Anna Platten

Anna Platten’s impetus to tell engaging stories led her to early Western high narrative painting traditions, partly for their craftsmanship where she says “you can see the glistening on nails”, and mostly for their symbolism.

Stirred to tears by a Flemish painting that she saw in Antwerp, although its religious meanings eluded her, she was captivated by the notion that “everybody in that era was so engaged with that story, and now we live in a time when we don’t have that connection with each other, that shared history of what symbols mean.”

Reflecting on her creative process, her works are replete with metaphors and layered with contradictions. They invite us to join her as sleuths in navigating the nature of human relationships and life’s cycles.

The artist describes her work as semi-autobiographical. When she positions herself within them it’s with a mischievous tone that yields agency. “My work is the area where I’ve always had to assert my personality, my inner nature, and it’s the only place that I could and needed to do it. So my work has sort of elevated me in a way,” she says. A personal “fessing up” of her own psychological spaces, they also explore collective realities and ideas of archetypal women. “They’re not really about me, people stood in for me, I’ve stood in for others, or I’m standing in for women perhaps,” she explains.

Her choice of herself as model, for the less flattering characters in particular, she says are “like ‘Myself as Miss Havisham’ (2001), I wouldn’t want to subject another woman to the indignity of wearing that ridiculous hat, same as ‘Myself as Madonna’ (2003).”

An example of the flip-side, ‘Fleur’ (2006) required a different angle. Immersed in Patricia Cornwell’s book about Jack the Ripper, the harrowing accounts of the victims invoked “that feeling of being on the scrapheap of life,” and the confronting idea of herself as “a fallen woman past her prime”. Having initially cast herself as the model in a different, very abject scenario, the ensuing photos “were not what I was trying to say at all. I got really deflated and thought that I’d come to a dead end.”

Around this time she attended a fancy dress party where her former student, Fleur Elise Noble, was wearing the resultant painting’s black corset. “Suddenly it twigged, of course, she’s beautiful, she’s young. Through her I could say what I wanted to and you could enter into it, whereas you couldn’t be seduced in the same way by me – the pantomime dame.”

Her works are fundamentally about transformations and her practice is punctuated by crossroads. Earlier images were painted directly from constructed theatre-like environments. “In ‘Girls with hoop and ladder’ (1990), I could paint everything observed pretty much from life. Then the stage thing evolved into being able to put more weird things together,” as evident in ‘Myself as Madonna’. She affirms that “they’re not surreal, not fantasy, they’re based on real feelings and experiences in life.”

As curator Tracey Lock says, they are “more aligned to a form of the ambiguous and time-travelling field of magic realism, anchored in everyday reality but invaded by something too strange to believe.” Transported into her narratives, we can almost hear her footsteps leaving the scene. “That’s what I want to do, make a world that I can enter into. But those stage settings were getting too claustrophobic.”

A major shift came with the study for ‘Fleur’. “I thought, shit! I want to go somewhere different, the painting itself, she’s transcending her mortal coil in a way, and that painting somehow made me transcend, and I suddenly realised that I didn’t have to be constrained by the stage-type world,” says Platten.

Her liberating move beyond her comfort zone of interiors was expanded with ‘Fleur’ rousing from her trance of deliverance in ‘The waking dream’ (2009) and embarking on an expedition into unknown worlds, in a series of five works starting with ‘The journey’ (2008). “They’re lovely spaces for my imagination to go, and I don’t know what’s there until she gets there,” she says.

Her relationship with her work has since become “less inward and more outward, thinking about my own experience but also about life and mortality … we’re just a speck in it all. So, I’m wanting my works to be less literally read now, because I don’t think anything can be.” This series also saw the single narrative evolve into ongoing storylines with filmic qualities, also seen in the return of Miss Havisham in ‘Ourselves as Zoe. A dream. A web. A puzzle’ (2011).

Her works, such as ‘Woman and man in embrace’ (1992), have been defined by Jude Adams as having “a fetishistic excessiveness” with their elaborate detail and fulsome lustre, as well as in the way that “fetishism evokes both pleasure and anxiety”. This duality is echoed in her making experience. “It’s an intoxicating, exalted and often panicky state. It’s all very weird.”

