14 June 2005

Gemma Nightingale - MAD Gallery

I’ve had it in mind for a while to get up to Lancefield and have a look at MAD Gallery, an exhibition space and cafe. I believe it’s been open for about 18 months, and doing quite well it seems.

Lancefield is a sleepy town, and not at all the sort of place you’d expect to come across a contemporary art space doing it’s best to represent some of the more interesting art activity in the central Victorian region, but here it is. Presently it’s showing Gemma Nightingale and Jocelyn Lu, who does high-key landscapes in colours that approach expressionist intensity. Unfortunately, they become undifferentiated after only a few minutes in their company, as if the relentless colour is motivated more by stylistic gesture than genuine emotion. The result is paradoxically a bit flat.

On the other hand, the paintings and sculpture by Gemma Nightingale acquire greater intensity the longer you look. The paintings, especially the smaller canvases, are rendered with great confidence and the sculptural installation is extremely wry and blackly funny.

The paintings are varied in size and format, but are unified by the use of black as a ground. This is difficult to pull off, as black can be the most inert colour on the palette, but she keeps the density of the pigment fluid by mixing in with vermillion and deep greens, keeping it moving, warmer and cooler by turns across the surface.

Grim forests rise up through thick, wet atmosphere in early morning winter light, that glows coldly through the branches. The trees have a slightly malevolent spikiness, which reminded me strongly of Sydney Long’s pastoral fantasies of the 1890s. The only thing missing is the prancing piper or woodland spirit. This is an appropriate link to make, as the great trees inhabit the pictures with an almost spiritual authority. Lacking figures, the trees are personified, and we imbue them with a living soulfulness.

The sculpture titled ‘The Flying Bride’ is a trio of bridal dresses, suspended above the ground as if caught in mid-twirl, all agitated movement and transparency. Only thing is, they are dull grey instead of bridal white, steel mesh in place of tulle, and corroded sheet metal cut to look like lace. They’re tethered by a chain, as if they might be in danger of floating off like magical figures from Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. And to underline the paradoxical joke, a bouquet of delicate steel flowers hang from the wall a little way off by a rusted chain, as if flung there by some extremely disenchanted bride. It’s called ‘Bridle Curb Chain Bouquet’; note the withering pun on ‘bridal’.

I was reminded of a strangely disconcerting poem by John Heath-Stubbs called ‘Mozart’:

"Mozart walking in the garden,
Tormented beside cool waters,
Remembered the empty-headed girl,
And the surly porters,

The singing-bird in the snuff box,
And the clown's comic nose;
And scattered the thin blue petals
Of a steel rose."

The overall impression of her show is bitsy, which is unnecessary as the stronger works command the space with such energy as to make the small, figurative pieces on paper look ill-considered and unconvincing by comparison.

Despite that, this is accomplished work, and I hope to see a more completely resolved installation by Gemma Nightingale in the future.

Postscript: I wasn’t there for the opening, but the invitation informs us that the opening of this exhibition featured live music by “Elston Gunn”. Is this a joke? I apologise if this really is the man’s name, but Elston Gunn was one of the stage names briefly tried on by the young Robert Zimmerman, a folk singer from Minnesota who later changed his name to Bob Dylan. Now that’s something I’d like to see in Lancefield.

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