Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Catalogue Essay: Australian Family Album

These moving images by Alison Burton began their life as a deeply personal response of the artist to the recorded still life of memory, treasured portraits in her family archive.

Working from printed drawings of computer sketches meant that to the artist these images first emerged as something akin to a print. What has transpired in the creative porcess is a re-animation of the essence of childhood itself. quite literally, Burton paints her family 'into life', allowing the power of the unconscious to give a two-dimensional elliptical effect thit is in its way more alive to the emotional truth of the human figure than much figurative art.

Alison Burton's paintings are striding for the way in which they compress life energy into a formal constructed shape; homage is paid here to the traditional concerns of engraving and printmaking, of geometry, alighnment, and detail. It is therefore easy to see the (acknowledged) influence of the work of German artist Albrecht Durer. In the subtle alterations to proportion in the detail of the figures, combined with the larger-than-life qualities of contemporary Japanese cartoon animatio, Burton nevertheless develops a cryptic, provocative, yet gentle style of her own.

For these works are not faithful reproductions of the official record of relationships and life: the paintings speak of unstated codes of family behaviours, of underlying loss and sorrow that can barely be expressed in the ancious grimace of a family snapshot. Teh mother in 'Allegory (Love)' may have clear and obvious grasp of that baby, but something in her expression questions that confidence. In other paintings the hands tell the unseen story: they open and close on sibling intimacy as they do in 'Australian Family', or appear to stretch out awkwardly, as in 'Twins in Morning Dress', to some hope of individuation without loss.

There is tremendous tension and unease in these paintings; signals in each of energies controlled, lives re-designed, polished for show. As a group they record the outward pressure of the social world upon the soul - even when they do so wittily as in 'Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown'. Fame and private sacrifice are writ large in that face and those outstretched arms, the dress (perfection itself) is a mere prop that offers disguise and a certain composure amidst chaos.

The works engage with the transformative qualities of repetition (in a way that recalls the best of early Pop Art) whereby the qualities of innocence and perfection that Burton expresses in the bodies of her babies and children becomes her own private essay on sameness and difference. The result is a group of paintings that provide a fascinating counterpoint to the posed portraiture of family life as far back as the invention of photography. Here, there is nothing of the didactic quality of photo-image, simply paintings that are formally appealing, whimsical, and emotionally challenging and which invite deep speculation and response.

© Dr Karen Lamb, February 2003.

Dr Karen Lamb is a former federal speechwriter for the arts, a regular contributor to The Australian Weekend Review, and currently teaches in the Department of English with Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne.

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