“I’ve always been interested in how the eye is the trail to the soul, and how my soul projected can look like a painting,” says Joshua Yeldham in a short film he has made for his exhibition, Providence, at Arthouse Gallery.
There’s a popular belief that artists are unworldly beings who live in their own heads. That’s often the case, although plenty display a keen appreciation of what Andy Warhol called “business art”. Yeldham is not among them, as he has a devotion to nature and the cosmos that verges on the mystical.
Few Australian artists are so deeply concerned with the spiritual aspects of their work. Few would dare to say the word “soul”, let alone suggest it could take form as a painting. An artist might rave about politics relentlessly but find it embarrassing to present their work as a journey of self-discovery. Yeldham might argue that if you don’t understand yourself you have very little chance of understanding your place in the world.
There is nothing vague or fuzzy about the way Yeldham makes his work. He is extremely methodical in his approach to many different processes, from painting and drawing to carving, construction, photography and film making. The strong, graphic style of his paintings is reminiscent of Indian tribal art. His landscapes are characterised by a compulsive patterning that sacrifices the illusion of depth, making each piece into a field of competing energies.
As usual there is almost too much going on. Once Yeldham gets started on a picture such the title piece, Providence, the surface may be painted; scarified with thousands of small cuts and chips; pierced with hundreds of snippets of cane, and perhaps topped off with a set of strings or the skin of a drum, turning it into a rudimentary musical instrument.
He will take a photo printed on thick, textured paper and carve into it as if it were an etching plate. In works such as Aspen Tree II, Yeldham photographed trees in a forest in Colorado in which a broken branch leaves the impression of a large eye. As he has nibbled away at the paper it seems as if the eye is surrounded by pinpicks of light.
Yeldham has taken the owl as his personal totem and the bird stares out at us from work after work, including a piece called Owl of Smiths Creek, in which a stylised face made from a concrete-like substance has been attached to a photo that features an explosive arrangement of Angophoras.
With each exhibition Yeldham has continued to build a dedicated following. Some of his fans respond to the hyper-decorative qualities of his work, others to its sincerity and intensity. He treats the repetitive actions required to create these pieces as a form of meditation but the final results can appear manic – as if the artist has embarked on a process he is powerless to stop. For Yeldham it’s a matter of blurring the line between his own agency and the ubiquitous forces of nature that take possession of him in the landscape, and even in the solitude of the studio.
There’s a very different psychology to be found in Dagmar Cyrulla’s paintings and sculptures at Wagner Contemporary. Where Yeldham’s work suggests an ecstatic surrender to the natural world, Cyrulla’s approach is personal and interiorised. She inhabits that artistic realm where Degas is the presiding deity, capturing people as they go through the discreet, unheralded actions of everyday life. A figure, who may or may not be the artist herself, lies curled up on a bed. She leans out of a bathtub while talking on a phone, or wanders around the house in a state of undress.
This show might be called ‘Notes from a Lockdown’ as the works were completed while the Coronavirus held Melbourne in its grip. In her most engaging pictures Cyrulla makes the viewer into a voyeur, spying on an unsuspecting subject. When she strays from this focus and produces a portrait or an obviously posed figure study, she reverts to a more conventional form of realism. We can appreciate her painterly touch but the pictures don’t have that niggling, edgy feeling or the same veiled eroticism.
Her sculptures prompt similar observations. They are simple, skilfully crafted pieces but fundamentally static, lacking the tension and awkwardness one finds in Degas’s small bronzes.
Where Yeldham is impressive in the way he fully inhabits his work, Cyrulla can be indecisive and anxious, compelled to make more cautious choices. She has all the talent but often settles for a soft option in terms of subject matter. Children, for instance, are notoriously difficult subjects, as they usually end up looking cute and innocent. If anything more ambiguous is attempted the artist is courting scandal.
Cyrulla doesn’t always escape the cuteness trap but in a work such as Mesmerised, which shows a little girl tilting back on a stool, her feet awkwardly touching the ground, she gets closer to the mark. What is the girl looking at so fixedly? Presumably the TV, but maybe not. The painting resembles a scene from a movie in which the reaction shot is withheld, leaving it up to our own imagination. As a general rule, the more Cyrulla leaves to the viewer the more powerfully we are drawn into the world of her pictures.
If artists in Melbourne have been doing it tough, spare a thought for artists in Indonesia who receive no assistance from the government, and interact with a very small base of local collectors. Before the pandemic struck, a booming art scene was attracting a steady stream of international curators and collectors searching for the next global sensation.
I was bowled over when I spent time visiting Indonesian galleries and studios a few years ago – not only by the quality of the work, but by the mutually supportive nature of the art community. This spirit is refected in Indonesia Calling 2020, a group show at John Cruthers’s 16albermarle Project Space, intended as a fundraiser for Indonesian artists.
It’s a mixed bag, with none of the presiding superstars, but the work is diverse and accessibly priced. If I had to choose favourites, it’s hard to go past Sekarputri Sidhiawati’s witty ceramic pieces, or Citra Sasmita’s small pictures that drawn on traditional styles of painting to make oblique feminist statements.
Other stand-outs include Mohamad Yusuf (Ucup), whose detailed woodblock prints are encyclopaedic in their scope, and Argya Dhyaksa’s tiny ceramic figures in bottles – a highly successful form of social distancing. There are 150 pieces in this series alone, which shows what happens when artists have time on their hands.
Joshua Yeldham: Providence
Arthouse Gallery, 6 – 21 November, 2020
Dagmar Cyrulla: Recent Works: Paintings and Sculpture
Wagner Contemporary, 7 -26 November, 2020
Indonesia Calling 2020
16 Albermarle Project Space, 31 October – 12 December, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November, 2020