Dreaming Forward publication, July 2002
Words by Cassandra Laing
"We are what we think. All that we are arises through our thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world" (Buddha).
Driving to the Victorian Alpine National Park in the north of the state recently, I passed Blanket Hill, at the start of the Great Dividing Range. Looking out across the landscape to the north, I could easily have believed that Julia Ciccarone had taken the inspiration from this site for one of her earliest landscapes Blanket (1990, exhibited in the 1989 Moet and Chandon Exhibition. The painting depicts a supine figure, drawing over Its self the folds of the landscape as though it were a blanket. Although I don't know that the artist had ever seen this particular landscape, I gained an insight into the mythology of Ciccarone's alluring paintings. We experience recognition, looking at Ciccarone's landscapes, from her earliest Blue Mountains scenes through to the eclectically composed tableaux of her current work. We are seduced by the tentative balance between familiarity and alienation that her narratives provide.
Mixing dreams and empirical reality, the verve of Ciccarone's art resides in her intuitive approach to narrative and composition, and the way in which new characters and vignettes spontaneously appear. Accordingly, Ciccarone gives equal consideration to a silver-skinned woman on a monocycle, playing a mutated French horn and a figure prostrated in prayer. As she commences work on a painting, Julia is led by an urge to bring forth images from her unconscious. In The Dream Room(2001), light falls into a sitting room, illuminating its contents. An owl in flight and a conspicuously a bsent 'sitter' suggest that elements of the psychic interior have escaped. A landscape appears in the fabric of the curtain in the room, calling to mind the I Ching card in which a mountain signifies the process of turning one's thoughts inwards. A chaise Lounge suggests time for respite and reflection. This painting illustrates her dialogue between the internal and external realms of the psyche which most of us encounter only involuntarily in dreams.
In the late 1980s Ciccarone produced a series of paintings that were satires on the tropes of romanticism and the sublime. In these paintings, she mimicked the grand vistas of early Australian colonial painters such as Eugene von Guerard . Since then, Ciccarone has shifted Her focus to landscapes assembled from gathered sources and her own imagination. In this current work, the landscapes are balanced between the familiar and unknown, and seem more empty than inhabited, lending an unresolved atmosphere to the scenes. Ciccarone's earlier mountainous vistas have given way to an eerie sublime located in landscapes of low scrub, clearings and tundras illuminated by penumbral half-light. Sharp and protruding geological formations, verging on the extraterrestrial, have replaced the undulating inland hills and coastal dunes of the last series exhibited at BMG, Adelaide in 2000.
The images in Ciccarone's latest work challenge laws of causality. We cannot be sure at which point we witness the unfolding narrative. Time seems mutable and the biosphere theme gives the paintings a futuristic dimension. The small panels depict a weird cohort of shamans experimenting with the basic elements of our world (light, air and water). Playfully combining the concepts of time and mysticism(tarot and clairvoyance), Ciccarone ne now speaks freely about the ways in which her paintings are infused with Italian superstitions’ (1). A New Model Revisited (2002), is a collaboration of ideas between Ciccarone and Melbourne artist Geoffrey Ricardo. In this painting the characters tumble about the floating sphere in bestial metamorphosis like the revolving figures depicted in the Wheel of Fortune tarot card . Since the late 1990s, risk and magic have also been regular themes in her work. In 1998 Ciccarone exhibited a body of work at the Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra that focused on carnivalesque themes. Katerina Paseta, in the catalogue for the Drill Hall exhibition, wrote that in the absence of resolved narratives, Ciccarone's paintings leave us uncomfortable and suspended. Although Ciccarone's narratives have, according to art critic Robert Nelson, an allegorical element, the consistency with which the characters and signature gestures re-appear across each series suggests that the worlds of these paintings co-exist with the here and now – a Narnia of sorts.
Ciccarone's narratives reinstate ritual in contemporary life. Vivid in colour and detail, rituals bind the characters to their landscapes and we are, in turn, drawn in. Ciccarone demonstrates a faith in a mutable universe, not unlike the 'magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marques' (2). In Walking To The Forever (2001), a woman contorts herself in ritual engagement with the earth beneath her body, and an entourage follows in even step. This composition, by virtue of the rhythms in the movement of the figures, leads us into the vastness of the landscape.
