Suzanne Archer’s career as an Australian artist began in a blaze of publicity in 1969. Her first solo exhibition at Sydney’s Clune Gallery was written up in the papers, and splashed on radio and TV. It helped that Archer was young and glam, and that the local gallery scene was limited to a handful of dealers. A hip young woman creating avant-garde art made for an eye-catching story.
Fifty years on, Archer has clocked up more than 40 solo shows and taken part in countless group exhibitions, but has never received anything like the attention generated by her debut. On the contrary, she has a reputation as a ‘non-commercial’ artist, a winner of numerous prizes who has never enjoyed a consistent following among private collectors.
The retrospective, Suzanne Archer: Song of the Cicada, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre shows that Archer’s lack of sales cannot be ascribed to any lack of ability. It may, however, have something to do with her choice of subject matter. Since the early 2000s, when she began drawing in the dissecting room of the Veterinary Science Department at Sydney University, Archer has had an unholy fascination with death and decay.
After breaking her pelvis in 2013, she purchased a medical model of the offending bone-work, and went on to acquire a skull and a full skeleton. For years, her paintings and drawings were overrun with skeletons – a memento moriguaranteed to alienate gallery-goers looking to fill a space on the lounge-room wall. The best example in this show is the large, multi-panelled work, Six skeletons from the closet no.1(2014), in which the boney arms and legs have been strung up in the poses of a danse macabre.
As well as the skeleton, her studio today contains a full-sized kangaroo carcass and various bits of dead animals scavenged from the bush. It may sound ghastly but Archer is not a Goth, and to the best of my knowledge doesn’t sleep in a coffin. Her deathly fixations, which seem less prominent nowadays, were an expression of a fearless, utterly independent mind.
There are artists (and dealers!) who live in fear of making (or showing) work that proves unpopular with buyers. As a wildly egocentric activity one of the main rewards of art is that audiences approve of your efforts, but Archer has never been ego-driven or especially concerned about making money. The Song of the Cicadais the testament of an artist who only ever set out to please herself, making the work that reflects her creative interests, not her material ambitions.
Those ambitions are hardly the same as those contemporary art superstars who live in mansions, drive sports cars and employ teams of assistants. Archer migrated from England at the age of 19, and spent her first years in Australia living in a shack in Thirroul, with artist-husband, Roy Jackson. Today she lives in the bush at Weddburn on the outskirts of Sydney, in a house she built with her second artist-husband, David Fairbairn.
For the past 30 years the bush has been a constant source of inspiration. Many of Archer’s landscapes are packed with dense, matted undergrowth, others include large-scale studies of insects and plants. Waratahs(1993) is an ecstatic painting, prompted by a discovery of new growth after a bush fire. Thrumming and drumming(2017) is a panorama-sized picture of a cicada amid the busy, mysterious world of the forrest. Weirdly, Archer’s model pelvis is floating around in the top right-hand corner.
Archer’s paintings are distinguished by their intensity. She will rework a picture over many months until the imagery becomes dark and impacted, offset by patches of vivid colour. She is obviously aware of her own tendency to make a canvas more and more claustrophobic, but the process of painting develops such momentum it can be hard to put on the brakes.
This predilection was present in that very first solo show of 1969. An early work such as Deep into Grassier Ditches(1969), features a busy surface covered in collaged letters from newspaper banner advertisements. The picture has turned brown over the years, making it more grass-like than ever. It bears a superficial resemblance to the work of Ian Fairweather, which was not known to Archer at the time, and prefigures the collages and assemblages of Rosalie Gascoigne.
Archer has always been highly receptive to the different environments in which she has lived and travelled. Strangely enough, the most spacious and purely attractive pictures she ever made came as a result of a residency in New York. A picture such as Kites(1978), from the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, features sizeable areas of raw linen that act as a foil to rhythmical touches of red, blue, yellow and white.
Equally distinctive series were created as a result of trips to Africa, Europe and China. What’s most impressive is the way Archer veers easily between abstraction and figuration, indifferent to the great ideological divide that became a battlefield for artists and critics in the late 1960s. When Archer flips from abstraction to expressive figuration it comes across as a spontaneous response to a place or a subject. Dolls(1985) feels thoroughly African, while China Joy(2016) is equally laden with Chinese imagery.
One of the uniting factors in the many different phases of Archer’s work, from pure abstraction to memento mori, is her interest in language. Her pictures are full of words, either carved into semi-intelligible fragments, or included as guides and labels, providing clues to a painting like the clues that help us solve a crossword puzzle.
This show makes it clear that Archer is as much a sculptor as a painter – although her 3-D works have conspicuous painterly qualities. There are clay figurines, papier maché constructions, cabinets and bell-jars filled with handmade objects.
The centrepiece is a specially commissioned installation called Mutter Masks(2017-19). It consists of more than 20 masks made from handbags sourced from second-hand shops. Each has been transformed into a fearsome tribal effigy that would look right at home in the jungles of New Guinea. The masks are also covered in webs of words: random sentences, passing thoughts. Stand still for a moment and one can hear those words being quietly muttered by overhead speakers.
The sheer power of the artist’s imagination and her ability to work on a grand scale make this a formidable survey. Over five decades Suzanne Archer has seen her share of ups and downs, but if this body of work is the result of commercial neglect it’s a fate one might wish upon more artists.
Suzanne Archer: The Song of the Cicada
Campbelltown Arts Centre, 23 March – 5 May, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April, 2019