Once upon a time a girl sat in her room playing with her plasticine. She would make little figures who would become parts of stories that she’d heard or seen in movies and in her imagination they would move and act out their wee adventures.
When the girl grew older she was given a camera and so she started taking photos of her favourite subjects, her plasticine friends and the strange and oddly coloured, landscapes they inhabited. In the dark she would watch movies; Psycho, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She thought she could make clay-mation figures of the characters and make them move. She could do what a lot of her friends were doing and make videos.
As time went by the girl kept being told what a great painter she was. More and more people wanted to own her paintings and more and more she would use her photographs of her made-up friends and their strange worlds to render them with paint on canvas.
The girl was shy and surprised by how excited people got about her paintings. Friends encouraged her to show them and eventually, in 2001, she had an exhibition called The Bomb at the small artists run-space called TCB Art Inc. in Melbourne. The genie had been let out of the bottle. A man with a lot of experience arrived from Sydney and the girl had the first commercial show of her paintings the next year at Rex Irwin. Since then there has been no turning back.
Amanda Marburg was born in 1976 and studied painting at the Victorian College of the Arts, finishing in 1999. Since her first show at Rex Irwin Gallery she has held solo exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne almost every year. The titles of Marburg’s exhibitions hint at some of the strange darkness of her densely layered narratives; Misery & Gin, Giving the Devil his due, Mad Love is Strange, The Other Side. The titles are both melancholic and romantic, dark and poetic. Like the paintings themselves, there is a hint of humour within the dark palimpsest of forms. More than anything, however, Marburg has become renowned as a painter of exquisite subtlety – her mad plasticine characters take on a formidable pathos.
For some years Marburg worked as an assistant to John Young, a well-known Melbourne-based painter. A year or so ago, she announced that she was going to attempt to live off her own painting and go it alone. Since that time there have been major shifts in her work. Between the 2005 show with Rex Irwin and her last show with Uplands Gallery this year she has focused in on the specific subjects rather than a sense of noir-ish narrative and intrigue that had typified her work beforehand.
The Uplands show, The Other Side, was in essence a suite of exquisite stilllifes. While still rendered in Marburg’s faux-naif style, from a distance they were realistic indeed, but somehow imbued with a medieval aesthetic. At times it was a cold feast, a lobster accompanied by detailed grapes or a fish, flayed, where the lemon peel was blackened, the vented acids doing their work while three Greek olives dried by the side, a hand-melded knobbly knife recently discarded from its task. There was a flayed rabbit carcass, stringy with white fatty tissue.
She was unafraid to tackle clichéd motifs; a human skull, its jawbone placed to one side next to a candlestick to add the more obvious gothic conceit. She painted dark flowers, that ultimate romantic signifier – the rose – rendered in deep crimsons. Books were painted stacked, their pages buckled with moisture, well-travelled by both land and sea. While in the past her paintings were complex and threatrical, here they were honed and minimalised. The sense of theatre remained, but so did a more stringent sense of control. Marburg agrees that the shift has been dramatic. “The images from 2005 were a lot more random,” she says. “They were mainly just from films I had recently watched.”
The 2005 works at Rex Irwin were far more elaborate in narrative sensibility than those that followed. Grave Digger would have been hysterically funny were it not for an inherent sadness and desperation that the main figure exuded. Man, telephone, plume of smoke broiled the innocence of Pinochio with the noir of Raymond Chandler via the staged melancholia of Tom Waits. And, despite its deliberate crudeness, Owl summed up the powerful iconographic threat of that all-too-gothic bird.
Inherently more formal, the seven paintings in The Other Side in 2007 all strangely constituted one story – almost like a slice out of someone’s life, albeit a rather arcane and hermetic one. But Marburg knew what she wanted and in many respects The Other Side constitutes the most personal and cathartic work she has created to date. In numerous ways the show was a homage to Marburg’s former fiancée, the artist Blair Trethowan who, suffering deep depression, took his own life in early 2006.
“The Uplands show was more focused,” says Marburg. “For once I knew what I wanted to do. In a way it had a lot to do with Blair. In the painting of the flowers there’s a pink ring in the foreground. That was my engagement ring. Blair had the blue one. They were made from silver and Lego and the two stuck together.”
The inherent melancholia of such an impetus was balanced, perhaps not surprisingly when one looks at the work, by the fact that she had also immersed herself in the phantasmagoria of the world of Harry Potter. The sadness and the inescapable fantasy of these works was impossible to ignore.
In many ways Marburg’s more recent work has powerful elements of self-portraiture. “In a way I guess they do,” she says. “This is the first time I think I’ve really put myself into the work. Usually I just find images that I like at that particular time.”
In the past Marburg has used quite specific stories or movies as sources. “It’s usually about what I’m watching, reading or listening to. My next show with Rex in December is based on a short story called Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble. It’s about a lobster and a lady who fall in love … As I usually model from film stills or photos, this will be the first time I have to make stuff up. Luckily it’s quite a visual little novel…”
When many of her peers have turned to process-based work such as video, performance and photography, Marburg, while having some involvement in the performance group Damp, has ended up concentrating on paint on canvas. While she has experimented with all forms of media, when asked what drives her back to paint her answer is immediate and to the point: “I love painting!”
Marburg’s strange and laborious process remains much as it has since she first investigated the potential of clay-mation. “The process has been pretty much the same for the last six years,” she says. “It’s the only way I know how to get the result I want,” she says somewhat disingenuously. “I’m not real good at making things up.”
But to say that there is a vigorous imagination at work here would be an understatement. In many ways Marburg is a throwback to the romantic voyeurism of the painter, taking as inspiration the shimmery light cast through wine bottles in her favourite bar, Hell’s Kitchen, which is tucked into a small space in inner-city Melbourne. She’s truly old-fashioned in the sense of a beer-toting, card-wrangling character straight out of a Gothic-Western. She goes so far as to enter into poker games in Las Vegas, taking in the dark, tense faces around the table like a stressed succor.
As she says, her true inspirations are “the other dudes in the studio and my fellow drinkers at Hells.” She relished a group exhibition called Hell Needs This Town… a curated show from last year based on Charles Swickard’s 1916 schlock Western film Hell’s Hinges, in which the main character proclaims that “Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!” as he burns down the town.
“As well as being directly related to Western films, [it] was also about drinking, playing poker and music. There was a painting of Russ [the bartender] from Hells’ behind the bar, and one of Henry Wagons (a country singer friend who I was playing poker with every week) and myself playing cards. I was going to do a bit of a Vegas series, but the still-lifes seemed more appropriate at the time.”
But wherever she takes us, from a card game rendered through the misty prism of a scotch glass through to a witch’s coven, Marburg is going to come up with surprises. Her quirky aesthetic is balanced by her sheer skill with the brush. The hints of melancholia are buoyed by untarnished cheekiness and a wicked humour. If there is sadness, there is also irreverence and ribald hints of anarchy. Like following the rabbit down the hole, there are entire worlds yet to flow from beneath her brush to seduce her hapless viewers.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 42, OCT – DEC 2007.