. The tonal range is often strangely exaggerated or slightly arbitrary, as in The dream room, where the light on the walls seems inexplicable. But if something is missing, the annoyance is subsumed by the vigour. As a landscape, for instance, Projection has a slightly unsatisfying series of spaces and edges.

But the carpet of needles in the pine forest is just right to receive the televised owl on a screen nestling behind the tree. If the rendering seems a little unnatural, it suits the artificial environment, where the haunting archetypal denizen of the woods exists only through technology.

You can contrast Ciccarone's technique with Terry Batt's smooth and solid scumbles in the same gallery. His paintings of historical designs – auto motive, illustrative and pictorial - are impressive and polished. But, compared to Ciccarone's energetic style of managing cultural archetypes, big imaginative spaces and private intuition, Batt' schematic work looks like slick postmodern salon painting, entertaining, economical and rather dandy.