Swimming in deep water unnerves me. I discovered this about a million years ago when I was a lifesaver on the Gold Coast. Being scared of what’s below you in the darkness is not ideal in that line of work, though it did tend to manifest itself in rather fast swim times just so I could get back into water shallow enough to see through. On the long training swims, way out past the break, I used to chant a little poem by ee cummings to myself to keep my mind calm and focused
“for whatever we lose (a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea”
I hadn’t thought about that for years, until the other night standing in front of Abbey McCulloch’s new show The Shallows at Edwina Corlette Gallery. It was odd the way it came back to me – repeating the line over and over again until the rhythm of the words blocked out the fear; the feeling of being sucked downwards into the depths even though you know you’re still afloat; how strong my arms and back would feel surfing in on a wave; how good for my spirit it was at the end of it all. Once I was back on land I mean.
There is a lot of water in The Shallows, which surprises me as it always does in artists’ work. Using such an obvious trope is a big risk. Art and literature are already so full of stories of rivers and beaches, and waves that overwhelm. Water as a metaphor – cleansing, baptism, renewal – the phases of human life depicted in the ebb and flow of the tide. We stay afloat, tread water, swim against the tide. We don’t make waves, keep our head above water, we’re up shit creek without a paddle. Our language says it’s all been done before.
But this is where The Shallows is different. The women and girls in the paintings, all with McCulloch’s wide open face and tumbling braid, swim, dive and wade through the canvases, and yet…the clothes are perfect, the hair is dry. They are in and of the water, but the waves travel around without touching them. The faces are determined, the girls are strong. Grounded in self-portraiture, it’s almost impossible to read the works as anything other than autobiographic, but they’re both more and less complex than that. McCulloch’s self-portraiture is unlike that of other artists. It feels less introspective and more observational. She paints herself the way a lover might. They’re intimate without being particularly personal.
This is the first showing Abbey McCulloch has had since joining Edwina Corlette’s already impressive stable of artists, and it feels like a good fit. Her subtle palate and delicate lines are a perfect accompaniment to existing artists Julian Meagher, Marisa Purcell and Stefan Dunlop, and flows on beautifully from the serenely beautiful show that preceded it, Traversing Undaunted by Carla Hananiah. Inspired by New Zealand’s South Island, there was a lot of water in that one too.
A friend of mine said just the other day that the ocean is a good place to lose a few tears. I don’t know what tears may have fallen to create The Shallows, but it seems on this occasion to have been the right sort of saltwater catharsis.
Abbey McCulloch’s The Shadows runs until 18 April 2015.
Edwina Corlette Gallery
2/555 Brunswick Street
ph: 3358 6555