Going Home – Kate Ballis, Paul Davies, Eliza Gosse, Katherine Hattam, Noel McKenna, Elvis Richardson

24 June to 24 July 2021


Stay home. Work from home. Isolate at home. Over the past 18 months, our homes have assumed greater importance than ever before, not only as a space in which to play, rest and (at times) work, but also as a place of safety and security amid the unpredictability of a global pandemic. Artists have spent extended periods at home lately, too, an experience which has led some to cast a fresh eye on the domestic sphere. Others have been making work in this vein for longer, yet in the context of recent events, their paintings, photographs and sculpture are especially pertinent.

Pared back and pastel-icious, Eliza Gosse’s paintings of mid-century modernist residences read as formal homages to an era more optimistic and less fraught than our own. In these canvases, collectively titled Leather Seats Awaiting a Sunday Adventure, the squares and rectangles of the built environment predominate, with incursions of nature providing more organic shapes, mostly at the edges. “I’m drawn to the shapes and the geometry of International Style architecture,” says the Sydney-based artist, who completed a year of architectural studies before switching to visual arts. “I’m always thinking about patterns coming up against each other – a stone wall against a flat block of pink.” Yet these pictures are also memorials – of the three dwellings depicted, two no longer exist. As such, the artist referred to archival photographs when composing each painting. “I often go off old black-and-white photos,” says Gosse. “It allows me to make up the colours and have creative licence, which I love. Adding colour brings them back to life.” While her paintings are largely faithful to the architectural design, she might rearrange the garden or the garage and add motifs such as a car. “I put cars in these paintings because I wanted that Sunday feeling – you’ve got your sports car parked out front and you’re going for a cruise,” she says.

It’s Palm Springs but not as we know it. Forget clear blue skies and oasis vibes – what Kate Ballis’s thermal photographs capture is an alternate universe of bubble-gum pink and purple, a place where Barbie and Ken might live in connubial bliss, with a blessing of unicorns in the backyard. Using a converted full-spectrum digital camera and infrared filters, the Melbourne-based artist captures the famed desert town’s pristine mid-century-modern homes and gardens in a radical new light. “Infrared light is emitted by plants via the photosynthesis process, so landscapes that appear muted to the eye – and plants that seem dead – jump to life,” she says of these images that form part of her ongoing series, Infra Realism. “The colours aim to candy-coat California and are perhaps subconsciously inspired by the lives and wardrobes of my Barbie dolls in the 1980s and TV ads for Disneyland.” The lavender hues represent the infrared light emitted by plants and trees. The pink-ness of just about everything else is achieved using another filter. “The pink skies are different from how we are used to interpreting a regular landscape, with the blue sky calmly receding into the background,” says Ballis. “Here, pink jumps forward and vibrates with the lilac foliage, creating a glow. Together, they give the feeling of an eternal sunset.”

Paul Davies also draws from the canon of modernist domestic architecture – in this case, RM Schindler’s celebrated Lovell Beach House in Newport Beach, California, completed in 1926. Framed in Open Plan (2019) situates the clean lines and interlocking volumes of the Austrian-born architect’s early masterpiece in an autumnal landscape of nearly denuded trees with a kidney-shaped pool in the foreground. Davies, who spent six years living in LA before returning to Australia in 2019, constructs his paintings layer by layer, using stencils cut from enlarged photographs he has taken himself. As such, scalpel and brush assume equal importance in his practice. “I use colour as a counterpoint to the rigidity of the stencil,” says the Sydney-based artist. “Like the functionality of modern architecture, the stencil technique is machine-like and so this is softened through the colour palette.” Although set off to the side in the middle distance, the house harmonises the composition by reflecting the pale pink of the surrounding atmosphere and lemon-yellow of the leaves alongside the glassy, almost glacial, turquoise of the pool. In adding the pool, Davies uses reflection to further unify the picture, drawing attention to the near-Rorschach treatment of tree branches behind the house. Even so, says the artist, each composition often incorporates elements of chance. “The stencils act as components of the overall painting, and quite often I simply put these components together at random. I like the way chance plays a role in storytelling.”

