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The Value of Shadows: Judith Wright’s Desire

“One realized all sorts of things. The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.” Jean Rhys, Quartet

Back in November, I took my mother for a walk around Desire, Judith Wright’s solo exhibition at the QUT Art Museum. Of all the shows I saw last year, it remains the one I can’t fully get my head around – hence the four month delay in writing about it. But the photos I took during that visit are still on my phone, and I still feel compelled to return to them almost daily, so I guess it means I need to devote some thinking time to it.

Desire, made up of room after room of kinetic sculptures and strategic lighting, was a fully immersive experience of ghoulish figures engaged in shadow play. Sort of like a haunted house for grown up aestheticians. My mother hated it almost immediately. I didn’t, but I was unsettled by it.

My unsettling didn’t come from the content – dismembered mannequins, freak masks and teeth-baring wolves. Rather it was that I was picking up on an energy I couldn’t explain. I didn’t at the time know much about Judith Wright, only that she existed, so I wasn’t aware of the daughter who had died at birth or the years spent struggling to come to terms with that loss. I didn’t know about her relationship with her parents, and the sense of disconnect previously explored in her work. I was simply tuning into the palpable sense of contemplation and reminiscence in it all. Great art is like that – otherworldly and transcendent. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, in the work of my friend Linde Ivimey. It’s power lies in it’s ability to touch people differently, though always in a way that is intensely personal.

It’s interesting to note that Wright was a dancer with the Australian ballet from 1966 to 1970, because there is a definite sensibility within her work that shows an awareness of movement and fluidity. It is not just the nuts and bolts of her sculpture, but also the traces of what lies beneath the shadows that turns these sculptures into the hauntingly beautiful collection they are. 

Not that the works are beautiful on their own. With the exception of a perfectly balanced wall of framed curiosities, and some large scale painted timer pieces, these are not works designed to be taken out of context and used to enhance a loungeroom or corporate office. Just like the memories that inspired them, they don’t work without each other. They are the layers of her life, and need to be consumed in one piece to be best understood.

There are some brilliant essays on Judith Wright’s work practice and history, the majority of which can be found on her website. They go a long way to rounding out the person hidden within the shadows, and I highly recommend shining a light on her if you get the chance.

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