Ciccarone's favoured realm of enchantment is the forest. Projection (2001) brings to mind Simon Schama's reflections on the forest as the cradle of European civilisation, for it is "the beginning of habitation" (3). Sylvan characters and a gigantic owl recall the nemora alta (the deep woods) and pagan rites of the Gallic druids. Historian Jean Markale suggests that in French Arthurian texts the words verre (glass) and vert (green) Are used interchangeably; the forest was a maison de verre (house of glass). Similarly, in Ciccarone's recent paintings, forests and glass are interchangeable terms for sanctuaries and the sacred, for places of prayer and contemplation. Projection intersects with an earlier body of work completed by Ciccarone in the late 1990s in which forests and other verdant landscapes were populated with a troupe of carnival players. The glass structures that featured in this earlier series are, in this current body of work, re-figured into transparent, reflective domes and shallow, upright light-boxes.
The glass dome is the most significant utopian image in Ciccarone's work to date. In Study for Biosphere /I (2002), a study for a larger work, and in Biosphere /II (2002) an embedded dome stands isolated in a wide valley, possibly an ancient river-bed, and a worn path through the valley suggests that this site is well visited. The dome is reminiscent of the votive shrines (miniature stupas) along Himalayan pilgrimage routes and of the biospheres of the 1980s, erected in the Californian desert as part of end-of-the-millennium scientific programs. The half-sphere appears insubstantial in size, in comparison with the surrounding landscape. As urban dwellers, landscapes of the scale painted by Ciccarone exist for many of us only in folklore, postcards and The cinema. In Observation (2001) a solitary Male figure prostrates himself before a wailing wall of monumental proportions. Is Ciccarone foretelling a time when the natural world will be lost, and majestic landscapes like that depicted upon the translucent drapery will be the focus of prayer and contemplation? In Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Kublai Khan says to Marco Polo:
I do not know when you have had time to visit all the countries you describe to me. It seems to me you have never moved from this garden (4). Indeed, the paintings in this exhibition are the measure of the distances Ciccarone has travelled in her mind. Ciccarone has a longstanding interest in indigenous cultures and spirituality. This accounts for her expression of time as an expansive and cyclical phenomenon, measured in her narratives not by the mundane but by the exceptional and surreal. The spiritual resonance in Ciccarone's landscapes invite comparisons with the recent work of Kathleen Petyarre. Petyarre's paintings engage us in her personal passage through significant sites in her local landscape, and the experience of her central Dreaming narrative 'Arnkerrth'. Ciccarone's landscapes are also concerned with human carriage through the landscape and the potential for a spiritual relationship with it. While painting may be restricted by the physical limits of the canvas, in its attempt to portray the sublime, Ciccarone's narratives offer us an intimate representation of the experience of transcendence. Sustained by our imagination, Ciccarone's "symbolic and narrative complexities always elude closure. These ever intriguing paintings remain unexhausted in significance" (5).
