2015 - Phosphoresce

Blue Bird 15Phosphoresce, at William Street Studios Paddington is an overview of paintings and sculptures from 2013-5  by the Australian artist Gabrielle Courtenay. Gallerist Ian Hadlow’s new venture is the culmination of a love for antiques, contemporary art and design, with an aim to create an immersive and experiential environment where both old and new designs create a dialogue of space, rather than forever existing in their own vacuum. It is no surprise then, that Hadlow selected the work of Courtenay to grace the Studio’s new walls - with work that is at once visually delightful and unnerving, a color palette primarily composed of blue and gold, Phosphoresce encourages both amiable and thoughtful viewing.

Charlotte Tegan 2015



Photoragphy@Per Ericson

The exhibition focuses on Courtenay’s works from 2013 - 2015, consisting of paintings and various sculptural works constructed out of pumice, bone and bronze. A selection of these works has been previously exhibited, but for many works this is a debut, much the same as the William Street Studio itself.

Quite literally, the title of the exhibition refers to the way in which the vibrant blue pigment in Courtenay’s new works seem to glow with a certain intense, charged energy. Much the same as phosphorescent matter in nature emits eerily strong light in the absence of thermal reason, the use of blue pigment in Courtenay’s works appears to emit a severe vibrancy that lingers, and defies our accepted understanding of color and depth.

For many years now, Courtenay’s work has illustrated an evolution of thought, consistently exploring familiar narratives of mythology, cultural history, spirituality and the feminine. However, as recognized as these narratives and their associated symbolism are, Courtenay habitually revokes and rearranges, creating new and unfamiliar narratives that prompt considered thought rather than simple recognition.

These works present isolated symbols, motifs, scenes and metaphorical images in close proximity to one another, often overlaid on sparse galactic landscapes; cosmic backdrops with little indication of scale. This abstract ambiguity renders the foreground symbolism at once on both a macro and micro scale, identifying an indeterminate sense of place that can be deftly adopted by viewers, associated with particular and personal mythological beliefs and understandings.

Courtenay is intrinsically motivated by the ever-complicated circumstances of the 21st century global community, exploring issues of population growth, the shrinking availability of natural resources, pollution, trade, the role of religion, and leadership power balances. Purposely rejecting religion and avoiding the classification of a ‘political artist’, she creates from a place of spiritual understanding and exploration, and often aims to illustrate pluralistic points of view in order to more fully explore these nominated issues.

This pluralistic approach is most obviously demonstrated in the recent sculpture Janus (mixed media on bone, aluminum, 2015), both metaphorically and quite literally depicting the Roman god of transitions and beginnings with a single sculpture of two joined yet opposite-facing faces. Given the classical beliefs of Janus presiding over the beginnings and ends of conflicts and wars, it is with an eerily fitting air that this sculpture appears to reflect what is happening on the micro level of society in the city of Sydney where Courtenay lives, but also on the macro level where it is undeniable that the entire world is watching the reality of war rear its fearful head.

Motifs recurring throughout Courtenay’s recent body of work specifically include oar less boats, small birds and the creeping tendrils of dead (or simply leafless) tree branches. These motifs combined in proximity tend to infer powerful interpretations on a scale of binary understanding - together they either imply a sense of loss and perpetual wandering, death and helpless reaching; or to the more optimistic viewer, a sense of wonder and exploration, searching for new beginnings. These powerful motifs feature prominently alongside other varied and recognizable symbols from contemporary society, cultural history, and ancient mythology - especially in the Wunderkammer works.

By removing these recognizable and familiar visual symbols from their original cultural context and reconstructing them alongside other various culturally loaded symbols and motifs, the result is an uncanny sense of unknowing. Courtenay has described these Wunderkammer works as narrative constructions that can be read like tarot cards - they are full of ambiguous visual energy and can be interpreted on multiple levels and tell a number of concurrent stories - dependent on the questions the viewer is hoping to find answers to.

It can be said then that Phosphoresce is an exhibition of exploration - of seeking understanding of and in a world that continually defies our simplifications and explanations. Courtenay’s works certainly achieve the goal of unnerving the viewer and prompting deeper thought about our acceptance of preconceived cultural knowledge; knowledge that in our increasingly connected and global society is becoming more convoluted and less understood. If anything, this visual prompt from Courtenay is welcome personal growth - even if it is a little unnerving to begin with.