December 9, 2021


Helen Maudsley’s visual essays

By Quentin Sprague
Image of Helen Maudsley’s ‘Thinking is done in Words. Our minds Think in Words’, 2019, oil on canvas, 29.5 x 40cm

Helen Maudsley, Thinking is done in Words. Our minds Think in Words, 2019, oil on canvas, 29.5 x 40cm. Photograph © Mark Ashkanasy, Melbourne

The 94-year-old painter’s current exhibition reveals an interest in language and the mechanics of meaning

The 94-year-old Melbourne painter Helen Maudsley, whose current exhibition at Niagara Galleries is a quiet revelation, takes as her subject the quicksilver foundations of language. Or at least that’s one way to try and understand her appealingly obtuse small-scale paintings, which look like nothing else one might imagine, and nothing at all like most current practice.

Her paintings initially appear difficult to comprehend. They are traced by an ineffable quality that is only underscored by the fact that most of what she depicts – which includes familiar objects such as high-heel shoes, reading lamps, arum lilies, ladders and disembodied hands – is readily identifiable. These usually float in flatly rendered architectural space, and often unspool before your very eyes. None of it is governed by the laws of physics. In a Maudsley painting, nothing is fixed; everything seems weightless. Yet sense nonetheless emerges. One imagines an experiment in which a select number of iconic signifiers are grouped together and flung into an anti-gravity chamber: there they float in endless motion, briefly aligning into balletic-seeming compositions that reveal themselves as phrases and sentences. If we’re lucky, we might even see whole stories.

Maudsley, who was born in 1927, identified as an artist early. She began to draw seriously as respite from a childhood bout of osteomyelitis, and in her teens undertook informal lessons. Her parents initially compelled her to study music, but by her early twenties she was enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School – a conventional studio school that drilled into students the tenets of European tradition. It was there she met her future husband: fellow painter John Brack, who would go on to establish himself as one of Australia’s most recognisable postwar artists. The two were careful to keep their practices separate, yet there remain interesting comparisons. Both displayed a fondness for the angular when painting or drawing the human body (Maudsley’s early work was more strictly figurative than that for which she’s now known), and for slightly off-putting colour palettes (greens, mustard yellows, dun browns). But it’s the differences that are truly illuminating.

Brack, who died in 1999, was an artist of his time. He found his voice in bluntly critical depictions of modern Australian life. Think of iconic Australian art of the 1950s and ’60s and his famously dour visions – of rush-hour Melbourne (Collins St, 5pm, 1955), for example, or the suburban family (The Car, 1955) – will likely come to mind. For me, such paintings have not aged well; they are overly illustrative in style, and what commentary they offer on the modern condition can now appear faintly anodyne. Which is one way of saying that they’re bound by history. Brack is not alone – many postwar Australian artists were caught by a similar pitfall – but it gives us something worth thinking about in light of Maudsley’s practice. She shares nothing of her late husband’s seeming desire for a clearly definable subject (which she has characterised as his desire to speak directly to “the common man in the street”), let alone one that’s easily transmitted to her audience. Maudsley’s work is markedly timeless – the current paintings could have been made at any point in the last half-century. It’s likely that in another 50 years they’ll still look fresh.

There’s also something deeply internalised about Maudsley’s work. Maybe this is because there was initially not much space for art in her life. In keeping with the day, she stayed home while Brack worked; the couple raised four daughters in quick succession and, as they did, Maudsley’s practice fell by the wayside. When she returned her full attention to it, she seems to have been painting, first and foremost, to sate her own curiosities rather than make broadscale statements. The results proved confounding for audiences and critics alike, and her place in the art historical firmament was, for most, not immediately clear. She showed from the late 1950s onwards, but it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that her work began to be widely seen. Even then, attention has been sporadic: in 2018 Maudsley frankly described her career to Guardian Australia’s Stephanie Convery as “low status”.

One senses that she would be the last to complain about her slow start, nor of her enduring position as a cult-like figure at the edges of Australian painting. No matter how analytical, Maudsley’s paintings are also preternaturally good-natured; free of anything like cynicism or bitterness. Any comment I’ve read from her regarding her late husband makes clear a deeply felt respect for both the man and his work. And while some artists enjoy the limelight, many prefer the position that Maudsley eventually secured, albeit late in life: enough attention to sustain the practice, but not enough to risk compromise. She has in recent years been the subject of institutional exhibitions, including a significant solo showing at the NGV in 2017–18 (which holds in its collection a relatively comprehensive selection of paintings and drawings from throughout Maudsley’s career), but she has also been well served by the elusiveness of such attention. Many viewers – and this includes young painters, upon whom she is rumoured to wield great influence – still likely don’t know too much about Maudsley’s paintings until they first encounter one. This can lend such an encounter, when it does occur, the charge of new discovery. Not to mention the fact that not knowing is a perfect condition from which to first experience Maudsley’s painted world.

So, when we look, what is it that we see? Maudsley has herself often claimed she paints “visual essays”, which is as good a description of her work as I’ve encountered. Some of these essays are relatively brief, especially in the current exhibition, and read more like aphorisms: they are pithy yet coded, and waste no time in unnecessary explanation. To get them requires effort.

Take the perfectly titled Thinking is done in Words. Our Minds Think in Words (2019), a rare picture in which actual words appear. The top right is adorned with thin capital letters painted on a mint-green ground. These spell out “WHAT, WHY, HOW, WHERE, WHEN”, which are in turn repeated (with the exception of “WHY”) on two folded forms – let’s call them sandwich boards – below. A maroon-coloured radial star, which recalls an origami chrysanthemum or the blades of a windmill, balances out the left-hand side. The whole thing is gnomic, but deeply resonant. The words are of course questions of the most basic kind; the kind a toddler might ask of her parents as she first become cognisant of cause and effect. They are as potentially endless as they are random. Perhaps this is the point: perhaps the radial form spins to provide answers; perhaps the painting is about chance? In case I ruin it with words, I’ll stop there, but believe me when I say the work – simple as it is – is instantly memorable. It’s the visual equivalent of an earworm: it gets in your head and doesn’t easily let up. I’ve been thinking about it for days.

A similar quality animates the entire exhibition. None of these works are as dizzyingly complex as her larger paintings from the late 1990s and early 2000s – paintings that, to risk stretching Maudsley’s essay metaphor thin, are long-form masterpieces – but each of them present succinct and often compelling visual arguments. It always surprises me what can be constructed from the basic building blocks of language – the way complex emotions or ideas can be conveyed so effectively by basic sounds and symbols – and I suspect something similar intrigues Maudsley. In keeping with the whole exhibition, one painting, Our Souls that Meet. The Viennese Waltz, 2020, overspills with potential meaning. Two signs, glimpsed behind the dark form of a reaching tree, face away from the viewer; a series of intersecting ladders cascade across an eggshell-blue ground; a section of balustrade hangs poised. But to ask what it means in literal terms is the wrong question, because a painting like this is surely about the mechanics of meaning itself: those simple blocks that can be reconfigured into potentially endless structures.

In an attempt to explain how Maudsley approaches her subject, the curator Andrew Gaynor once aptly used the example of laughter. Easy enough, he pointed out, to paint a figure in the act of laughing – the thrown back head, the wide-open mouth – but another thing entirely to capture the laughter itself: that contagious explosion of sound and breath that dissipates into thin air. But that difficulty is what each of Maudsley’s new paintings face head-on. It might not be laughter (although The Bell shapes, and Reverberations, 2021, may indeed fit the bill), but it is always something similarly beguiling, not to mention ephemeral and indescribable. It’s no wonder that her quiet and studious practice has engaged her for a lifetime.


Helen Maudsley 2021 is showing at Niagara Galleries until December 18.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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