So­nia Payes’ art prac­tice de­fies easy clas­si­fi­ca­tion. She ex­presses her con­cerns for our chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment and its ef­fect on the hu­man con­di­tion partly through pho­tog­ra­phy, but also through sculp­ture and new me­dia. And cours­ing through her many cre­ative threads in in­ven­tively vari­able forms is her muse, her daugh­ter Ilana. It’s a cre­ative part­ner­ship which is con­stantly evolv­ing and rich with mean­ing.

A RE­CENT COASTAL IN­STAL­LA­TION BY MEL­BOURNE artist So­nia Payes re­sem­bled bleached stone that had been buf­feted for eons by ocean waves, honed clean, washed and sculpted by na­ture to the point that this mass of stone, ris­ing out of the sand, closely re­sem­bled a fem­i­nine hu­man face.

Of course we seem to nat­u­rally ‘see’ hu­man faces in the strangest of places. We spot a ma­jes­tic pro­file in skim­ming clouds, a howl­ing visage in a roar­ing fire­place or a som­bre, melan­choly mien in the whorls of a tree trunk. But for all that Payes’ por­trait may have been sculpted by hand; it had ev­ery ap­pear­ance of some­thing be­long­ing to na­ture, some­thing strangely re­mote from hu­man in­ter­ven­tion.

Payes’ blend­ing of fem­i­nin­ity and the nat­u­ral has been an on­go­ing pur­suit for well over a decade now. It car­ries hints, at times overt, of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern in an age of cli­mate calamity. But just as of­ten it sug­gests a sim­ple love note to her muse, her daugh­ter, Ilana.

Ilana ad­mit­ted to her own un­ease at walk­ing into a room such as Payes’ re­cent mas­sive ex­hi­bi­tion at Scott Livesey Gallery in Mel­bourne to be con­fronted by her own visage in pho­to­graphic por­traits, in­tense in­stal­la­tions and mas­sive steel and stone sculpted busts. “My mother al­ways knows what’s go­ing on,” says Ilana of some of her mother’s por­traits. “Even be­fore I do. Ever since I can re­mem­ber she has called her­self a ‘white witch’. Per­haps it’s just a mother’s in­stinct.”

But there is far more to it than a sim­ple mother’s homage to her daugh­ter. “To me these works also seem like her first en­vi­ron­men­tal im­ages, even though they are por­traits. They are land­scape for­mat, and the at­mos­phere has changed. There is an agony that seems to come from the earth, rather than an in­di­vid­ual,” says Ilana.

If this sug­gests that Payes is a one-themed artist ob­sessed by a fam­ily mem­ber, noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. In that same show, Payes shifted with equal adroit­ness from vi­sion­ary pho­tog­ra­phy to emboldened sculp­ture, po­tent video to skilled ex­per­i­men­tal in­stal­la­tion. In her ‘Min­erva’ works her war­rior women stare out from sheets of metal­lic ma­te­rial, wit­ness­ing events from an­other di­men­sion, that of our own. Her multi-hued war­riors were ren­dered in cyan, red and green in­spired in part from a 2012 trip to China.

Else­where im­ages sprang from ad­ven­tures in Pa­pua New Guinea and, most re­cently, the Serengeti in Africa. An out­stand­ing work from Africa, yet to be shown, was a stun­ning por­trait of a Ma­sai war­rior star­ing de­fi­antly at the cam­era. Less ob­vi­ous works from this jour­ney fea­tured strangely formed is­lands in dark, mud­died wa­ters – these were in fact a se­ries of hip­pos, which had mor­phed into land­scape. Her Ma­sai visage was a re­turn to a for­mat with which Payes made her name, that of por­trai­ture. The ‘Un­ti­tled’ project be­gan as a se­ries of por­traits of Aus­tralian artists in their stu­dios, from John Mawurnd­jul to Gareth San­som, and grew to cul­mi­nate in a lav­ish, 400-page, large-for­mat, hard­back book, pub­lished in 2007.

