Phylis Paterson

Writing on the wall
The Bauhaus Gallery, Brisbane

Phyllis Paterson's work articulates a treacherously polite world of quiet interiors. Her paintings describe settings of typically genteel and archaic refinement. Carefully rendered, in the tradition of 17th Century Dutch genre paintings, they depict confined and self-contained spaces filled with tasteful furnishings, sumptuous drapery and ripe fruit. The artist, like the Dutch painters of the 1600s, has been mindful of patronly expectations. However her clientele, perhaps eager to assert claims to good taste and social status, may upon closer inspection find more than they bargained for. The artist's indulgence of the audience's vanities is short lived. The sensual glossy surfaced canvasses, seemingly tailor-made for renovated domestic settings, lure and tease the expectant viewer. They momentarily conceal the overriding atmosphere of 'Victorian' angst and repression that, in fact, underpins the work.

Echoes of the Victorian period's sexual neurosis and its fetishisation of death reinforce subtexts of alienation in these paintings. An air of ominous silence permeates the discrete objects within the paintings. They neither enter into direct dialogue with one another nor with the viewer. The sense of isolation is complete as all seems frozen in time and breathless space.

The ambiguity of the figure in From the Other Side (a woman's face?) is heightened by the way Paterson applies the surface treatment of a Victorian woodcut. Its menacing presence hovers longingly over a carved bowl filled with sensuous ripe plums. Paterson's close-up faces assume the look of stencilled wallpapers in Victorian parlours, emphasising the claustrophobic effect engendered by the shrinking interior. In Appearing Live Daily and Waiting for a Visitor images of opulent but empty chairs confront the viewer who is left to peer (or peep) behind sumptuous drapes into unyielding shallow spaces.

In Do You Want To Know a Secret and Do You Want To Know a Secret Too? graphite drawings of adolescent school girls and boys are juxtaposed with images of richly painted drapes. Two girls stand against a ground of flat colour, leaning inquisitively toward the vacancy behind the labia-like folds. The imagery relates to boys and girls "Own Annuals" and their sub-current of repressed sexuality.

By extension the artist introduces and cross-references elements of camp humour and surrealist iconography. A falling cloth becomes the shroud hiding a rhinoceros sized horn. Three male ballroom dancers painted in silhouette hold aloft an asparagus spear. These phallic-centred jokes are in effect about their own tradition and terms of reference; specifically their limits of scope and levels of social acceptability. Recent art historical movements have barely extended the parameters of the acceptable to encompass a mainstream acknowledgement of lewd feminist humour on its own terms. It is significant to note that surrealism relied heavily on erotic humour as one means to challenge societal dictates of the status quo. However the essential gender imbalance was maintained by the movement's inability, or unwillingness, to move beyond its own patriarchal pre-conditions.

Paterson's work deals with the lack of, or silencing of, a parallel tradition of psycho-sexual humour for and by women. In the case of rhinoceros horn juxtaposed with its own shrouded shape, she is in effect silencing the acceptable joke to highlight the lack of acknowledgement of a female equivalent.