Artist, Painter and Printmaker

Paper, Scissor, Fish - Charles Hewitt Gallery 2009

Opening by Ian David

Welcome to the Charles Hewitt Gallery, Ladies and Gentlemen. Almost ten years ago, in Montreal, I took in an exhibition of Picasso’s erotic works. The exhibition was arranged in chronological order down an alley of flats and hard corners. There was no turning back. The first piece, crossing the threshold, was of a nude, reclining, legs akimbo, in blue crayon. It was finished when he was only sixteen. No prizes for suggesting what was on Pablo’s mind. Half a day later, I emerged at the other end of the gallery. The last piece was of a nude, reclining legs akimbo, not in blue crayon but black ink. It was painted several months before he died at the age of ninety two. In a few quavering strokes of the brush he’d gone back, as he had hundreds of times. The same subject, the same pose. Was he trying to get it right, or was he still searching for something else? The answer, I suspect, is that for Picasso all of them were right, none of them was perfect.

There’s a communion artists conjure up when they set to work in whatever their chosen medium. When a painter takes up a brush or a carefully feathered twig or a dripping brush and bucket in Jackson Pollack’s case, there is the inextinguishable possibility that some wonder will be caught within the frame. Around you, on these walls, hang hundred of hours of work fixed in canvas, paint and wood. There are two distinct series, Flight Song and Paper, Scissor, Fish. They are tickets, invitations to that communion. They are the work of an artist with her foot to the floor, an artist in her prime. Melissa Becker.

The Flight Song series, works derived from the process of collage, but drifted out of the subconscious like pieces of a puzzle, are revealed almost as meditations, creations by the viewer. These paintings are personal in that they come from the artist’s collection of life events, some broken, some straws left over from abundant fields, some clear and potent as they day they were born. Like all mediations they bottle emotion so it can be observed through the clearest of glass, the unblinking eye of consciousness.

The themes that nag and drive creativity are always a point of learning for those who appreciate any artist’s work. Picasso, like Matisse, was a student of Chardin, the eighteenth century French master. He in turn was an inspiration for Melissa Becker. The Skate, eviscerated, hanging from a hook in a gilded frame in the Louvre was painted in 1727 but is still fresh. Rendered with such detail that it serves to remind us that life moving across that twilight to death induces in us reflections on mortality and the miraculous, yet finite, reaches of life.

With the series, Paper, Scissor, Fish, the paintings on these walls are full of waiting discovery. Some are subtle, some are stilettos between the ribs, some hold your face in a vice as a plea for attention. All of these paintings are worthy of Melissa’s journey as an artist. In some of the series, Melissa uses a battered origami fish for a real one, it is not only an example of her visual wit but a reminder that in the not-to-distant future a cut-out paper fish may be all we have left.

To see her picking her way across a reef at low tide at Coogee or Bawley Point is to see the painter at work, turning over shapes and textures, painting them before they leave this life, capturing their mortality, the cresting hill at the onset of decay. There is something sublime and simple here, the evening meal as life and death. There is also the arresting refinement of technique.

When studying a body of work it is at best a journey into the underlying logic of the artist’s life, the secrets and problems, the ones they keep and the others they hide, until in a series of slow starts, little by little all is revealed. The better the work the longer the revelations keep coming. In a few of the paintings you will see what appear to be a series of holes painted in the background or floor. Despite strong rumours, they are not ventilation holes bored in the floor of her rooftop studio by her husband, Garth, so she can breath, they are in fact portals into another dimension.

I am delighted to be able to declare open Melissa Becker’s exhibition. Many wondrous discoveries are ahead of you. What is right and what is perfect is in your hands.

Copyright © Melissa Becker. All Rights Reserved.

Paper, Scissor, Fish - Charles Hewitt Gallery 2009

Essay by Prof. Anthea Callen

Melissa Becker has been exhibiting her paintings and etchings in Sydney for the past twelve years, and almost annually since 1999. The only year she did not show in Sydney, 2003, she had a solo exhibition at the Galerie des Arches in Paris, France. This is her second show at the Charles Hewitt Gallery, her first major solo exhibition at the venue.

Born in South Africa and trained in New York, Becker’s earliest shows were in New York. Her work speaks of a life in migration, of transit between different countries, cultures and continents with all the breadth of experience and uncertainty that brings. Such dichotomies are fundamental to Becker’s work: her sensitised socio-political awareness as a youthful member of the global diaspora emerges in her painting, in which conflict and contradiction are integral. Subtle subtexts of meaning underlie and vie with the predominant visceral delight she reveals in working with oil paint on canvas. These opposites find expression not only in form and meaning, and in the contrasting genres in which she chooses to work, but in the very fundaments of her processes as a painter.

