Debra Dawes’ paintings have a visceral effect on the viewer. Her work appears cerebral but derives from experience and emotion. Her paintings mostly consist of geometric systems, colours, varied scale and subtle painted marks having minute altered tones. The optical effect of the work is both mesmerising and unsettling. She has previously used installation to produce certain effects and explore ideas, and recently has incorporated video to understand spatial relationships. Artist Profile spoke to Debra Dawes in her newly built studio where she lives in Murrurundi, NSW.
WHAT ARE the moment/s when art impelled you?
At high school I had a fabulous art teacher, Mrs Saul. She was really committed, not just in delivering the curriculum, but in what she brought to the classroom from her life. She presented as someone who was curious and did out-of-the-ordinary things. I wanted to be like her. The other moment was on my second trip away in the late 70s, on a cargo boat carrying live sheep from Perth to Singapore. It’s funny to remember it. I was on the deck of this ship with the stench of the sheep in my nostrils looking out at the moon. Whatever it was about that combination of the sheep and the moon I don’t know but it unhinged a deep longing. I said to myself, OK when you get back, you’re going to do whatever it is that you need to do, and so I did.
You have said you think of your role in art teaching as facilitator.
Every student you encounter has different ideas about what they want to do and different ways of wanting to do it. I was very conscious of my role being to encourage and facilitate their process and their thinking, guiding them to become more aware of who they are and how they’re working within their own world. And to go beyond their own world, to be curious and to discover more about how their own works might fit within a broader field of aesthetics and culture. To understand they are not working in a vacuum, to make their experience richer, and their knowledge deeper and broader.
Why the move to Murrurundi, after the Sydney College of the Arts?
To support my family and to be able to afford a place with enough studio space for my partner (artist Jelle van den Berg) and me. We’ve been here since December. It seemed like this is the place to be for now.
What have you and curator Gary Sangster noticed in the development of your Tamworth Regional Gallery exhibition?
In all the works I have made, the act of measuring up the canvas is significant. It becomes meaningful too when we think about measure as a critical tool, as a means to analyse and critique which is also a consistent thread through my practice.
Have issues always been an important part of your work?
Yes, starting in the 1980s with feminist theories of the time. The paradigm provided a way of examining experience and still remains significant as a way of looking at all kinds of power relationships.
Is working with video a new development because of Murrurundi?
Potentially, but video was essential in realising ‘Squaring off the Mountain’. It couldn’t have been captured in any other way. For four months I’d ritualistically walk a track determined by the relationship between points of reference in the landscape and the lens of the camera. The idea was to walk the frame of the camera’s viewfinder, to create tracks. Observing animal tracks on the property added a curious aside to the work – animals always walk the same track. I walked the track using my body as a tool for drawing. The video has two parts. One was shot with a video camera depicting foreground, midground and background, the other with a drone camera. The shot from the drone refers to a more modernist paradigm of flattening the subject and perceiving the figure in the landscape. It also reveals the track.
Is there ever a collaborative engagement with the subject of your paintings?
‘Meditation’ was a collaborative work. I have to go back to when he was first incarcerated at age 20. I can’t name him for his own safety. The idea of incarceration is not just the physical incarceration, it’s a spiritual incarceration, psychological and emotional incarceration. The idea of ‘Meditation’ was about connection. It was a way of transcending the institution. He would be able to set his mind free to some extent, to think about something that wasn’t happening to him, to give him a colour on which to rest his mind. The process involved sending and receiving a colour. At 9pm every night he would select a colour from a small range I had sent him. He would meditate on the colour for 15 minutes and at the same time I would meditate and receive the colour. We did this for about a year and recorded the outcomes of the experiment through the letters. The work ‘Meditation’ became a record of the process.
Can you discuss memory in your work?
