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Deidre But–Husaim, The Special Goodness

In the contemporary era, art galleries, as perceived sources of authority and arbiters of taste, are blow-torched. The idea that the viewer, not the artwork, defined the art process became an obsession. The Australian conceptual artist Peter Tyndall was a distinctive figure at the time with his Someone Looks at a Work of Art series. His 70s-era practice was defined by the recurrent motif of a rectangle suspended from two wires – the standard trope speaking for all works of art on public display. The ‘looking at a work of art’ trail never seems to end. Consider the imagery of the contemporary German photographer Thomas Struth, who in 1989 began work on his well-known cycle Museum Photographs that effectively foregrounded the viewers, not the art works, in some of the word’s greatest art museums. From 2005, Struth abandoned the strategy of candid photography in favour of staged tableaux of visitors looking at Velazquez’s Las Meninas in the Museo del Prado. At this time he also produced a second series of close-ups of spectators looking at a single work at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In 2008, the Adelaide-based artist Deidre But-Husaim took a photograph of a group of military cadets looking at a painting by Raphael in the Hermitage. From this chance encounter a series of paintings has emerged which appears to be concerned with the experience of looking at art in a gallery setting. But from the outset But-Husaim’s agenda has had an elusive character. A series of paintings based on her Hermitage moment, notably The Painting (2012) and The Lesson (2013) are far more interested in the behaviour of the cadet/viewers. It appears that But-Husaim, in a similar way to Thomas Struth, is positioning the viewer as an active participant. We are encouraged by the voyeuristic role in which we are offered (by virtue of ‘looking over others’ shoulders’) to speculate on what kinds of meaning are being constructed. HUSAIM the admirers The impetus of this series carried the artist into a recent Collections residency at the Art Gallery of South Australia that resulted in a group of paintings depicting visitors looking at familiar gallery works. The current Hill Smith Gallery exhibition includes works from the Collections series and around 20 additional works based on the artist’s AGSA observations. Two works based on recent travel in Japan complement them. On first encounter the paintings look to be straightforward narratives of people musing in front of works. But-Husaim’s polished illusionist style ensures that there are lots of clues such as hairstyle and clothing to tease the viewer. Then there are the poses different figures – pensive, relaxed, undecided and so on – that betray individual personalities and states of mind. From this point on, the looking game becomes far more interesting. Marcel Duchamp once said “It’s awfully hard to go on painting … Having done anything you naturally want to do it again and if you do it again then you know you are doing it again and it is not interesting… a painter has more trouble about it than anyone.” But-Husaim, in persisting with her central motif (viewer seen from behind), is clearly aware of this challenge and has adopted the classic studio strategy of working the motif to its full potential. These are not pictures about people looking at things but are first and foremost paintings. To begin to understand this you will need to do as her subjects are doing – spend a while gazing at them and let the images speak – as paintings. The View (AGSA). Oil on maple 50 x 50 cm At some point fascination with the artist’s control of illusionist techniques will fade to be replaced by an awareness of subtle interventions such as the brush blurring of edges and the dialogue between translucent and opaque passages of paint. The motifs themselves, which initially look so secure in their verisimilitude, gradually start to unravel and become the stuff of dreams. The bag on which the weary traveller rests her head in a late night Tokyo train (The Chuo Line, 2015) is starting to float away like a cloud. A woman in The View (2015) is cast in the nonsensical role of taking a photograph of a blank wall while the viewfinder of her camera shows an archway. The archway itself, inspired in part by a heightened awareness of framing mechanisms within traditional Japanese art (and likely the tondo image of Omikuji, 2015) plays a key role in many works in this exhibition, by introducing the idea of the viewer being enveloped by or drawn down tunnels of possible meanings. This is But-Husaim’s first solo show in Adelaide and an opportunity for viewers to get a comprehensive look at a body of work that has iconic written all over it. We occasionally need special narratives that refresh an appreciation of the simple act of gazing at a work of art. This is one of them. Deidre But-Husaim The Special Goodness Hill Smith Gallery Sunday, October 3 to Saturday, October 17 Images – The Admirers (AGSA). Oil on linen 102 x 102 cm – The View (AGSA). Oil on maple 50 x 50 cm

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