Gabrielle Courtenay

In a catalogue essay for Courtenay’s upcoming exhibition at ARO Gallery, I See You,  Tracey Clement describes the artist’s world-building work as ‘post-apocalyptic.’ There is a pervasive sense of unease in many of Courtenay’s landscapes, as in her sculptures of emaciated, contorted tree-like forms. Deep, moody chiaroscuro shadow plays over Courtenay’s hills, and even over her skies. In the untitled painting, 2020-21, which bears the show’s title in a plain-speaking sans serif font across its middle ground, dark hills appear to rupture at their peaks, sending streaks of red into just such a darkening sky. Trees, bare at the branch and at the root, fling their arms back  into this scene, blackened as it is by a source which eludes us. Is this darkness ash, storm, or simply paint?  Such a landscape can indeed be read as post-apocalyptic: threatening in its inhospitability, its obstructed intelligibility, and in its will towards its own destruction. 

However, Courtenay’s dealing with the material traces of history – that is, with the salvaged antique objects which she uses in her sculptural work, gathered from travels, friends, and elsewhere  – asks us to reconsider what exactly the ‘post’ is doing in our notion of the post-apocalyptic. Booty, 2020, for example,  is constructed in part from a small vintage chain-metal bag, with the rust left on to colour the material a warm russet. Across Courtenay’s other sculptures, we can find antique figurines, mirrors, and indeed organic materials. Cache, 2020, for instance, takes for its base an emu egg and branches of saltbush. These historical objects – both ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ – bear upon them the trace that human action makes upon our material environment, and vice versa. They register, that is, the modulation of the physical world beneath the hand of human history – and, indeed, the way that natural processes speak back to this human action, themselves (think about the rust reclaiming that vintage metal bag). In this post-apocalyptic vision, then, ‘post’ gestures not so much to an ‘afterwards’ which leaves its beforehands behind entirely – a world without itself. Instead, it indicates the way that the present, and indeed Courtenay’s prophesied future, ingest the history which precedes them, metabolising it into newer and stranger forms. History is not left behind here; there is no rupture. Instead, Courtenay envisions the slow churn of the historical into the future-tensed. 

In Courtenay’s world, then, enmeshment is the order of the day. The past bleeds into the future, the human bleeds into the environmental. Trees stretch their arms to the sky – and indeed they are ‘arms,’ emerging from trunks which ripple like torsos. In Seeking Shelter, 2019, we see this elision between the human and the natural most clearly: two tree-like forms stand, embracing, in the fluid space between the ocean and the moon. Figures and forms from Courtenay’s sculptures, too, frequently appear in the paintings. In this way, her work of elision stretches between media, as well. Perhaps, thinking about Courtenay’s interested in contact, in transformation, and in the in-between, we can find an answer to the question of what constitutes the darkness clouding her skies. This darkness washes over so many of her landscapes, functioning as a porous membrane between the forms she depicts: between human figures and hills, between branches and arms, between destruction and creation anew. With this notion in mind, we might consider that the exhibition’s title, I See You, is spoken by Courtenay’s history-laden landscape itself. This is an all-encompassing network of material enmeshment, in which the landscape – which is also us, its human inhabitants – can see both past and future, darkly. 

I See You
9 – 20 June 2021
ARO Gallery, Sydney

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