Over four years, Payes re­searched and pho­tographed 60 artists in their stu­dios and in their ev­ery­day lives to ac­cu­mu­late a com­pre­hen­sive and of­ten un­ex­pected photo-doc­u­men­tary of Aus­tralia’s con­tem­po­rary art land­scape and the artists that pop­u­lated it. Trav­el­ling through­out Aus­tralia and in­ter­na­tion­ally, Payes’ tire­less and re­lent­less mo­ti­va­tion cap­tured in­ti­mate mo­ments and scenes from the lives of her sub­jects. The fin­ished book gar­nered much ac­claim, while the large-for­mat pho­to­graphic por­traits them­selves were ex­hib­ited in gal­leries around Aus­tralia for sev­eral years.

How­ever she rapidly moved be­yond any chance of be­ing pi­geon­holed as any kind of por­traitist. In­creas­ingly ex­per­i­ment­ing with for­mat and con­tent, her im­agery took on ex­treme vari­a­tions of strange­ness, mak­ing her nick­name as the ‘white witch’ seem in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant. Both the im­per­illed en­vi­ron­ment and, in her mythos, its sav­ior ‘fem­i­nine other’ be­came her tal­is­mans.

In her video epic Corn and Quar­ries a dis­tinct sense of ‘wrong­ness’, of Freud’s un­heim­lich – the un­canny – goes far, far fur­ther than in her ear­lier works. It opens, and main­tains, its nar­ra­tive from above, re­call­ing the open­ing scenes of Stan­ley Kubrick’s The Shin­ing as the cam­era zooms over the land­scape. The sounds of icy wind sup­ply a chill­ing sound­track, the hill­sides are broil­ing with life, tall stems danc­ing and sway­ing. But they are not wheat stalks. Nor corn.

Payes’ plants are com­prised of hu­man faces, or rather a face – that of her daugh­ter Ilana – mul­ti­plied in­fini­tum. As the viewer is al­most forcibly pro­jected over this chill­ing land­scape it be­comes ap­par­ent

that the faces are ar­ranged, Janus-like or in keep­ing with the en­ti­ties that watch over Angkor Wat, to stare north, west, south and east, all-see­ing but ar­guably, in their crowded mass and buf­feted by the wind, not nec­es­sar­ily all-pow­er­ful. In­deed, per­haps in wait­ing for the thrasher ma­chine to reap this strange crop. Much of her re­cent move into en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism in her work was in­spired by her wit­ness­ing the de­struc­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment dur­ing a visit to Pa­pua New Guinea. “I had never felt the need to voice my con­cerns for the en­vi­ron­ment be­fore that ex­pe­ri­ence, but it com­pelled me to ex­press that as­pect of my in­ter­est,” she says. “Her re­cent move into land­scape and en­vi­ron­men­tal pho­tog­ra­phy might have be­ing partly in­flu­enced by my nag­ging,” says Ilana. “This I will hap­pily take claim to. A while back I be­came con­scious of our en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact on the planet and be­came a lit­tle more ac­tive in en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. I started to in­flu­ence my young stu­dents to learn about is­sues such as de­for­esta­tion, clean wa­ter in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries and or­ganic food. My stu­dents be­came bud­ding en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. My mother was not im­mune from my in­flu­ence.” Payes con­sid­ers the land­scape and the body to be equal fod­der as ma­te­rial for her tac­tic of me­ta­mor­pho­sis. “The body and the land­scape are as one to me, for­ever chang­ing,” she says. “With­out change there can­not be growth. With­out growth there can­not be change. The body is in con­stant in­ter­ac­tion with the en­vi­ron­ment. The two can­not be sep­a­rated.” And as the fem­i­nine visage be­comes the lode­stone, the icon, sym­bolic of birth and then re­birth, it ap­pears, emerg­ing from the rich mulch of the earth and be­gin­ning to dom­i­nate the hill­sides and pro­tect­ing the beaches un­til So­nia Payes’ sym­bol­ism seems to take on a life of its own.­nia­ @so­ni­a__­payes So­nia Payes is rep­re­sented by Scott Livesey Gal­leries, Mel­bourne.­tlivesey­gal­

03 Venus Scape, 2016, video still, slim light box, du­ra­tran print, 124 x 209cm 04 Ice Land, 2016, type C, dip­tych, 88 x 200cm 05 Wa­ter War­riors, War­rior Se­ries 1, 2014, acrylic mount, 56 x 196cm


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