Within Becker’s oeuvre itself, then, there are two distinctly different but related genres, both of which are on display for the first time here at the Charles Hewitt Gallery. Becker has already exhibited her startling, luscious still lifes, while her larger collage-inspired oil compositions have not previously been shown in public. The coup for the Hewitt Gallery is to present in a single show both these aspects of Becker’s work, uniting the apparent naturalism of her objective studies with her exploration of the irrational in her painted ‘collages’.  The show provides a first important opportunity to consider the relationship between these contrasting, yet arguably complementary works.

In terms of process, Becker’s experiments with colour and with paint application, texture and appearance are central themes in both genres. The strength and agility of Becker’s technique in oils on canvas are evident throughout her oeuvre, where varying degrees of finish allow the study and appreciation of her painting processes – a key understanding the work, which depends too on her superb skills as a draughtsman. The balance between execution and subject matter is taut, while meaning in the work whether still life or ‘collage’ is intentionally discreet: Becker does not labour the message in her work but instead allows the richness of colour and painterly method to seduce the eye as well as the mind: the meanings are all but latent. Her painting, however, is never simply voluptuous. The dark and even sinister are never far from the surface, again producing an ambiguity in the work where appearance is not what it seems at first glance.

The series of fish and crustacean still lifes exemplify this tension. Slick ‘wet’ surfaces, glinting shells and shimmering fish-scales (in fact matt colours) invite reminders of the great historical still life painters, like the Dutch seventeenth-century masters who seduced the viewer’s eye with their virtuosic display of the luxurious material world only to stress its transience – the memento mori. Or the French eighteenth-century master of the domestic scene, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, whose large canvas with its extraordinary skinned fish, The Skate (c.1725-6, Louvre Museum, Paris) has served as an inspiration to painters as recent as Picasso and Matisse, as well as Becker herself. The disturbing materiality of Chardin’s skate, bloody and glistening, smiling and gazing with dead eyes out at the spectator, resonates with the same tensions that Becker achieves. For her, it is more immediately the mortality of the fish than of man that counts – though her work flags up the implications that diminishing fish stocks and ecological issues around reckless fishing and fish consumption inevitably have for man’s long-term survival on the planet. Thus what for seventeenth and even eighteenth century European painters was a religious question has become, for a twenty-first-century artist, a green question.

As Becker herself states, ‘I can't simply paint fish in a straight voluptuous manner, it has a disturbing and distasteful side.’ This relates as much to live fish as threatened species as to dead fish as still life subject matter. To be eaten fish need to be very fresh of course, and equally so to paint fish in comfort – the other senses like that of smell are thus invoked. Yet in the hot Australian climate this is no easy matter: speed of working becomes a vital issue with immediate implications for the painting process. So Becker’s reference to the distasteful relates to alarm about declining fish stocks and anxieties about eating fish, but also to the senses – taste and smell as well as sight – and the dangers of putrefying fish as food. Becker aims to suggest the vitality of fish; her lively brush-touch makes their appearance in the paintings vividly alive and vigorous despite the fact we know they cannot survive out of water. Hence the disturbing element too, because we now they are indeed dead: we know (as memento mori) they symbolise death and as such are insistent reminders of our own mortality.

The introduction in Paper, Scissor, Fish of a cut-out paper fish as subject matter in place of ‘live’ fish is a change described by Becker: ​'I came up with the paper fish as a temporary substitute for a real fish on a day when I couldn't get to the shop but ended up keeping it and liking it very much as it suggests an absence which somehow, for me, addresses my anxieties about there being a problem with fish stocks, rising sea temperatures and all that.'

Paper, Scissor, Fish takes the question of mortality a step further, to absence and loss as Becker suggests. She develops the theme in other works, like Still Life on Striped Cloth where the insistent verticality of the canvas is emphasized by the striped fabric. Rarely in Becker’s still lifes, or indeed the ‘collage’ paintings, is there real distance; objects are placed close to the picture plane, stacked up vertically and often seen from above looking down. The constraints of Becker’s studio set-up are only partially responsible for this tendency – it is clear that her aesthetic is the main driver here. Cropping objects, like the dish of Mussels, again brings objects close to the picture surface yet simultaneously suggests their life continues beyond and behind the picture plane. While not necessarily or always claustrophobic, flattened pictorial planes and shallow space force the spectator to confront Becker’s subject matter, offering no relief or escape for the eye into distance. In this her technique evokes modern still life practice notably from Cézanne on – and again both Picasso and Matisse especially are relevant models. In Becker’s style and paint application however, the effects are more lyrical, poetic and mysterious. We find parallels in Becker’s work for the modernists’ insistent materially and emphasis on surface and colour – but also for the Synthetic Cubist multiple play on the painted illusion. In Still Life on Striped Cloth the witty paper fish is mirrored – both ‘real’ (already a paper fake) and reflected in the shiny silver dish, giving three levels of pictorial illusion. The luxuriant richness of texture and surface, superbly rendered, contrast with the reductive simplicity of the emblematic paper fish, the more poignant for its minimalism. The empty Japanese vase, for all its lush texture, here echoes the illusory nature of the paper fish: no sustenance, no life.

