Melissa Coote: Heart in Hand

Melissa Coote is experimenting with sculpture, producing cast bronzes of a bull’s heart. As Chloé Wolifson discovers, it is perhaps not so surprising a direction from an artist whose practice involves building up and scraping back.

Words: Chloé Wolifson

Photography: Uri Auerbach

Both the creation and erasure of memory are present in the works of Melissa Coote. Her rendering of hands, fossils, vulvas and most recently hearts, on an impressive scale, speak as much to art historical traditions of memento mori and vanitas as they do to talismanic representations of these symbols in non-Western cultures. Coote painstakingly builds layers onto the surfaces of her works using an intuitive, rhythmic practice, only to subsequently erase these marks until they release their subject. She describes the process as “building up surfaces and [then] breaking away to find an essence through time”.

Coote develops her works with graphite and charcoal, as well as paint made in her studio from pigment and binders. “Sometimes I like it to be really thick,” she explains. She then polishes the surface with a lambswool buffer, sands it with sandpaper and even uses a drill to create the impression of cracks, a technique she formulated when trying to emulate fissures in the bones she was depicting. “My works have pretty crusty surfaces,” she assures, “so they can take it.”

It is a year of firsts for Coote. Her forthcoming exhibitions at Jensen Gallery in Sydney includes, for the first time, photogravure and cast bronze works. She has also moved away from working on paper in favour of Belgian linen. In making this change, Coote has found that many layers are still needed to build up the surface, however she feels the canvas allows for more depth than paper (as well as being more durable). “It’s nice that [linen] doesn’t have to be framed. You get an immediacy which framing takes away from.” This speaks to her interest in the light conditions under which her work is viewed. When I visit her expansive studio in Sydney’s inner west on a Tuesday morning, she quietly laments that the light is most beautiful in the afternoon. Coote hopes those living with her pieces have the opportunity to enjoy them in a variety of light conditions as details recede or are revealed.

The alchemy of light is at the core of Coote’s practice. She studied photography in the early stages of her practice and it still underpins her art making. She uses an old Canon camera and black and white slide film and, as that has become unavailable, she has used a service in the United States which transforms negatives into slides, preserving all the peculiarities of the medium. The resulting photographs are used to create paintings from projections and, in the case of the forthcoming show, photogravures as well. “Photography is very important to the final work.”

The new works all depict hearts, specifically a large bull’s heart which the artist cast in bronze within hours of the animal’s death. She was attracted to the weightiness of the heart, the languid way the blood ran down it, and insists that “it had to be hung at the right angle, sort of like choreographing a dance”. (This reference to choreography is no accident. The artist’s partner, Sue-ellen Kohler, is an acclaimed dancer, as well as running a yoga school, a practice which informs Coote’s work in terms of its discipline and physicality.) Casting the heart is about “bringing the interior outwards. A lot of my work is about interiors and exteriors.”

Apart from a brief foray into wax impressions for an early exhibition at Mori Gallery, Coote has never worked in sculpture before, but has been encouraged towards incorporating it into her practice by other artists who have observed the sculptural way in which she works. This sculptural influence can be traced to Coote’s time living in Paris for 10 years from the late 1980s, when she was first drawn to the city’s many gothic sculptures which she recalls “had the essence of being scraped back by time”.

Of the edition of six cast bronze hearts, two have a black patina which echoes the dense black backgrounds of Coote’s paintings. The other four castings will be presented as raw bronze, beginning as a matte silvery-bronze surface which will oxidise over time, helped along by the handling of the sculptures by visitors during the show, something Coote wants to encourage. “I just love the organic quality [of the raw bronze]. When you patina bronze, it doesn’t really change. [Whereas] this … is like if you touch a person, or something in nature; there’s an effect, it’s not just a dead weight.”

