Focus on women in '88

The Upstairs Gallery, Cairns
10 March - 19 March 1988

Five women exhibit their paintings under the heading Focus on Women in '88. So is there a particular female quality in their works?

What makes this exhibition very interesting, is the fact that Tania Heben, Ruth Heiner, Ludij Peden, Pam Slattery and Wandijari are such very different personalities, working in different styles and subject matters. Heben and Slattery, both basically self taught artists, seem to convey their love for the Tropical North. Heben paints people in their tropical habitat-lush vegetation. The simplicity of her stark monochrome oil colours makes for decorative effects, but is also reminiscent of the painting of Gauguin. By contrast Slattery's watercolours only softly touch their subject: Light beachscapes with incidental groups of people fuse with gentle skies, except for the almost dramatic (in the context) blue water line. Her vision is peaceful and poetic.

Peden and Heiner are the more established artists whose works are in constant demand. Heiner is without doubt one of Queensland's leading outback artists. Her pictures portray red dust country, life on cattle stations, horsemen, horse races. It's a world where men's skills count, but in her interpretation she brings to it understanding, respect, a narrative quality which is comparable to that of a ballad/folk singer. Peden's work in this exhibition consists mainly of houses - clapboard, corrugated iron, Queenslanders - painted in prevailing cool sombre moods in watercolour. By singling out these houses, she seems to make them into historical, architectural symbols of the Australian pioneering mind. The material quality of these houses, devoid of visible inhabitants, reflects their fascination with "manmade landscape". This quintessential Australianness symbolized in buildings makes the American artist Edward Hopper come to mind, whose neonlit diners or isolated farm houses stand for the vast US.

Wandijari, born in the Wadja tribe who live in the Woorabinda district of Queensland, has been deeply drawn to the Dreamtime legends and images of her people. She lives in Cairns and paints at the Home School Art Colony, which was started by the Upstairs Gallery for their artists. Her work is very professional. Traditional animal motifs (that used to be only painted by the men of the tribe) in acrylic in predominantly earthy colours give a very decorative graphic effect.

The Upstairs Gallery, by putting together the works of women painters (there are many more in the North), may want to show that women artists tackle subject matters that might have been seen as the dominion of the male, such as in Ruth Heiner's outback rodeos, mustering scenes, and Wandijari's motifs.

In this light the works can be seen as "transgressions", or signs of emancipation in the arts. What this exhibition makes absolutely clear, is what the women's brush touch brings to their themes: A softness and subtleness, even a sense of pervading poetry, which are expressions of a deep understanding and love of their environment.