For some time now Rox De Luca and Jo Darbyshire have been working together to explore the different forces that produced their separate senses of individual and social identity. This entailed communicating across the continent from Sydney, where to De Luca lives, to Darbyshire's home in Perth.
While modernism valued community ideals, friendship, community and collaboration it nonetheless nurtured the nonsensical fantasy of the work of art as the product, property and responsibility of a single immutable personality. This has such a profound and permanent grip on our artistic life as to make collaboration seem impossible.
Last month the new head of Australian art at the National Gallery, Mr John McDonald stated (again and again) that he believed only in art made by individuals. In reality art is always a collaboration - between artist and audience. Collaboration between artists extends and emphasises that basic relationship. De Luca's Italian heritage and Darbyshire's Anglo Australian background form a democratic symmetry of social memories that can be readily engaged by audience and artists alike.
Darbyshire described the experience
"We didn't abnegate our own work or our own selves but we realised that the works looked better together. They actually had a life together like that, to not do it would actually be to make the work weaker. We wanted it to happen. "
They remedied their lack of a shared formal artistic language by agreeing that each element of their work would be a square of identical size whether made separately or together. De Luca often uses embossed aluminium panels, Darbyshire oil on canvas, but since all their images are the same size, the most extreme contrasts of style and substance are reconciled as a single gridded proposition.
Their work can be made up of any number of panels laid out like letter tiles in a game of Scrabble linked together only by the common theme of the artists' memories of growing up and living in Australia. This allows an interplay of image, style, technique and materials as equivalents rather than as a single inflexible hierarchy. Darbyshire pointed to colour theory as a significant source.
"Colour doesn't really exist unless you take into account what you put it next to or what texture it is ... Each set of paintings seemed to dictate how they wanted to be put rather than us imposing anything upon it. For instance the very long one, even though that could be seen as traditional work, it wasn't! It wanted to go like that! The musical effect dark light, darklight just wanted to go like that. It wasn't a jigsaw. It wasn't a musical score. The connection between the family and the colours, the red and silver just wanted to be like that."
The largest ensemble consisted of ten panels ranging between some of Darbyshire's most intensely observed objects and De Luca's aluminium surfaces stamped with clothes patterns and other diagrams. Darbyshire's blood-red geraniums and shoulder with bra beneath are typical of the immediacy of her vision. She looks and paints as if she were completely without a sense of any previous organising principle. This is painting strictly by association. At first her juxtaposed figures, flowers, fruit and landscapes appear tentative, pieces of guesswork towards a picture of the world as it is at that moment. It soon becomes clear that the vitality and the sensuous delight of her gaze can only be communicated through a permanent state of improvisation. Her painting demands as much from the viewer as De Luca's most abstract metal diagrams.
The ensemble contained some superb multiple associations. In Holy Communion the artists have transposed their faces into an oil transcription of a photograph of perhaps a first communion, since De Luca seems to be dressed for this event. Just below Tony shows a fragment of a male face and to the left Papa presents a lyrical rendering in the manner of Mary Cassatt of a photo of a small child in blue black oil paint over aluminium.
These painted references to photographs demonstrate the ways in which, as a whole, family albums both reveal and conceal the truth of our varied pasts. A painter who transcribes from them is always caught between her memories and the visual evidence in front of her. When two artists work in parallel more complex poetic dissonances emerge. One is subtly led between the most inaccessible personal issues to the blatant facts we all have in common.