Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Catalogue Essay: The Watcher

In this body of work Alison Burton focuses on children’s performance of ‘dressing up’, elaborating some of the themes of her Australian Family exhibition (2003). However, Burton has moved away from the flat pastel painted surface and now utilizes a deep focus digital image with a dark lush surface. In The Watcher series, she combines masks, spectacles, furs, fine fabrics, jewellery, vanitas imagery, the veil and other religious talismans. This witty game of hide and seek, which relates to identity formation, sexuality, and gender construction, brings to mind Melanie Klein’s post-Freudian theory that children symbolically represent phantasies, wishes and experiences through play. The child in this new series evolved from disparate sources such as studio photographs of a family of Sicilian children from the 1920s, women in furs and finery circa 1950s from Burton’s family photo archive, and art historical references including Caravaggio, Velazquez, Bronzino and Chardin. Burton’s approach, a stylized surrealist game of constructing an exquisite corpse, might seem a parody of the classical theory of idealism. (The ancient Greek painter Xeuxis supposedly combined the best features of famous beauties of his day to achieve the perfect female form.The work of performance artist Orlan is an extreme modern variant). But the unnatural beauty of Burton’s images arises from a fluid blend of archetype and memory, truth and fantasy.

The child in each of these images addresses the viewer with a disquieting and knowing gaze reminding us that ‘the children are watching’ or ‘peeping’ and that identity formation is based on reciprocity. Through the play of dressing-up the child is literally fashioning itself and trying on different identities suggesting that the sense of self is multiple and incoherent, foregrounding the slippery nature of identity formation and gender construction. In all of its various guises the child is watching with eyes that stare and penetrate although they simultaneously see imperfectly. The unsettling gaze, the smudged lipstick (Pelage), the strangely combined clothes and jewellery (Horsesense, Uncumber), and the masks ( Pathologies in Fur, The Good Education, Phantasm) all hint at the Freudian notion of the uncanny.

In Pathologies in Fur, the only portrait that includes (an)other, disjunction and ambivalence abound. The mother’s touch – tender and cold, close and distant, echoing the Bronzino reference (Eleanora de’Medici and her son) – is counterpointed by the anxiety and cruelty revealed in the clenched fist. The merging of bodies, the free floating masks and the proliferation of furs suggest a loss of ego body boundaries and are evocative of a masochistic aesthetic (as in Studlar’s reworking of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs). The fur as fetish is parodied most obviously in Uncumber, where the child, seated on a lush pelage or animal skin, gestures with a perverted sign of blessing towards a tuft of fur between her thighs. According to religious myth Uncumber, the patron saint of women who want to free themselves from their husbands, was betrothed at the age of twelve and in order to avoid her marriage prayed until she grew a beard. She engendered such wrath in the father of the prospective groom that he had her crucified.

Little n’s beauty may be seen as representing the child before its contamination by authority and socialisation. However this pure beauty is already under threat of destabilization. The distortion of Little n’s reflected gaze or image (quoting Caravaggio’s Narcissus) hints at what is manifest in The Good Education: beauty is now stained and (de)formed. In The Good Education the child wearing the Pinocchio mask gazes at us with a knowing and wilful look and its hand holds Littlen’s broken pearls. There is a strength here though in the parody of ‘the good education’ (ironizing Chardin), and there is something divinely decadent about Burton’s ‘deadly sins’.

Clearly, there is a psychoanalytic dimension made manifest in these portraits, however childhood is not fetishized as a time of sweetness and innocence nor is it imbued with melancholy or a sense of loss. Rather, an exploration of identity formation/deformation is played out on the surface of the work, which becomes a tapestry of complex art historical, mythic and personal references, the playground of history and memory. These dreamy digitally painted images depict the child emerging from the dark as an assemblage of fragments and, like memory itself, the works come into being as traces of the past. This layered representation of exhibitionism and watching, the fantasy of seduction, and a knowing wink towards the sophistication of child’s play, combine to make these portraits a lustrous site for staging a mise-en-scene of desire.

© Shirley Law 2005
Catania, Sicily

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