Technically, Becker’s use of colour is indebted to the great modern colourists from Van Gogh and Cézanne to Bonnard and Matisse, while remaining entirely personal. The use of colour contrasts – the vibrant complementaries from the colour circle beloved by the Impressionists and Seurat – have great appeal to her, but her fluent, sensual use of them is closer to Matisse than to his nineteenth-century forbears. She experiments with coloured under-painting and tinted canvas primings to produce vivid layerings of colour their warm-cool contrasts often strikingly intense. Applied quite dilute in the early stages, Becker allows these first colours to show through the layers in her paintings to create an atmospheric veil of shifting hues which resists a precise spatial location, as in Giant Squid and the still life with a skull. At times a field of colour may seem close to the picture plane, at others the field evokes deeper space; in Crabs on a Pink Background it alternates between the two, the crabs seeming to float aimless in a disturbing sea of pink, drifting in and out of the canvas boundaries. At times the forms of the seafood or inanimate objects are thinly painted, as in the small still life of five garfish on a white cloth: diluted with turpentine the oil colour is brushed on in almost water-colour-like translucent washes. Yet structure and forms remain strongly modelled, because Becker’s colour is usually intensely saturated even when high in tonal key, and she models with colour. In some still lifes the objects and settings are both more densely worked – thickly painted with brushes loaded with opaque paint describing the forms and modeling shape. Even where shadows should anchor the forms that cast them, as in her still life with four plates of garfish, the dishes hover over the amorphous coloured background. Despite its apparently rigorous geometry, the turquoise grid in Paper, Scissor, Fish is off-set to give a characteristically vertiginous spatial ambiguity – a dis-location. 

The same could be said of Becker’s painted ‘collages’ – the large-scale oils deriving from her collage series. In these lyrical yet frequently sinister paintings, bizarre dissonances of scale and object hark back to Surrealism but especially to the more radical work of the Dadaists. Hans Schwitters’ “Merzbild” from late WWI onwards were prompted by that ‘terrible turmoil’; ‘what I had learned in the academy’ Schwitters later wrote, ‘was of no use to me.’ Indeed, ‘everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz. It was like a revolution within me…’ While Schwitters’ collages, like those of Becker, incorporated fragments of found images and objects, his were more purely aesthetic. Becker, like Schwitters’ fellow German Dadaists Hannah Höch, John Heartfield and George Grosz, has a more politicised agenda, however subtle this may appear at first sight. Resonant of her experience as a diasporic artist, many of the collages link together her experiences of otherness from her origins in apartheid South Africa to years of study in New York, then to permanent residence in Sydney in the early 1990s. Höch and Heartfield are perhaps the most telling comparisons in terms of figurative collage source materials and jarring juxtaposition of scale and contents, but the painterly aesthetic and love of colour in Becker’s work – whether in the original collages or the painted variants – for me still has echoes of the sad beauty Schwitters’ Merzbild.

Becker uses standard format canvases for many of the still lifes, 40 x 50 cm being a particular favourite. Yet as we have already seen, there are also elongated formats exploring the proportions of the Golden Section, as well as a clear preference for the flattened, abstracting potential of the square format. Most of the painted ‘collages’ use the square format – 122 x 122 cm – and powerfully exploit its pull towards abstraction. Further, the dislocation of the objects and space in this series invite readings of the work against a particular orientation which works to best effect on a square format – most obviously in Flight Song 6 where the upended landscape disorients the viewer and suggests a bird’s eye view.

There is no attempt in Becker’s oil ‘collages’ to reconstitute in super-realism the precise forms of her original sources, often highly graphic images like the reproduction of Bottcelli’s Birth of Venus in Flight Song 2. Becker finds tactile, painterly equivalents for the collaged graphics, very successfully transforming them from small-scale collages into grand-scale paintings, the largest of which – For Rest (l)AMEN(t) – measures 167 x 167 cm square. Always responsive to her environment, the Flight Song series, like the Fish still lifes, reflect an awareness of place and change. The ‘Song’ element in the title evokes sound of course, whether voice, melody or rhythm – all of which are present in the sensual lyricism of these paintings. ‘Flight’ is a word with ambiguous meanings, suggesting both travel/transition and escape. ‘Flight Song’, then, as a title for Becker’s most ambitious series of paintings to date, aptly brings together the fear and beauty her work addresses. Mood, humour and subject matter may be dark at times, but the witty lightness of touch and colour ensure the work is never nihilistic.

Anthea Callen
September 2009
(Anthea Callen is a painter and Professor Emeritus of Visual Culture at the University of Nottingham, UK; she will be Visiting Fellow in Visual Arts at ANU School of Art in 2010) www.antheacallen.co.uk