Coote envisages the sculptures resting on a trestle table, with the suite of photogravures hanging behind. The prints originate in photographs of the hearts at various angles, which the artist initially took simply to finish a roll of film. The resulting images make the topography of the heart resemble a lunar surface. This arrangement will accompany two paintings (again at large scale) which Coote worked on simultaneously, one informing the other in a process she describes as cathartic. Here the hearts are floating, unencumbered by weight, their silvery surfaces giving way to hills and valleys which change depending on the angle of viewing. Some recent paintings forego the dark expansive backgrounds for a more minimal whiteness, yet still contain an essence of being worn by time akin to that of the Parisian gargoyles. Coote has laid the groundwork for this over years of practice: “I now find I sometimes arrive at this point before scraping back the work, however I couldn’t have reached that … with my current work without having gone through that process of layering and erasure in my previous work.”

Previous bodies of work have also seen Coote re-rendering a subject over and over. She finds this repetition rewarding, and has in the past focused on bones and fossils as well as hands, eyes and vulvas. “They’ve all got quite female forms,” observes Coote, “which just happened from one series to the next.” She depicts a wombat skull in isolation, writ large and mask-like. She explains that the skull, which she was drawn to due to its resemblance to African tribal forms, is seen to be turning through space from one painting to the next, with the light hitting it from one side. This lunar-esque rotation is echoed in Coote’s images of hands (“I would like to show the fossils and hands together at some point”) which were modelled by Coote’s partner Kohler. “She is a dancer and the poses have an unselfconscious grace about them. She held her hand to get the blood to flow downwards, which is similar to what I did with the bull’s heart.”

Early in her practice Coote was influenced by Giacometti and she continues to look to the work of Raphael. More contemporaneously she is interested in the techniques of erasure used by Gerhard Richter and the repetitive effects used by Magdalena Abakanowicz. From 20th century musical greats Jon Hassell and Brian Eno through to contemporary artists such as Gail Priest, music and sound more generally are an important influence in Coote’s studio, and help to create “a focus similar to meditation”. Coote says that she is not interested in “contrived marks or stylistic gestures. I make a mark and feel for what the painting can tell me to do next. There’s something very powerful in music that allows for that to happen. There can be a forcefulness in the act of mark-making; I like to be willing to strip all that back so the painting speaks to me in an more unselfconscious way.”

Melissa Coote: Drawings & Sculpture is at Jensen Gallery in Sydney from 21 August to
27 September 2014.

Andrew Jensen
DIRECTOR, JENSEN GALLERY

“I’m interested in artists who make things, with a sensitivity and respect for materials,” says Jensen Gallery director Andrew Jensen. “Very early on I liked that about Melissa Coote’s work. It’s a solid studio-focused practice; it comes out of a gritty endeavour, there’s nothing demure or easy about [it]. What most surprised me about my attraction to Melissa’s work was its theatricality, something I’m generally wary of. They’re extraordinarily theatrical things.

“In a show called The Estrangement of Judgement [in 2011] I showed a quintet of [Coote’s] softly draped hands alongside the work of James Casebere, Jude Rae and Gary Hill. There is a sense of deep forensic enquiry in Hill’s filmmaking, in Rae’s interrogation of a wallaby skull – and that sense of erosion is in Melissa’s work as well. It presented a clear opportunity to include Melissa’s work in the exhibition and therefore the gallery.

“This will be Melissa’s first solo show with Jensen in Sydney. She’s working in sculpture for the first time, although her painting process has always pointed to sculpture; there’s an archaeological way that she lays her materials to compose a substrate, and then digs back into it.

“The fact that she’s inviting [viewers to handle the bronze heart sculptures] is great. There’s something intimate about the idea of holding one’s heart in one’s hand, yet these are disconnected, unplugged – there’s a matter-of-factness about them. Whichever body part Melissa’s attending to, they’re linked by their sensitivity [and] vital characteristics. She’s not interested in the architecture of the body, but in its soft mechanisms.

“The show, in our new space, will be a considered installation of sculpture, photogravures and paintings. I’m sure it will be extremely beautiful.”

This article was originally published by Art Collector issue 69, JUL – SEP 2014. 

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