Amber Wallis

Amber Wallis is a painter who breathes her soul into her work. As she prepares for a solo show in Brisbane and a group show in Los Angeles, I get the sense that her practice and her life is hers, and hers alone.

Much has been written about Wallis’ past personal journey – the childhood abuse and grief over her mother’s death – and how she has used these experiences as an undercurrent in her work. As she takes on the new role of single mother, she continues to use painting to explore her own femininity and life. Defiantly, Wallis now talks more openly about her personal issues, not allowing them to define her but fully exploiting them in her work.

While she has been successfully showing her paintings down the East Coast since 2009, Wallis senses a ceiling in Australia, particularly for work by women that is not ‘pretty’ and that explores deeper issues surrounding sexuality. She describes her current art as ‘gentle, feminine and unegotistical’, comparing the lightness, almost stain-like working of paint on raw linen as a kind of antidote to the masculine, male driven ‘Quilty-style’ ejaculation of paint onto the canvas.

Far from being ‘light weight’, Wallis’ paintings are complex, tonally low key, sketchy, at times dark, and drawing-like. They are confronting and seem to give little away. They ask questions about painterly space, about a jumble of real and imagined views and how we describe our memories, sexuality, feelings and hurt.

For some, our vision of the outside world, particularly the natural world, takes an anthropomorphic turn. We see our own bodies in the shape of landscape, or we describe the weather in terms of our moods and emotions. When it comes to expressing our own feelings, histories and ideas, we turn to natural or architectural spaces for help.

While modernism explores a reductionist space, Wallis’ use of architectural references is quite the opposite. She combines a landscape sensibility with a constraining architectural space that provides both a sense of entrapment and one of expansive possibilities.

It is this constant dialectic that makes her paintings so powerful. A combination of elements sits together. At times shapes appear figure-like, or lines indicate a body or piece of architecture, while patterning and tones evoke three dimensionality.

A number of works hark back to Wallis’ early childhood in New Zealand in a remote failed alternative community. Great Barrier Island A-frame and Orgy (2019) is a fragmented drawing in paint where the greens, blues and pinks define a structural frame in which lines that vaguely delineate bodies somehow slump into a muted greyness. It’s like looking back on a time in Wallis’ past through a soft murky window, but in a way, as Wallis says, that ‘doesn’t let abuse define me’ but rather she is reclaiming that sexuality.

During a visit to Colin McCahon’s house at Titirangi, where her friend Emma Fitts was in residency, Wallis was struck by the house’s confined living spaces and its lack of feminine discourse. In a more intimate imagining of McCahon’s stark bedroom (with Emma Fitts drapery) (2019), the architectural imagery is pronounced and creates a depth and perspective only to be undercut by its cheery theatre set-like feel. Just as a new set of curtains brighten a room, Wallis’ reworking of McCahon’s space cloaks the austerity with her own femininity.

Being in a house that is pervaded with McCahon’s life and art also draws attention to another of Wallis’ interests – a connection with ghostly human presences. In Colin McCahon’s exterior at Titirangi with other souls (2019), she adds vague bluish figures over the external architecture like wisps of smoke from a fire, energising the image and reminding us of the intense discussions that took place when academics and artists visited.

In other paintings, like Intimate Figures held by Presences (2019) and Grey and Green Landscape with Figures (2019), human form is hinted at – sculptured yet loose, vague yet present, part of the landscape. The figures are a kind of representational memory. It’s as if Wallis’ drive to constrain her work, or to move lightly and intricately by underworking the canvas to find a balance between the drawn and painted, makes the canvas into a painterly Ouija board.

One way or another, Wallis’ consistently shaped and sized paintings offer a series of still moments in the film of her own life. The landscape is not a body and the body is not a landscape. The artist has captured a world in layers where interpenetration prevails.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile. Issue 48, 2019

Amber Wallis: Summoned Paintings
8 – 26 July 2020
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

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