Grace Wright: Enchanted Ecstasy

Taking large-scale to a new level, Grace Wright’s recent works command attention as they expand beyond definition.

Words: Briony Downes

Photography: Samuel Hartnett

WHEN AUCKLAND-BASED artist Grace Wright travelled to New York for the first time, she kept returning to Albert Oehlen’s Home and Garden exhibition at the New Museum. Struck by the German painter’s command of colour and form, Wright felt his work “contained a kind of exultation of gesture, a tension and release in the composition.”

The same can be said about Wright’s paintings. Choosing to work predominantly on an expansively large scale, Wright’s brush-strokes are expressive and generous with movement, sweeping grandly across her surfaces in opulent hues. While her flowing abstract style speaks to modernity, the scale and soaring compositional arrangements of Wright’s paintings recall majestic Baroque theatrics and the incandescent colour palettes of cathedral frescoes. Allusions to the masculine and feminine are also present. “Painting on a monumental scale is usually associated with masculine values,” she explains. “I aim to subvert this, creating work that is bold and unapologetic, while also fully embracing its vibrant feminine attraction and visual pleasure.”

The rhythm inherent in Wright’s gestural marks speaks to the physical labour involved in creating such large works. Initially trained as a musician and contemporary dancer, in addition to her visual arts practice, Wright plays bass guitar, drums and piano. This blend of creative experience informs the way she moves paint across her images, bring- ing together layers of colour in harmonious chorus. Wright’s current style is a departure from earlier paintings where she focused on breaking down architectural forms into abstracted line and shape. Encouraged to experiment while studying at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, Wright was prompted by a supervisor to begin exploring representations of the body – not from photographs but from a sensory and subjective point of view.

“The real turning point for how my work looks now was in my fourth year at Elam when I began depicting a sense of the body,” says Wright. “I put aside reference images and started painting the feeling of what I was trying to express. Suddenly these coiling, curving gestures came out and started weaving and interlocking. I was really excited by this new way of working as it felt like it had its own language, a painting language.”

When starting a painting Wright rarely has a definitive plan for how it will come together. Instead, she relies on a cumulative process of application, allowing the previous layer of paint to inform the next. In this way, the painting slowly emerges from the blank canvas in “a push and pull between intuition and intention.”

Graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from Elam in 2019, Wright has been a repeat finalist in the Wallace Arts Awards, the New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award and the Molly Morpeth Canaday Art Award. Fresh from a successful run at the 2021 Auckland Art Fair with Gow Langsford Gallery, for her new body of work at Sydney’s Gallery 9, Wright is experimenting with colour and scale. “The difference with these works is that my colours are opaque, completely flat. My previous works had this depth and receding darkness to them. Now there are places where you are pushed out of the painting, moments when your eye comes in and then out again.” A series of smaller paintings contain a tincture of transparent cerulean blue, adding a distinctly sci-fi top note to the deep historical undertones of Wright’s work. “It’s almost sky-blue, reminding me of the blue light of a screen – a digital light – or cosmic lighting, as I like to call it.”

Influenced by the ornate and elongated paintings of London-based artist Raqib Shaw, Wright has included a commanding 5-metre long frieze as the centrepiece, resplendent with colour that spreads exuberantly across the surface, curling and twisting like competing crosswinds. Recalling Endgame Interlude (Altarpiece), 2019 a huge triptych Wright made for the culmination of her Master’s degree, the frieze represents a new level of scale, an expansion into the panoramic. “It will be interesting to see how the gestures are read as I’m trying to weave in the idea of narrative painting, even though it is still an abstraction,” she says. “With each show, I like to have one work that is different in scale. A central piece to ground the rest of the show.”

GRACE WRIGHT’S EXHIBITION MAKING IT ALL SEEM REAL SHOWS AT GALLERY 9, SYDNEY FROM 21 APRIL TO 15 MAY 2021.

ALLAN COOLEY

Director, Gallery 9, Sydney

“I first became aware of Grace’s work at the Auckland Art Fair in 2018. I was immediately drawn to it and after the fair I approached her to exhibit at Gallery 9. I was intrigued by the vitality and spontaneity of her work. When looking at her paintings, there are symphonic and performative elements within the narrative, and as a viewer, I am enchanted by the movement, harmony and lyricism of the atmosphere they hold. Her passions apart from painting; music and dance, provide a catalyst for maintaining a unique practice as a contemporary abstract expressionist painter.

Grace’s works were received very well in her show with us, HEARTFELT, in February 2019, and also in the three solo exhibitions she has had in New Zealand since then. These exhibitions have been met with substantial collector interest, and all works were acquired. Grace is a dedicated painter whose practice is constantly evolving. Since HEARTFELT, her use of colour has deepened, the scale of the work has increased, and a greater intensity is present.”

NANSI THOMPSON

Manager, Franklin Arts Centre, Auckland

“Grace is a determined and articulate artist, moving via a series of turbo shifts from emerging artist to a quietly impressive presence in the New Zealand art scene. I first came across her work online as I tend to check things out digitally first. I am located at Auckland’s furthermost southern edge and Grace had a show at a gallery two hours away to the north. A video capturing this show really left an after image in my mind. In particular, two works hanging in a sash window brought back the eerie sensation I have encountered when entering cathedrals in Italy.

I love the reframing of power Grace’s paintings present. Her work breaks out from old-school binaries of male and female painting. Rather than attempting to deliver grand truths, her paintings connect to the wild and unpredictable undercurrents of the world. This is courageous in these careful times where it is easier to stay close to home.”

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 97, July-September 2021. 

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