Heather Shimmen

At the Gippsland Art Gallery, Heather Shimmen imbricates the historical and the imaginative in intricate, densely-packed printed surfaces. Drawing on found and hoarded images, stories, memories, and objects, the artist builds fantastic worlds from both local anecdote and Classical culture that resist dominant narratives of history in cleverly evasive ways.

The surfaces of Shimmen’s images are incredibly intricate, composed of both easily-decoded and more effusive, ambiguous symbols. Often, Shimmen’s ways of rendering her subjects — as well as the multitude of objects that occupy her pictures — draw on historical modes of representation. That is to say, her prints often evoke the look of historical cartoons or illustrations. The hair and the skin of the woman in Lost V (2016), for instance, are printed with tightly-packed lines for strands of hair and the texture of skin alike. Here, too, as in other works like Lost 4 (2016), the setting of the female figures within oval picture spaces, heads and decoratively-dressed shoulders visible, calls up the form of the cameo, gesturing to the historical precedent and provenance of the works.

Yet there is also a strangeness, an unsettling instability, about Shimmen’s treatment of her women subjects. As curator Erin Matthews writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, the works both ‘evoke the past and hint at a possible future.’ This double-direction of gaze lends something of the fantastic —  something of the inherently political — to Shimmen’s work. Rosemary Jackson theorises the fantastic, as a mode across literature and art, as ‘based on and controlled by an overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility.’ To Jackson, work which is grounded in history, but which makes it strange, unfamiliar, or bizarre, takes up the task of thinking about how the future might differ from the past, or how our imagined selves now and tomorrow might come into being by emerging — and therefore diverging — from our shared history.

One tale from which Shimmen draws her inspiration is the local anecdotal history of ‘The Lady of the Swamp.’ In Swamp Lady (2011-18), the artist gives us a portrait of Margaret Clement, who lived near Tullaree in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Decried as ‘Australia’s loneliest woman,’ she resided alone in what was once her family’s opulent mansion, which over the course of her life became a solitary and run-down building on an often flooded property. Clement disappeared from the property in 1952, and the circumstances of her disappearance have been much speculated upon, but have never been confirmed. Rather than presenting a simply historical-realist rendering of Clement, Shimmen shows us an otherworldly woman striding authoritatively across her land, pack of black dogs, like omens of subversive power, in tow. Making history strange — perhaps, that is, crossing the generic line from history into mythology, or from the realist into Jackson’s fantastic — Shimmen refuses to show Clement as the victim or figure of pity that historical anecdote has imagined her to be. Rather, she invests her figure, in the strangeness of her rendering, with a kind of otherworldly gravity and agency. Perhaps this gravity is the power of resistance, and of the resilience that Clement surely showed throughout her unconventional life.

Elsewhere, Shimmen turns her gaze toward the Classical story of the seven sisters of the Pleiades, and toward other feminine heroes from both Western myth and Australian history — though how different ‘history’ really is from ‘myth’ is a question Shimmen’s work opens up. The prints are always wonderfully detailed, historical and yet imaginative, resolutely strange and resistant to the power of (masculine, colonial) realist history.

Heather Shimmen: The Ladies of the Pleiades
1 June – 14 July 2019
Gippsland Art Gallery, Victoria


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