There is a sensibility, a low register that you feel somewhere between your heart and stomach, that pervades the immense variety of work produced by Judith Wright. She has had a long career (born 1945), beginning as a dancer for the Australian Ballet, and then as an artist best known for minimal, tightly restrained yet resonant artwork. From artist books so large that the whole body is required to turn the pages, to stained drawings on hand-made paper, paintings that simmer with tonal tension, and most recently, installations and videos, the common theme in the work is transience, physicality, and an undertow of grief.
A new book published by Piper Press with a poetic text by Wright’s friend and colleague Daniel Mafe in 2016 focusses on her large installation, In the Garden of Good and Evil, to be seen at Sophie Gannon Gallery in Melbourne in February this year. This exhibition includes The Tree of Life, a wall work seen in 2015, that became the springboard for the larger focus (and the biblical proportions which continue to grow), with Wright and Graeme Murphy developing another project under the banner of Seven Deadly Sins. This may see her work return, full circle, to the stage.
Sound is integral to Wright’s installations and video work. Its haunting sadnesses speak to a child-sized antique mannequin who stands under the tree, laden with blackboard shapes, drawn on with chalk and watercolour, that evoke other presences. Masks and mannequins are spookily lit, long shadows are cast, and an aged, cracked porcelain head rests unblinking on a long plinth. The personal interface in the work relates to her loss of a child, the devastation in that grief metamorphosing into a breath-catching vulnerability and simmering tension that remains after viewing.
Sophie Gannon says that sales have been constant and steady over the 11 years she has represented Wright, both to private collections and institutions. “She has a devoted group of collectors and curators at each major state gallery who support her practice. There is a younger generation too, including designers like David Flack. He loves everything she makes.” Recent institutional sales include works from Wright’s series Significant Others to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, five works on paper and others from The Ancestors’ series to the Museum of Contemporary Art, and six large works on paper from the Blind of Site and Relative Conversations series to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. Her work is widely exhibited in institutional shows, including a major survey at QUT in 2014, Judith Wright: Desire, the 2012 Biennale of Sydney and GOMA’s The World Turns in 2016.
In 2003 Michael Desmond suggested that, “With a ‘contrapposto’ of media, scale, and surfaces, Wright creates some of Australia’s most original and compelling works.” Audiences respond accordingly.