Deidre But-Husaim

The Collections Project

The Collections Project This project begins in Russia – in 2008 at The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, within one of the world’s oldest museums with the largest collection of paintings. Twenty or so young men, probably cadets considering their military dress and hats in hand, enter The Majolica Room and gather in close proximity before Raphael’s 1505-06 masterpiece, The Holy Family (Madonna and the beardless Joseph). They look. Deidre But-Husaim observing this scene, takes a spontaneous photograph to record the moment; a moment which would later inspire numerous paintings, as well as the impetus to continue looking at looking. In 2012, But-Husaim would write this sight of “young men in military-style uniform studying this wonderfully gentle painting” fascinated her. Through her own attentive painting of this group collectively cloaked in the insignia and stripes of the Russian ‘nation’, she would bring to light individual young men rapt in their own personal and momentary states of absorption with a painted world of another time and place. From observing this moment in The Hermitage, The Painting (2012), The Lesson (2013), and a series of smaller paintings collectively titled The Pupils emerged; each depicting the cadets from behind, looking into the painting. As the object of their gazes, Raphael’s painting, is never revealed, the subject of But-Husaim’s paintings become the young men’s bodily demonstrations of seeing, including head-tilting, height ordering and peering forward. This is emphasised mostly in The Pupils where But-Husaim hones this language of looking to study three of four absorbed cadets at a time, who float upon the wood ground, themselves translated into a wash of paint for our contemplation. The Lesson differs as it describes the whole scene; of contrasting states of absorption, including those distracted at the edge of the fray, within the rich walls of the Renaissance inspired Majolica Room itself. This room, like those spaces in galleries and museums in general, are public places where looking is privileged. We visit them, their meticulously arranged works of art and artefacts, with the purpose of looking, and from this looking to really see, and sometimes we find we are transported for just a moment (or more) to a place beyond looking. The Collections Project at the Art Gallery of South Australia continues But-Husaim’s work begun at The Hermitage, with a growing intensity for looking at people looking at art. Every day over a series of weeks she would wander the gallery, observing and photographing unaware visitors as they were momentarily immersed before a work. Her studied observations revealed methods of looking as varied as visitors themselves; the dweller, the phone-photographer, the fast-paced glancer, the returner, the tactile interpreter and more. Seven of these photographs became paintings collectively titled The special goodness; all of unidentified individuals entangled in a private and contemplative space within this public place…. as well as a sneaky selfie. And in these paintings, unlike those of the Hermitage, the works of art themselves have a presence, especially their gilded gold frames, glass display cabinets, shelving or seating; as if the works of art now look back, aware of their part in this visual production. The power of looking, and seeing, is something But-Husaim knows through painting. That with time looking, more, and then more again is revealed, until every speck of matter shimmers with meaning. While her photographs are essential in pausing the moment, for But-Husaim, it is only through paint and the act of painting that a moment of captivated looking shines through. The small scale of most of this series correlate to short bursts of intense and all-consuming engagement in the studio, mirroring (though an extended version) the short intense periods of rapture in the gallery. She crops, pans, selects and translates her photographic records into a language of painterly paint. For her, the brush marks, the maple ground peering through, the rough edges and translucent washes are where the boundaries between the photographic and exterior ‘real’ can bleed and open into another ‘real’ where the fantastical has a place. For in The special goodness, But-Husaim has painted in a concept of ‘vibrant matter’; of not reducing the lively and powerful stuff of ‘art’ to dull and inert ‘object’. In her paintings, ‘art’ can be seen spreading into the being of the beholder; the Adelaide Hills of Nora Heysen’s ‘Ruth’ lolloping into the landscape of a man’s unsuspecting shirt, the green grass of Robert Dowling’s landscape with square cows beginning to grow around the feet of the onlooker, or the Chapman brothers’ skeletal trees a looming and shadowy presence moving ever closer. Looking, in these paintings, affects. It is also through the process painting that But-Husaim creates private introspective spaces within public places; more specifically it is through ‘not painting’ that she edits out any possible distractions (other nearby works of art, gallery visitors, signage, shadows and more). This process imbues The special goodness with a form of ‘blanking’, one that is doubly realised with the repeated use of unidentified people; as silhouettes, from behind, or as hidden legs. One aspect of this blanking, in line with Judy Annear’s investigations into photographic ‘blank faces’, is that unlike portraiture (a known sitter), the unknown ‘someone’ (not a no-one) can be a conduit into wider cultural conversations. They present an uninhabited space for entry; that those looking can envision themselves in the position of the looker looking. Most of But-Husaim’s ‘blank faces’ stand before works of art in the reverent natural light of the Elder Wing and upper gallery spaces, but a group sit (some almost ‘Raft of Medusa’ style) in basement darkness. Here they are lit only by the light of a screen, their facial details lost in artificial glare. In light of the ‘blank’ and the wider conversation this leaves a gap for, it feels pertinent that But-Husaim is looking at looking when, in the tsunami of visual stimulation surrounding us, so much goes unnoticed. Her paintings ask us to look and look again, and challenge the passivity and incapacity so often attributed to looking, enlivening the idea of ‘active spectatorship’. As Jacques Rancière once wrote, “looking is also an action… and … ‘interpreting the world’ is already a means of transforming it…” Sera Waters is an Adelaide-based artist, arts writer and lecturer Deidre But-Husaim The Collections Project Continues until Sunday, September 7 Vestibule, Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace This article is courtesy of Guildhouse Images: 1. Deidre BUT-HUSAIM, The Lesson (detail), 1980 x 1170mm, oil on linen, 2013 2. Deidre BUT-HUSAIM, The Special Goodness (Nora Heysen) (detail), 2014, Thebarton, Adelaide, oil on maple panel. Photo: Grant Hancock 3. Deidre BUT-HUSAIM, The Special Goodness (Del Kathryn Barton) (detail), 2014, Thebarton, Adelaide, oil on maple panel

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