When a gallery offers virtually its entire exhibition space for an artist to do whatever she likes it’s both tempting and intimidating. Nothing, however, is too much for Wendy Sharpe. Ever since she took on the challenge of creating eight mural-sized works for the Cook & Philip Park Acquatic Centre in 1997, Sharpe has never hesitated to accept invitations that require her to work on a large-scale under extreme pressure.
In recent years Sharpe has painted on stage in front of a live audience. She has undertaken projects with the opera and ballet, the circus, with burlesque performers and refugees. It may not seem prudent but she’s utterly fearless.
The danger in plunging into a large-scale task with such gusto is that it allows little scope for quality control. There are many artists who require absolute solitude to create anything. The thought of someone watching them paint or pointing a camera at them is paralysing. Perfectionists don’t want anybody looking at their first sketches, or the half-formed ideas that get tried and discarded. But this doesn’t seem to worry Sharpe at all.
In Wendy Sharpe: Ghosts, the artist has taken over the upper and lower exhibition spaces of the Mosman Art Gallery, hanging pictures, creating massive displays of drawings and works on paper, painting the walls themselves. One room contains an installation featuring a collection of hand-painted lamp-shades. There are artist’s books, altered 19th century Parisian cartes-de-visite, and a wall of small paintings tucked into antique frames picked up at the French flea markets.
The show is basically a sprawling overview of Sharpe’s recent work but there is some ‘ghostly’ content. An introductory panel tells us that Sharpe’s maternal grandmother and one of her great aunts were psychics and followers of Madame Blavatsky. This has relevance to Mosman, as this leafy suburb was a favoured haunt of Sydney’s Theosophists, including wellknown artists such as Ethel Carrick Fox. One of the group’s meeting places, The Manor in Clifton Gardens, has been described as “the occult centre of the Southern Hemisphere”.
Sharpe may not have inherited her family’s psychic abilities but she has a fertile imagination. A figurative painter, but by no means a realist, in the majority of her works she takes great liberties with form and colour. The frequency with which she appears in her own paintings underlines the intensely subjective nature of pictures that are not so much a window onto the world as a compendium of the artist’s private fantasies.
Sharpe’s major occult practice is that of a shapeshifter whose image undergoes radical modifications from one painting to the next. She can appear youthful or matronly, fatter or thinner, with only the vaguest facial resemblance – but we recognise her just as easily.
Sharpe takes an equally flexible approach to “ghosts”, which can be auras, hallucinations, alter-egos or imaginary friends. There is even a Self Portrait with Imaginary Friend (2014) that shows the artist walking at night, her footsteps dogged by a looming pink figure. She also admits to an interest in Victorian “spirit photography”, in which wispy figures were captured by the camera in apparently empty rooms. Most of these photos were simple frauds but some have defied attempts at explanation. There are at least two paintings that invoke these mysterious photos. In Self Portrait with Ghosts (2019), and the similar, Self Portrait wth Three Ghosts (2020), the artist sits in darkness, surrounded by white, disembodied heads. Yet even these “ghosts” may be no more than floating thoughts or memories.
One of the things Sharpe could have borrowed from the Victorian spirit photos is “ectoplasm”. A substance familiar from B-grade horror movies, it’s described by Lisa Morton in Ghosts: A Haunted History (2015), as a gauzelike, rubbery, gelatinous substance exuded from the body of the medium during a séance. It was usually a sideshow trick but there’s no reason artists can’t fill their canvases with ecoplasmic forms. The Surrealists did, and the free-floating faces and objects in Sharpe’s pictures have the same ethereal aspect.
The most eye-catching work in the show is a large mural painted on the back wall of the lower gallery. At the base of the picture an upside-down figure arches its arms upward, holding a red mask between its hands. The strangest aspect is that the yellow face at the bottom looks far more mask-like than the mask in the centre of the painting. The scene takes place against a nocturnal seascape illuminated by a distant lighthouse.
This bizarre image was created in front of an audience with flamboyant sweeps of a broom-sized brush, but the crudeness of manufacture doesn’t detract from its iconographical power. Sharpe hasn’t been precious, knowing that when the show is over the work will be concealed beneath fresh layers of paint.
I can imagine some viewers feeling thrilled by Sharpe’s bold drawing and expressive use of the brush, but there’s another audience that will never warm to her spontaneity. Sharpe is capable of creating vivid, atmospheric images in which one can sense how intensely she has engaged with a subject, but she also takes a lot of short-cuts. There are many paintings that would have benefited from a little revision. Some of her cluttered compositions could be better described as ‘accumulations’, in which motifs have been pushed to all sides in the manner of a hasty spring cleaning.
She can be just as slapdash in the way she draws the figure, being more concerned with capturing a pose than the finer details of the body. She tends to fall back on a slightly lumpen, rubbery form that serves all purposes, regardless of whether she is painting a dancer, a person in the street or a professional model. When she gets impatient or finds the picture isn’t working, she might fill in part of the canvas with abstract smears of colour.
After more than forty years of constant painting these mannerisms are an ingrained part of Sharpe’s working methods. Even if she saw them as flaws it would be extremely difficult to change anything, so she will probably always divide her audience. The most important question is whether the chutzpah and vitality of her pictures are enough to make us overlook the flat, careless bits that creep into a prolific production. If you believe that heroic failure is always to be preferred to mediocre achievement, there’s a lot to like about Sharpe’s no-holds-barred approach.
Wendy Sharpe: Ghosts
Mosman Art Gallery, 16 December, 2020 – 7 March, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January, 2021