In Wedderburn, on the outskirts of Sydney, the temperature was moving towards 40 degrees. Despite the fans, Suzanne Archer’s bush studio felt like an oven – the heat and glare of an Australian summer providing a strange backdrop for a body of work that has been growing darker, denser, ever more gothic in character. The incongruity reflects the temperament of an artist who doesn’t set out to please anyone but herself.
This may be another way of saying: ‘an artist who has rarely enjoyed consistent commercial success’, but that’s never been Archer’s priority. Her work develops its own momentum in the studio, regardless of her original intentions. Like Alice on the trail of the White Rabbit, she follows it down some unusual pathways, although her entry into Wonderland more closely resembles a descent into Hades. Over the past decade Archer has filled her paintings with skeletons, dead animals, and multiple images of her own severed head, her face contorted by a silent scream.
This doesn’t make for easy viewing, but it leaves a powerful impression. Australian art hasn’t seen anything so challenging, so macabre, since Peter Booth’s nightmare images of the late 1970s. Yet this is only one strand in an exhibiting career spanning some 50 years, soon to be explored in a retrospective: Suzanne Archer: Song of the Cicada, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, from 23 March to 5 May. This year will also see the publication of a first-ever monograph on the artist, written by independent curator, Sioux Garside.
Archer describes her work as “figurative/abstract”, which is really a way of saying she doesn’t recognise a dividing line between these two categories.
The paintings in Archer’s debut solo exhibition, at Sydney’s Clune galleries in 1969, were rigorously abstract, with extensive use of collage. She built up surfaces from advertisements for the daily papers picked up in front of newsagencies. On fields of torn paper she stencilled letters and added calligraphic markings. One dealer compared the results with Ian Fairweather’s work, but the young Archer knew nothing about this legendary artists’ artist.
Born in Guildford, UK, Archer studied from 1962-64 at the Sutton School of Art in south London. In 1965, at the age of 19, she migrated to Australia with her husband of those days, Roy Jackson. The artist couple based themselves in Thirroul, the south coast town that played host to D.H.Lawrence for a few months in 1922, and where Brett Whiteley would die of a drug overdose in 1992.
The early days in Thirroul gave Archer a taste for the Australian landscape and an affection for the buzzing of the cicadas she still hears every summer in Wedderburn. The Clune Gallery show was well-received, and led to the artist’s inclusion as an emerging talent in Mervyn Horton’s book, Present Day Art in Australia (Ure Smith, 1969).
More than 40 solo exhibitions have followed, with Archer diversifying into drawing, printmaking, sculpture, artists’ books and installation. She has won numerous awards, from the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1994, to the Dobell Prize for Drawing in 2010; to the most recent Eutick Memorial Still Life Award, held late last year in Wollongong (I was one of the judges).
Her studio is currently filled with papier maché sculptures and masks made from bags found in second-hand shops, resembling the fetish objects of some long-forgotten tribe or cult. She is working on a sound and video piece to accompany these masks when they are shown in Campbelltown, but is in two minds as to whether they might be worn in a performance.
Painting will be the focus of the retrospective as this remains at the heart of Archer’s work. She says that over the past 30 years she has grown comfortable with a scale of 240 cm by 240 cm, or larger.
Although Archer is represented in the collections of the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia, with works such as Kites (1978) and I’ll remember New York (1978), these were made during a 1978-79 residency at the Greene Street Studio in lower Manhattan. The New York paintings are largely abstract, incorporating stencilled letters and collage, but they are much brighter and lighter than the works that came before or after. Kites, in particular, features areas of bare canvas – a striking contrast to the densely layered paintings of recent years.
The next work acquired by the AGNSW would be the large drawing, Derangement(2010) with which Archer had won the Dobell Prize. A dark fantasia of the studio in which the artist’s severed head hangs from a hook, surrounded by exotic objects and animal carcasses, it came from a series called Disturbance, which grew out of studies in the dissecting room of Sydney University’s Veterinary Science department, which Archer began visiting in 2002.
The death theme would become so obsessive that Archer jokingly titled a 2008 exhibition, Mistress of the Dead, but it only began to take hold after her introduction to the dissecting room. Following her move to Wedderburn in 1987 Archer had been preoccupied with a form of abstract landscape. She and her artist partner, David Fairbairn, hand-built a house in the bush, and began to enjoy that environment. A series of vast, colourful paintings followed, such as Coalesce (1993), and Waratahs (1994), which won the Wynne Prize. Other works were born from trips to Europe and Zimbabwe. Titles such as Utango and N’anga (both 1992) betray the African origins of such paintings. Many of these works were included in a survey, Suzanne Archer: The Alchemy of the Studio, held at the Macquarie University Art Gallery in 2016.
Archer has never viewed her interest in images of death as being in any way morbid or gloomy. On the contrary, she has been continuously excited by the idea of capturing the skeletons and sinews concealed beneath the flesh. Her decapitated self-portraits are a way of confronting her own sense of mortality.
Judging by the quantity of large new canvases to be shown in the retrospective, that sense of mortality is not too pressing. In her mid-70s Archer is painting with huge energy and ambition. She shows us the bush from an aerial perspective and in tight close-up, in works of monumental scale. A piece such as Thrumming and Drumming (2017) features the recognisable forms of insects and plants set against a dark ground. The mysterious shape floating in the top right-hand corner is Archer’s pelvis, which was broken in an accident years ago, although no-one could be expected to know this intuitively. For Archer it seems that death is not a long stare into the void but the motivating force for self-renewing bursts of creativity.
Published in Artist Profile 46, February, 2019