Platten describes the motivation to start on works – at times before knowing why or what they mean – as similar to “some bodily function that’s been brewing … like needing to do a poo or have a coffee.” Referring to her all-absorbing process: “It is hard work, like when I was working on ‘Ourselves as Zoe’, I didn’t realise it but I was also entering menopause. The truck was due to come from the gallery and I was trying different whites on this bit in the middle. Blood was running down my legs, I wasn’t even aware of it. I was just thinking ‘shit it’s not white enough’, then I thought stuff it, titanium white, couldn’t even get the edge tidy, but it was good because the truck arrived.”

Her making method is time-intensive and deceptively complex. She is also a costume designer and seamstress, finder and maker of props, performer, scene director and photographer. Asked about the performative aspect of her work, she gasps “oh that’s the scariest bit”. Stories abound of awkward situations trying to direct her scenes, often with family members patiently helping with setting the “stage” and photographing. “Setting the whole thing up is like a performance and you just feel so silly, but you’ve got to have the belief that it will make sense, it’s that leap of faith.”

She maps out the “designs” and renders them into articulate studies. However, in contrast to this seemingly linear development, another more intangible layer underpins her concept-driven process. Her ideas are often altered midstream by uncanny circumstances and unexpected timing. In the case of ‘Ourselves as Zoe’, which signalled “the beginning of thinking about mortality”, it was her niece’s birth. “I knew the shape I wanted for the cave … then my sister went into labour. I was standing there watching her vagina and seeing this head emerge and thought how that morning I was working on this painting thinking it was about death, and then I suddenly saw how cyclic life is.”

She initially attributes these “random” interventions to coincidence. Then our discussion turns to the possibility of subliminal messages … “Not very cool, it doesn’t fit in with the orthodoxy of how we live these days.” She recalls seeing “whole installations of frescoes taken from churches” in a Barcelona museum. “Art that’s so powerful, I really felt a lack. I like belief, I like to think that life has meaning, that it’s not just coincidental. I don’t want to live in a world where things can be explained as electrical impulses, because life’s not a dress rehearsal, so it might as well be filled with great characters and be full of meaning.”

Multiple challenging family circumstances since 2012, including her mother’s passing, caused a short hiatus in Platten’s practice. “It’s that war that you have in yourself. You can’t say that all these things don’t exist and that you’re going to get on with your work regardless, they need their time in the sun.”

‘What it is’ (2014) marks another major turning point. “It resulted from spending time with a friend who was so clear and far seeing – everything that I felt I was not. I did that drawing in two-hour stints before mum went into a nursing home, and felt really happy with the way it resolved itself. It was like the less I interfered with it the better.” It introduces a more open composition. “Looser elements worked well to suggest movement, and I realised that they represent emotion, which is what I’ve really wanted to get all along. It’s that contrast between wild and contained.”

Here the influence of early Western masters is from a different perspective. “I had a photograph of myself posed with this blind outfit on and I shoved it in a book. Much later when I reopened the page, I saw it juxtaposed against this tiny bit of abraded landscape in a Piero della Francesca and thought yes! If I can discipline myself to translate that randomness, because that’s what it’s really about.” We begin to see the artist yield more to the materiality of her medium in this new territory.

Platten is now increasingly driven by the ineffability of life’s meaning. “We’re contained in this world and all these rules, but we have another moral, personal, emotional world, that’s the thing that we live to experience. There’s so much of life that can’t be explained, we sense the truth of it but we don’t always know what it means.”

Her works personify feelings and distil vulnerable moments that are easily overlooked, as they prod and itch at uncomfortably tender spots in our psyche. She is compelled to explore and share the experience of her truths “to be free in the world, otherwise you’re living under the lid of another world, and I don’t want to, I want move through this world with authenticity. I want to share what it’s like to be a human being.” Her generous and often brutal honesty surrenders her vulnerabilities in ways that seduce us into considering our own.

Anna Platten is represented by Hill Smith Gallery, Adelaide, where her work will be featured in two group exhibitions in 2017.

Courtesy the artist, Hill Smith Gallery and the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide