February 2023

Arts & Letters

Terracotta worriers: Linda Marrinon

By Sebastian Smee

Linda Marrinon, ‘Twins with skipping rope, New York, 1973’, 2013, National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, Ferris Family Foundation Fund 2013 100 Works for 100 Years. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

The Australian artist’s brilliant, cack-handed plaster and terracotta figurines recall ancient Greek statuettes, and possess a similar aura of inauthenticity

What is wrong with the sculptures of Linda Marrinon? It feels like the right question, with just the right splash of perversity, because honestly, there’s no Australian sculptor whose work I love more. Only, it’s worse than that: what I have, in fact, is a crush. When I see a Marrinon sculpture, all disinterest disintegrates. Outwardly, I may affect critical coolness; inwardly, I’m swooning like a watery-eyed idiot. In that sense, perhaps, I’m not unlike Marrinon’s figurines, which have tiny snub noses, dumb dots for eyes and zero psychology to speak of, but at the same time a kind of helpless, here-I-stand humanity, an incipient hilarity.

So, what is wrong with them?

Well, now. The legs of Man in long johns are too short. The body of Woman with dog is too long (or the head too small – take your pick). Woman in a forest seems to have no arms, which feels implausible but also cheaply evasive, while Figure with tumbleweed has no hands. Man Dressed as a Woman leans louchely to the left while Woman with Silver Bracelet has ridiculous, trunk-thick arms. Defeated Serf and Captive native (for heaven’s sake, can we even say such things?) are preposterous. Boxer, a pigeon-toed figure who sways bonelessly in the breeze, is the least pugilistic prize-fighter imaginable, while Soldier at ease looks about as martial as a snoozing catamite. Woman with bustle listening to her watch has too much going on to make any sense. And Regency Matron, bless her, just looks stuck.

To be clear, these are not surrealist or cubistic inventions inspired by Picasso, who apparently made it okay for the bum to be at the front and the boobs to flow out of the chin. No. Marrinon, 63, sculpts more or less conventional figurines out of conventional, if lowly, materials: plaster and terracotta. They have whole bodies and suitably arrayed parts. It’s just, they’re a little bit cack-handed.

But they’re also brilliant. And so very funny. Not in a visual gag kind of way – although the questionable resemblance of her works to the historical personages they claim to depict (Tammy Wynette, Germaine Greer, M.C. Hammer, Toulouse-Lautrec, Voltaire, Paul Poiret, Joan of Arc, Carlo Scarpa and Adolf Loos) can occasionally prompt chortles. Marrinon’s humour operates instead in multiple registers, cascading from one level to the next like champagne poured on a pyramid of glasses. Her wry sensibility is expressed in her titles: Rake in Mourning, Cosmonaut with Moondust, Woman with Hobble Skirt, Knight in chain mail, Outdoors woman dressed in pelts. It’s there, too, in her figures’ accoutrements and attributes, their trousers, scarves, quiffs and ruffs, and their ridiculously recondite headwear (snoods, boleros and jockey caps). It’s even there, obscurely, in the works’ finish, which I find exquisitely judged but also slyly suggestive of technical defeat, frustration and abandonment. Her humour is alloyed to her sculptures’ friable beauty and their soft, charismatic colouring. At times, the work’s disarming pathos can operate like those sequences in Helen Garner’s diaries, where a description of the weather or a dream is tethered to a witty observation about provincial pretensions, an arresting vulgarity and then something thunderingly heartfelt, so that halfway down the page you are suddenly, inexplicably in tears.

Marrinon’s latest work, Woman in jumpsuit, is also her largest. The first in a series of commissions by Art Makers, a body that funds new work by attracting investment, the sculpture has been installed in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, where it occupies a superb site overlooking Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. The work will remain onsite for a year, after which, according to Marrinon, the NGA “can buy it if they want to. Hopefully they like it. If they don’t, we’ll put it somewhere else.”

Woman in jumpsuit was cast in coloured bronze then painted by hand to emulate the look of her plaster works. Marrinon chose a warm, matte yellow, which chimes with the nearby wattle, and touches of pink around the legs and base. “I thought a black bronze would just disappear into the bush,” she tells me by phone. “I was keen to promote the illusion that she is looking out at the National Carillon.”

A maquette came first. Conscious of the commissioned piece’s eventual scale, Marrinon deliberately kept things simple. “I thought it would be good for my first big thing to keep it blocky,” she says, sounding not very much like Gian Lorenzo Bernini. For an armature she used a single vertical rod up the centre. “It was thrilling to work on a big scale for the first time” (most of her works are between 30 and 80 centimetres high) and “glamorous to be able to have that sort of massive play”. The experience has given her a taste for working large. But then again, she says, “You don’t want to go beyond your station. If it gets too big, it might seem pompous.”

Marrinon went to art school in the late 1970s and early ’80s. She earned a B.A. in Fine Art (Painting) at the Victorian College of the Arts, but what stands out about her art education is the utter lack of technical training she received.

Never mind. She painted throughout the 1980s and ’90s, showing regularly in galleries and winning grants and residencies. She was good. Her first paintings were a wry take on feminism executed in brightly coloured faux-naif styles. The results were droll. Their titles – I Sailed to Tahiti with an All-Girl Crew, How I Hate Sexism, But What if the Racists are Right? and Sorry! – were inscribed on the canvases in caps alongside desultory, two-dimensional figure drawings. They seemed charged with significance but also possibly random, like the words and bad jokes employed almost as found objects by Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince.

Marrinon’s work soon shifted, initially to a style that combined clean, pop-art geometries, in the manner of John Wesley, with coolly urbane typography (Turned Down Harvard, Hey Waitress and Brulant a Maitresse), then on to exuberant figure painting inspired by cartoons, pop and painterly neo-expressionism.

If her work seemed not only technically simple but a bit all over the map, remember that her early career overlapped with the rise of postmodernism, which had declared painting dead, or at least drastically diminished. In Australian art schools, theory was in, technique out. It was the time of actions, installations, video art and conceptualism. The critiques of painting – that it was reactionary, bourgeois, commercial, historically played out – hardly needed to be stated. They were a given. Painting had become, as Paul Taylor wrote, “a trace of the old culture picked up by young artists who have suspended their disbelief in art”. To paint, that is to say, you had to do it from a position of negative capability, or really, of perversity.

The same was true of sculpture. But in the 1990s, Marrinon, with what looked like pure perversity but was actually fairly full-throated sincerity, began messing about with clay. For most of a decade, her works in the medium were inept, amateurish and almost irredeemably ugly. The first works she showed were busts. They looked like sculpted versions of the pneumatic, cartoony figures in her paintings, just on a smaller scale. They wore snoods and tam-o’-shanters on their heads, and sported fur pelts and bow ties.

By 2000, Marrinon had switched from figures to hilariously squat, hapless-looking architectural models – still in terracotta – purportedly of such buildings as the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Flinders Street Station and the National Gallery of Victoria. She complemented these with clumsily rendered whimsies such as Windy Day on Sydney Harbour (a boat in rough waves), Sculpture of George V, Melbourne, and Statue of Liberty. Some she tinted to resemble bronze. Most were the colour of baked clay, which is what they were. Truth to materials met truth to technical capacity. All this was amusing. But you didn’t necessarily feel you were witnessing the launch of a major new talent.

Then in 2001, Marrinon achieved lift-off. Her attitude to her medium had changed. She became engrossed by sculpture’s technical challenges. Her sensibility was no longer mired in the comedy, the bathos, of the untrained, the ill-fitting, the out-of-time and out-of-place. It had ventured out into the choppy waters and tricky riptides of prowess and sincerity. “A few of my things were good,” Marrinon says of her early work, “but I remember thinking, ‘I hope I can do better than this.’”

At the end of the 20th century – which had kicked off with Picasso’s Blue Period and ended with Damien Hirst’s dots – Marrinon won a Samstag Scholarship, which allowed her to go to New York. She used the opportunity to enrol not at the progressively minded School of Visual Arts or the Pratt Institute or Parsons, but at the New York Academy of Art – a venerable institution renowned for its emphasis on figurative art and its belief in the value of teaching anatomy, proportions, three-dimensional modelling and the mechanics of motion. Marrinon didn’t stay there for long. “I didn’t want to be a student,” she says, “I felt too old. I need to just genuflect, pay my respects, get what I needed and then get out of there.” But the experience transformed everything.

The key thing she learnt and applied to her sculptures was how to use armatures – the frameworks around which modelled sculptures are built. She had been using stainless steel (“terrible”). She now switched to aluminium and learnt how to properly fix the armatures at the base.” The next period of her work “was a lot of fun”, she recalls. “I remember when I started using a proper armature, it was like, ‘Oh, man, wow’, after not understanding why I couldn’t do anything. I was very happy to finally realise that I was capable of something, at least.”

Now in her forties, Marrinon returned to Australia, with her capabilities significantly expanded. But she continued to embrace a kind of awkwardness, as if gaucheness were somehow native to her, one of the “limitations” (along with sculpting in clay, being a woman, and being Australian) that were also, for her, conditions of deepest possibility. So even as she got technically better and more ambitious, she cultivated her eye for oddities of pose and off-kilter proportions. It was as if she were determined to enact the difficulty – and in some ways the preposterousness – of mastering this stuff. And from this, she learnt to extract an excruciatingly lovely, deeply affecting poetry.

The affinities of Marrinon’s work with the Greek terracotta statuettes known as Tanagra figurines are often remarked upon. (The art critic Robert Nelson compared the look of a 2015 survey of her work at Monash University Museum of Art to “a department of minor antiquities”.) Tanagra figurines date from the Hellenistic period (roughly between the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of Jesus). The link feels more than just incidental. The connections between Marrinon’s sculptures and Tanagra figurines are in fact as multivalent as her humour, collapsing historical epochs, aesthetics and social meanings into the equivalent of a store-bought wedding cake crushed by a fallen chandelier.

Small, roughly patinaed and endearingly devoid of virtuosic technique, Tanagra figurines were fairly cheap knick-knacks. They often depicted elegant-looking women draped in pleated tunics. Some carried fans, others wore hoods or round, delicately balanced hats. They appeared to adopt chic-looking, jauntily asymmetrical poses. The fabrics stretched and zigzagged across their torsos, pulled tight by jutting elbows or hands resting on opposite shoulders. They were frequently repainted in vivid, up-to-date colours: pink shoes, red hair, violet dresses with gold borders, and so on.

The figurines were named after the Boeotian town, north of Athens, where the first big trove of examples was discovered in the 1870s. Between 1872 and 1873, about 10,000 graves were plundered, turning up thousands of these figurines, which were then sold on the antiquities market, ending up in private collections and major museums in Berlin, Boston, London and Paris.

When they were displayed in Paris at the International Exposition of 1878, Tanagra figurines went viral (if I can be forgiven the anachronism). “Tanagra mania” soon affected French literature, art and fashion. French designers openly adopted the styles of Tanagra statuettes, and among modern Parisian women they became so associated with ideals of chicness that the archaeologist Théodore Reinach called the Tanagras “the Parisiennes of antiquity”. Because they were easy to imitate, forgeries proliferated. (Recent tests showed that as many as 10 per cent of the Louvre’s holdings were forgeries.)

Modern research suggests that these statuettes were not, in fact, representations of fashionable Hellenistic women going about their daily lives, but rather, religious votives linked to maturation rituals. But this only thickens the soupy atmosphere of erroneous understandings and inauthenticity that surrounds them.

It’s precisely this atmosphere, you feel, that Marrinon loves to breathe. Perhaps the main thing her work shares with these ancient figurines is an aura of inauthenticity (if such a thing is possible: Walter Benjamin thought an aura was precisely what inauthentic things lacked) and anachronism.

When you get close to her work, there is no mistaking its contemporaneity. Her sensibility can seem to merge Cy Twombly’s artificially aged found objects (cheap refuse that, coated in white paint, can fire the mind to flare-ups of sublimity) with Elizabeth Peyton’s gangly, heartfelt painted infatuations, which are so intimate that they properly belong not in museums but on the walls of girls’ bedrooms.

Along with terracotta and plaster, Marrinon uses cotton wool, gauze, foam, thin cord and hessian to give her pieces ravishing new textures. Her touch is gorgeous, and impossible to separate from her sense of colour. (Originally, she tells me, she had “wanted just to worship at the altar of sculpture and forget about colour. But colour is good.”) Her pastel blues, yellows, pinks and greens are occasionally jazzed up by burnt orange or glittering gold and silver. The pigments seem to crumble along with the plaster and terracotta surfaces, giving the works a precious, aged appearance, as of votive sculptures recently removed, along with dead iPhones, from the tombs of teenage suicides.

Marrinon’s playfulness, her embrace of relatively recent historical subjects (M.C. Hammer! Tammy Wynette!), and her wry embrace of certain supposedly negative conditions (provincialism, lack of training, devotion to figuration, and a “feminine” sensibility) have never left her. But where once ironically desultory, her sculptures from the past two decades feel confident, complex and – in the way of so much great art – just short of finished, as if they were waiting only for the viewer’s eyes to activate them. Their lack of resolution leaks back into life.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.

@SebastianSmee

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