Well, I can discuss this in relation to ‘Gray Spectra’ which came about while I was researching my paternal great grandmother’s history. I was trying to deal with the new information coming to light about her story, and reframing my perception of her via family anecdotes. So it was a process of uncovering details about how she came from Ireland at the age of 18, arrived here and began her life, and the various tragedies she had to endure in her life. While I was collecting this information I was diarising in the painting ‘Gray Spectra’ so I would literally paint five lines a day like you would in a diary, except the image would emerge as a gingham structure. There’s a distinct interplay between the background and foreground. There’s push and pull in the structure of this painting, which started to take on particular meaning of how memory and past always impose on the present.
Do you gather evidence to support your experiences?
It depends on what is required. The painting ‘At Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ had a rationale that was very much about experience and disbelief about what I was encountering in the correctional services system. I was hearing directly about what goes on in gaol both through the letters and conversations. It wasn’t my initial intent to use those letters, they were someone else’s words and experiences. I felt it was important to put the authenticity of the content into some form. I wanted to make a point about our responsibility as a community, not just my experience. I came across Justice Nagle’s Report, from 1978. One of his fundamental premises was that prisoners should be perceived as citizens with legal rights and protection. As he says, “Prisons belong to the community; the community has the responsibility for those it imprisons.” The problem is we don’t. And there it is in a nutshell.
The scale of your work is frequently larger than you.
The scale can vary dramatically in my work. Large-scale works provide an immersive experience. Your peripheral vision lessens when you come close to a large work, you lose a sense of where it ends. On a small scale, an intimacy is established between the work and the viewer; one comes close to see and engage with the work. I like physically to draw a viewer in, and to move them back and forth, so they look and engage.
Your grid appears to be a reliable friend.
What I normally do is lay it down and then work against the nature of the grid to disrupt the surface. It’s like a tool to reinvent contradiction.
Where does your awareness of colour come from?
Colour for me is an intuitive thing. Why I choose one colour over another, I don’t know. There are some things I accept, they come from a place you cannot rationalise. I am very aware of different levels of consciousness when working. And part of the learning is leaving it alone.
You work on the sides of your paintings?
This harks back to the 1960s. The painting becomes an object. I have done that once with a series of works titled ‘Houndstooth’, in 1991 and ‘On the Edge’ in 1992, where I incorporated the sides of the paintings. I’m more interested in the trajectory of painting and the illusion of painting. I don’t want to confuse what I’m trying to do on the surface of the painting with some other way of thinking about painting. The canvas is an object, but on the surface of that canvas is the practice, history and theory of painting.
Can you discuss the ‘Starlite’ painting?
I had recently moved to Coledale, NSW. I had a studio in a library next to the RSL club. Every day I saw this patterned wall made from besser brick. Curiously, it had a lot of elements in it that related to my previous work. It has some aspects of the decorative, the everyday; it did things with your eyes. That starts to seep into your consciousness. Through that process of becoming aware of besser brick, and becoming aware of the blind spots that we have to things, I became compelled by besser brick wall. I painted each block, the same scale as the actual concrete block for each painting. It’s put together and is rendered according to the perspective of where I stood in relation to it.
Is 15 years an unusual time to invest emotionally in an unfinished painting?
I don’t know if it’s unusual or not, it is what it is. The painting you are referring to is still in the studio and it’s unfinished. That painting disturbs me; it may never be finished, it’s so emotionally charged I don’t know what to do with it. And it actually doesn’t need to be on a wall, it may never be on a wall. There are different emotional investments, in what you believe and what you do. I have to be emotionally invested in what I do.
And the need for mathematics in your work?
It comes from trying to get it right. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no particular theory. It’s about the process of measuring in relation to the scale of the canvas. And if my systems come undone I have to respond to it and make decisions about what I do with it. Life imposes itself and then it becomes interesting. We are all flawed. Mostly, it is about trying.
Tamworth Regional Gallery
8 April – 3 June, 2017
Debra Dawes is represented by WESWAL Gallery, Tamworth, NSW