Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wendy Sharpe

The uninhibited love of the female form, curvaceous and lush, surrounded by the chaos of a studio or the thriving energy of the city are images explored repeatedly in Wendy Sharpe's oeuvre of art on display at the S.H Ervin Gallery, Sydney.

Prolific and hardworking, Sharpe's survey exhibition is replete with examples of the artist's evolution. The earlier paintings from the 1990s depicting flamboyant, buxom women hang beside more recent work  dedicated to her journeys. Rich, bold and vital, Wendy Sharpe's paintings command a response. Like a precocious child, her large canvases invite you to watch and be delighted. Her work is often about pleasure and art, the artist invites you to be part of her autobiography, her joyful life. It's a celebratory journey.

 Central panel from Black Sun Triptych-Morning to Night 1986
Image courtesy of S.H Ervin Gallery

Sharpe's earlier work was heavily influenced by the German Expressionists, such as Emil Nolde and Edvard Munch. The vivid palette, the dreamlike quality, the crude almost rushed feeling of the work, frequently unified by the centrality of the female figure. Sharpe's  Black Sun Triptych - Morning to Night 1986, which won the Sulman Prize, demonstrates the height of this influence. It is a beautiful piece and reflects the earlier influences still retained to a lesser extent.

This is a vast exhibition and the cavernous S. H Ervin Gallery is a perfect space to exhibit the artist's prolific output. Trained as an artist, Sharpe graduated in 1992 with a Master of Arts (COFA) from the UNSW. She is well known, the winner of the Archibald Art prize, 1996, the Portia Geach Memorial Award, 1995 amongst many others. She has also been the recipient of several travelling scholarships and residencies in Paris and Cairo. In Australia, her name elicits a frisson of celebrity panache; she is a successful marketer with a website and a knack for self promotion not commonly seen amongst Australian artists.

I think it is this aspect of her nature as a person and as an artist; her confidence, ego and sense of purpose coupled with her talent and capacity to produce work, that is so enthralling to see. I was intrigued to see her appear in so many of her paintings. The vast majority are self portraits; here is Wendy in Paris, Wendy in Venice, in Florence, and so on, in portrait after portrait.  I remembered that she was raised as an only child and perhaps the answer lies therein. Yet the egotism didn't bother me one bit. Good for her, indeed, to paint herself as she does. Her role as an artist, as in Drawing from Memory 2004, depicts her intense concentration whilst working. Her role as a traveller is seen many paintings such as Self Portrait with St Marks 2009 and Self Portrait in Venice 2010.

Pink Cup Venice 2010
Image Courtesy of S.H Ervin Gallery 

I also relished the honesty of her depictions. Figurative and sensual, her many portraits are free of the usual expectations of a female nude. She is the antithesis of the historic nude, almost a parody of what one anticipates. She is never pregnant, there are few references to children, yet she's all hips and fecundity. Her mound of Venus, regularly aired, is large, puffy and bristling with pubes. Her feet appear rough and flat, unadorned with frilly slippers more likely clad in football socks and runners. Her gaze is sometimes ironic, serious and self absorbed and her eyes bulging, almost protuberant. Her proportions are often unflattering giving her a dwarfish appearance. Yet it is this very liberation from the cannon of what constitutes beauty that is so inspiring.

There's an interesting juxtaposition between her mother-goddess figure representations and the childless Sharpe. Maternity is not one of her themes. She paints herself as she is; a traveller, an artist, a lover. Yet to try and label her as a a painter of the "female experience" would be erroneous. Not that one needs to do the hard yards as a mother to understand what it is to be a women. I am not sure why we expect female painters to align themselves with some kind of painterly advocacy of what it means to be a female. It is certainly not an expectation male painters have to contend with. Yet Sharpe's work does strike me as monotonous in its absorption with self-portraiture, travel and the female figure. Perhaps it's simply the sheer quantity of how many canvases reflect similar themes. Yet she's not painting for the 'soul of the sisterhood' or any such feminist ideal, she's on her own trip and it's fun.

 Self Portrait in Florence 2009
Image Courtesy of S.H Ervin Gallery 

Yet although her repertoire is somewhat predictable I felt energised by what she's examining. She has herself as her muse and it really is unusual. As a frantically busy mother of four children with barely a moment to myself I was engulfed by Wendy painting Wendy and in some strange way it inspired me.  Seeing a woman painting herself, celebrating her work, her creativity, is a phenomenon. I could tell that other women in the exhibition were also inspired; Sharpe somehow reminds us that showing off is actually seriously fun.

 Self Portrait-as Diana of Erskineville 1996
 Image Courtesy of S.H Ervin Gallery 

Artist with Men and Cake 1990
Image courtesy of S.H Ervin Gallery

Some of her older works are more alluring. In Self Portrait-as Diana of Erskineville 1996, Fantasy 1992. The central female figure stands naked, proud and victorious, each arm wrapped around the heads of two men. A knowing smile on her face and an eye sultry with pleasure invites you to take part in this fantasy. Another, Artist with Men and Cake, is my favourite. Here, the lusty nexus between food and sex is celebrated. The artist, again in a menage a trois, stands proud with her raunchy lovers fondling tits and cake whilst she wraps her arms around their bulky torso with lustful ease.

Sharpe prefers to work using gouache, a perfect fluid medium for her rapid drawings and paintings. When posted to East Timor in 1999, as Australia's official war artist, she returned in 3 weeks with over 500 completed works. As an observer and traveller, Sharpe has also produced many strikingly beautiful works on paper. Inspired by travels to Cairo, Rome, Venice and Paris, the exhibition has also featured her sketchbooks and these impressions are particularly brilliant.

A love of life, the excitement of travel and her confident development as an artist are the inspirations behind Wendy Sharpe's work. Does she reflect the gamut of feminine experience? I doubt it. The themes of travel, pleasure and art making are the desires of many women, sometimes fulfilled, often abandoned. Yet although Sharpe's work is unashamedly egocentric , she works prolifically at it. She is her own muse. I felt inspired by her autonomy, by her capacity to take her talents as far as as she can. This was a terrific exhibition and rich in humour too. Huge canvases, depicting a small frumpy woman doing what she loves, usually painting, travelling or in the arms of a man, wearing nothing or just some daggy runners and a garish bra. How refreshing and intoxicatingly optimistic. Undoubtedly we shall see much more of Wendy Sharpe, her paintings too.

 John and I by the Fire 1997
Image courtesy of S.H Ervin Gallery

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