Ciccarone actively establishes an overall rhythm in her narratives through elaborate conjunctions and references between their parts. The relationship between each painting in this exhibition is heightened by the synchronization between the characters in the narratives . Ciccarone is constructing a meta-narrative. Speaking about his work Atlas in 1985, Gerhard Richter has commented, "there are no individual pictures anymore" (6). The same could be said of the paintings in this exhibition. The settings and characters in Ciccarone's paintings recur as in a series of novellas, ever evolving and reiterating their presence. Art critic Suzi Gablik suggested in the early 1990s that Western culture was losing its "sense of the power of The imagination, myth, dream and vision ... the ability to shift mindsets and thus to perceive other realities to move between the worlds". In response to this disintegrative paradigm, Gablik extolled the virtues of performance artists such as Fern Schaffer, who adopts the 'sacred wardrobe' of shamanic practitioners in order to induce a state of consciousness conducive to ritual. Ciccarone was interested in costumes very early on in her work. Dig (1990). Painted during the Gulf War and now in a private collection in New South Wales, depicts a hooded figure in a white protective suit and gas mask excavating a sheltered site in a rocky landscape. This solitary alien figure, inspired by the image of the artist's father spraying the family fig tree in the backyard, is the antecedent of the shamanic figures that appear in Ciccarone's current work. The figures in these latest paintings are attired in a strange assortment of garments. Women appear either feminised by their heavy skirts, wrapped in the folds of elaborate drapery, or exposed in exotic costumes, such as the burlesque of the winged woman in Flight (2001), and of the silver skinned cyclist in The Great Escape (2002). Like Fern Schaffer, Ciccarone uses costume and gesture to Induce suspensions of rationality. Many of the characters in Ciccarone's paintings call to mind the work of surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, specifically the latter's Portrait of Max Ernst (1939). Cloaked in a feathery robe, striding across a winter landscape, Carrington depicted Ernst as possessing mystical powers similar to those that Ciccarone bestows on the 'Contessa', Ciccarone's mother. Appearing in each body of work, the Contessa has come to represent regeneration, renewal and "a mainstay of tradition in its many varied and contradictory forms" (7). The 'Contessa' (the artist's mother's maiden-name) is a numen, an immutable presiding deity in the landscape in her sheltering skirt, stabilising the elements, bringing unequal forces of nature into equilibrium. Nature and nurturing converge in this figure. In Generation(2002) the Contessa hypnotises and stills time on an isolated alpine plateau . Ciccarone's matriarch is a mystic, a 'superior mother' from whose great focus and abiding nature future generations come forth. Perhaps the most significant painting in the exhibition, this portrait of the artist's mother and daughter might also be a self-portrait. Placed between preceding and succeeding generations in the matrilineal line, Ciccarone has, in this painting, probably represented herself as the sphere, the clairvoyant and visionary. The first appearance of Ciccarone's daughter as a subject perhaps heralds a brave new world, as the artist engages with her own motherhood.
Ciccarone says that she feels increasingly estranged from her images. When Ciccarone relinquishes constraint over the creation of a painting, her work is at its most potent and visionary. Ciccarone does with narrative what the great modernists did with colour. Like Rothko, Ciccarone leaves us with a vibrating and dynamic narrative dimension that is both expansive and seductive. We are provided with a set of co-ordinates that are not fixed in time or outcome. Each work in this exhibition permits a returning.
Gablik suggests that we have lost our visionary capacity. Or have we? Imagination and vision is regenerating in The work of artists such as Julia Ciccarone. Suggesting that the artists that survive best in contemporary culture are those who adopt its rational values, Ciccarone, it would then seem, is clearly part of what Gablik defines as the "re-enchantment project". In 1973 Gerhard Richter proclaimed the possibility of art that addressed transcendence in an age "that had abandoned utopian idealism" (8). Given that we are presented with a range of paradoxes and shifting boundaries by the postmodern era it is understandable that we have developed a preoccupation with liminality. Like the German Romantics, Ciccarone's narratives require us to step up to the boundary of our ordinary and utilitarian world, and contemplate the mysteries that lie beyond.
Thanks to Charles Greenand Joseph Cox for their comments On this essay. Thanks also to Julia for giving me the opportunity to express, in this catalogue essay, the burgeoning thoughts I have about her work and for her readiness to be the subject of my doctoral thesis.
1. Lancashire, R. "Journey to the Sublime", Living Arts, The Age, Tuesday 26 May 1998
2. Sever, N. "Foreword", in absentia, exhibition catalogue, Australian National Univeristy, 1998
3. Schama, S. Landscape and Memory, HarperCollins, London, 1995
4. Calvino, I. Invisible Cities, Picador, 1979
5. Paseta, K. "Carnivalesque", in absentia, exhibition catalogue, Australian National Univeristy, 1998
6. Cook, L Gerhard Richter's Atlas, Dia Centre for the Arts, http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs/richter/richter.html, 2001
7, Paseta, K. Ibid
8. Morley, S. "The Friedrich Factor in Contemporary Visual Arts", Contemporary Visual Arts: Focus on the Sublime, G+B Arts International. Issue 19, 1998