Reflections on Being: Being and Nothingness

Exhibition review Being and Nothingness Works by Bea Maddock Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Launceston August 1992

It is unusual to find an artist able to sustain a viable means of exploring their vision over a lifetime without lapsing into the repetition of forms which have lost their rigor or vitality. This is especially so when negotiating a path between competing professional demands such as teaching and administration which has been the choice of Bea Maddock for much of her career.

In fact it is the various strategies Maddock has employed to revitalize and energize her quest as an artist which curator Roger Butler focuses on in 'Being and Nothingness'. Fragments from interviews recorded by Butler reveal an artist confident of her sense of vocation even as a student, and later, ambitious for recognition of her achievements as a printmaker.

This exhibition, jointly presented by the Australian National Gallery and the Queensland Art Gallery, is ample testimony to the achievement of those expectations. Now on show at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, the exhibition spans three decades of work since her student days at the Slade in London.
It is Maddock's capacity for reflection on her experience and the processes by which she finds meaning in that experience through her art-making and through musings in her journals, which informs the progress of her art and is the source of her creative renewal.

Revealed by the use of excerpts from the interviews, the content and processes of materials, imagery and ideas which might otherwise be obscure to the lay viewer are made accessible to the patient gallery visitor by extensive use of documentary signs. This device, while tending to pre-empt the viewer's reading of the work, or even limiting possible readings to the artist's intentions only, does have the effect of allowing the (sometimes laconic) voice of the artist to resonate with great subtlety around the imagery.

An event has been created which amplifies and clarifies the artist's understanding of how intuitive, non-rational qualities colour our perceptions and reason, as well as the systems we employ for sharing those insights. The intuitive and emotional is encoded by the artist in vigorous yet restrained gestural marks, and the mediating effects of ancient and modern technology are revealed through the media of photo-images, grids, typography and hand-made paper.

The recurring themes which Maddock explores include: the journey, the passage of time, the possibility of trespass and identity. While the techniques she employs are traditional: encaustic, oil paint, woodcut, etching, lithography, photo-reproduction; these forms and themes are exploited with great sensitivity and intensity so that it is from the processes of production that her originality emerges. Her fluent and exploratory approach to these techniques, and the sorts of marks she employs create a refined and distinctive aesthetic.

This personal language is the vehicle for posing timeless questions. While her work often confronts tragedy and isolation, it is a sense of poignancy rather than the maudlin which is communicated. This restraint is achieved by paring-back the mark, the gesture, the grid, the photograph, the text to its essential structure, so that the emotional content is contained. Like Mike Parr, whose work shares many similar qualities, (although emanating from very different intentions) Bea Maddock eschews the devices of expressionism, yet achieves a moving expressiveness.

Maddock's strategy of placing the question of identity simultaneously with the mediating effects of technology on perception, and the nature of trespass and/or the journey in particular onto Aboriginal or uninhabited land, has the effect of restraining any potentially histrionic effects.

In the large encaustic painting 'We live in the meanings we are able to discern' the transient effect of man on the landscape is suggested by an absence of people. Only the discarded impedimenta of an encampment remain, marring the pristine contours of the landscape. The drawing/painting is executed in a notative, effacive style which mutes the artist's commentary and allows the tongue of the (almost) lost Tasmanian Aboriginal language to keen across the landscape.

This language appears in the form of Aboriginal place-names from south-eastern Tasmania. Encapsulated cibachrome photographs of an ice massif echo these names and reflect the nuances of the spare, yet monumental landscape of Heard Island. The question of the purpose of human presence seems to float like these names across the panorama. To utter these names would be an act of transgression of this homage to their culture and environment. A poetry of silence is achieved.

Reviewed by Penny Mason

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