Mary-Jean Richardson’s new solo exhibition, Ancient & Modern, at Adelaide Central Gallery is an elegant collision of old and new. Refined realist paintings, featuring luminous depictions of classical statuary, sit alongside lavishly textural non-representational canvases. A senior South Australian painter, Richardson brings the versatility and eclectic interests of a true polymath to bear in this new body of work. She has collapsed centuries of art history, in order to bring two dissimilar aesthetic approaches into startling, but nevertheless captivating, juxtaposition.
This daring combination seems to make perfect sense, as the disparate works are imbued with a sense of pleasing consistency through the use of a limited palette; everything is captured in honey-like ochre and iridescent swirls of chromatic black. Adding to the visual intrigue is the method of installation: the canvases have been liberated from
the wall and arranged on custom-built display armatures. These starkly modern supports combine steel with marble and black glass to disrupt a static, passive hang. Nothing sits at a traditional eye-line, but rather paintings loom down from above, or gaze upward. This approach dramatically shifts the encounter between the viewer and the work and enlivens the show.
For all its contemporary verve, Richardson’s idiosyncratic means of display is intended to evoke the exhibition of artworks in Baroque European churches and Italian palazzos, where paintings sometimes hang with their obverse side facing a congregation, or are tucked into small alcoves, peeping out between architectural features. Deeply influenced by an extended residency at the British School in Rome, Richardson’s compositions are filled with oblique gazes and dramatic chiaroscuro.
This body of work is serious, studied, and deeply concerned with the history and techniques of painting – unsurprising, as Richardson is the Head of Painting at the highly regarded Adelaide Central School of Art. Ghostly grids and other compositional guides hover within these works, speaking to the process by which the image is constructed. Elsewhere, a pane of black mirror stands opposite the image of a veiled face, evoking the reflective properties of the Claude Glass, a sketching aide popular with landscape artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And of course, the armatures allow audiences to see the work in-the-round, revealing the normally concealed back of each painting. Glimpsing the stretcher bars and Belgian linen might prompt viewers to consider the painting as more than just a flat surface, but as an entire object.
Richardson’s work ruminates on the persistent influence of European art history but imbues these reflections with a distinctly antipodean freshness and sense of irreverent invention. In a year when international travel has been largely impossible, this exhibition offers a tonic for those missing northern hemisphere haunts.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 95, January to March 2021.