Of course, ‘mid-century’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘design classic’. Consider the humble fibro and brick house in Sydney’s Bankstown that Paul Keating was raised in, painted here by Noel McKenna. (This dwelling doesn’t exist anymore, either – it was razed to make way for a block of units.) “I grew up in a working-class, Labor-voting family, so I was interested in the kind of home Keating was raised in,” says the Sydney-based artist, who worked from a newspaper photograph for his 2010 painting. “His journey to PM, his transformation into a sophisticated, urbane lover of art and antiques, was intriguing to observe. I deliberately painted this on a piece of cardboard as a nod to Keating’s roots.” The artist’s other paintings of suburban homes are based on photographs he’s taken over the years. “I walk the streets a lot,” he says. “Observing from the outside gives you some idea of the inhabitants. While you’re never going to be entirely accurate, it creates a kind of anthropological interest.” In so doing, McKenna pays tribute to the mundane and the unremarkable. His Queenslanders are a little ungainly – their colours a touch garish, their spindly stumps reminiscent of spider legs. They look as though they’re trying to take off, or at least assert their superiority. “I grew up in a Queenslander, with stumps, but these aren’t architectural portraits,” he notes. “In the end, the painting usually has no major resemblance to the source photo.” Accentuating the boxy, mismatched aspect of suburbia, a panoply of styles and features that sees decades collide and battle it out on quarter-acre blocks, McKenna invites us to speculate as to who might live in these houses. And in their scuffed ordinariness, the artist finds a filament of feeling, a quality of poignancy that transcends their humble materials.

Needless to say, even the most scuffed and ordinary of dwellings is out of reach for many, such is the ongoing crisis of housing affordability in this country. The question of who gets to have a home in the first place, whether purchased or rented, is one that Melbourne-based artist Elvis Richardson addressed in her 2020 exhibition, Settlement and the Gatekeepers, and which she further explores in the sculptural work Settlement #4, (2021). “Over the past year the notion of a place to call home – somewhere that’s comfortable, private and secure – has been under a continual spotlight,” says the Melbourne-based artist, adding that it took a global pandemic for housing to be seen as a fundamental need. “During that time there was a temporary moratorium on evictions, temporary housing for the homeless and temporary doubling of unemployment allowances.” Comprising a found double security gate modified with mild steel and painted blush pink, the sculpture bears the words ‘occupation’ and ‘settlement’. As an object it’s inviting yet exclusionary, playful yet oblique. And as a barrier between private and public space, it encourages a reconsideration not just of property, but of the land on which all these homes were, and continue to be, built. “In black and white terms, we are living on stolen lands,” says Richardson. “To me, the word ‘settlement’ is about colony and empire and expansionism, hence the heraldic style flags. Whereas ‘occupation’ is the means or the action of colonisation, even when done in opposition, such as squatting. But also, you need an occupation or you won’t get a home loan, which leads me to think about the value of different kinds of work.”

For Katherine Hattam, home isn’t just somewhere to live or raise a family – it’s also her preferred place of work. “I like having a space to come to for short or long bursts of creativity,” says the Melbourne-based artist. “I can put the washing on, then come back to whatever I’m doing, or come out to the studio at night and see what I did that day.” The room she’s painted in Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (2020-21), The Law/Lore of the Mother (2020-21), and The Table We All Sit Around (2020-21), is the same space in which she eats, socialises with family and friends around her table, and does her preparatory work. “Then the oils happen in the studio, which is a converted garage in my back garden.” The table and the four-pane window function as compositional devices, enabling the artist to create complex pictures that blend elements of landscape and interior portraiture, image and text, and “external and internal realities – what’s in front of me but also what’s in my head”. Hattam’s paintings are informed by other works of art as much as by lived experience. For example, the native Australian animals peppered across these canvases spring from her memory of visiting the National Gallery of Victoria’s Colony exhibition in 2018, while the iconic ‘great wave’ motif drawn from Hokusai’s eponymous woodblock print points to her love of the ‘floating world’ aesthetic of Japanese ukiyo-e. Meanwhile, the boats are a nod to the work of Clarice Beckett, whom the artist has been thinking about lately, having visited the Art Gallery of South Australia’s blockbuster show. “I went to Shoreham as a child so I know that coastline where she painted.” That said, the vessels have long carried a symbolic meaning for Hattam. “They’re emblematic of friendships,” she explains. “We’re all in the same sea, and we pass each other by. Boats are like a container for the journey of friendships through life.”

Tony Magnusson – May 2021