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Sydney Morning Herald Column

Sally Robinson

Published May 18, 2024
Sally Robinson, 'Beach Crossing' (1976)

Sally Robinson came from England at the age of eight, trading a childhood in Surrey for a life in the harsh Australian sunlight. She may not have had a language barrier to overcome, but the culture shock – or perhaps the weather shock – must have been profound. Eight is an impressionable age, a time when a child’s personality and preferences are finding forms that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

Sally Robinson, ‘Road to Wanaaring’ (1977)

In the silk screen prints Robinson made in the 1970s and 80s one can still feel the impact of that childhood relocation. Although they depict relatively ordinary aspects of Australian life – birds and animals, the beach, the desert, suburban pastimes – these works are so bright and colourful they feel unnatural, as if the artist has dialled up the intensity beyond the point where most of us feel comfortable.

It’s these dazzling, eye-catching prints that made Robinson’s reputation at a time when the medium was allowed a more prominent role in local contemporary art, largely because of the political poster movement. But while her peers were creating large-edition, militant statements about women’s liberation, Aboriginal land rights, anti-nuclear campaigns and workers’ solidarity, Robinson was cramming her pictures with images of leisure and local wildlife. The political posters still look great, but they have become time capsules, forever welded to the issues of the day. They document the history of movements that have grown up and become part of the political landscape.

Sally Robinson, ‘Mt Olga I,II & III’ (1981)
Sally Robinson, ‘Halley’s Comet’ (1986)

By contrast, Robinson’s prints feel as fresh as the day they were made, as visitors to her 50-year survey at the S.H. Ervin Gallery will discover. Looking at two large triptychs, Ayers Rock I, II & III (1978), and Mt. Olga I, II & III (1981), one is struck by the vibrancy of the landscape, the brilliant light, and the crowds of birds and animals.

I thought of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), made at a time when the Australian film industry was in hibernation. Like Robinson, Roeg had come from England, and been struck by the contrast between the gloom of the northern hemisphere and the ferocious sunlight and heat he encountered Down Under. He didn’t see the desert as a bleak, lifeless place. Every other scene in Walkabout is filled with wildlife, to the point of improbability. It’s only when I learned from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy that there are more than four million feral cats in Australia which kill four small animals every night, that I thought maybe there was a lot more animal life in 1970.

Sally Robinson, ‘Wildlife Sanctuary’ (1978)

Robinson’s prints in these years also owe a debt to the Australian Museum, where she worked as a designer from 1974-83, becoming familiar with the natural history collections. There’s usually a twist in the way she depicts these subjects. In Wildlife Sanctuary (1978), a cockatoo seems to be trying to gnaw its way out of a wire enclosure. In Seagulls (1980), the birds are celebrating their exclusive ownership of the beach, flocking around a sign that says there is no inspector on duty.

The human animal is no less closely observed, from Beach Crossing (1976), which is like a Jeffrey Smart with bikinis, to Bondi Bowling (1977), which sets the bowlers in their pristine white outfits against the serene flatness of the green. These images have the quality of snapshots, with subjects not posing for the camera.

Sally Robinson, ‘Spit Bay- Heard Island’ (1993)

 

One of the more unusual prints is Halley’s Comet (1986), a nocturnal image of Sydney in which the top third of the picture shows the undercarriage of a jet aircraft heading for the skies while the comet descends in the distance. It’s a striking, ambiguous image. As we shoot for the stars, the stars fall down to earth.

A visit to Antarctica in 1991-92, resulted in a stunning series of prints in which Robinson captures this landscape wth a clarity and sense of grandeur that has rarely been matched.

Sally Robinson, ‘The Artist’s Mother’ (2012)

By the turn of the century, the artist had moved on from printmaking, and was painting distinctive portraits in acrylic. She has since won the Portia Geach Memorial Award on two occasions: in 2012, for a portrait of her mother, who had lost her hair because of cancer treatment; and in 2019, with a self-portrait called Body in a Box, in which she depicts herself nude, squeezed into a tiny space. Both are included in this survey, along with a portrait of photojournalist, Ella Rubeli, which took out the 2019 Shirley Hannan National Portrait Prize in Bega.

Robinson has completed more than 50 portraits in a little over 20 years, in a highly distinctive style. Although she always aims for a realistic likeness, the surfaces of each work are treated in more experimental fashion, with colour applied in tiny dabs or dashes, like a variation on the pointillisme of Seurat and Signac. Other portraits, such as one of Justice Mary Gaudron (2006), are viewed as if through a translucent screen of words. These varied surfaces prevent Robinson’s portraits from being viewed as simple photo-realism, but they could also be accused of being exercises in design.

Sally Robinson, ‘Body in a Box’ (2019)

The Artist’s Mother (2012) is perhaps the most innovative of the lot, as Robinson has created a pixellated effect that frames her elderly subject’s face, wrinkles and all, while blurring out the edges where the hair is missing. It’s not a flattering image, and Robinson’s mother showed a lot of courage and stoicism in letting her daughter capture her in this manner. Neither does the artist spare herself when she zeroes in on her own aging features. Indeed, if Robinson has a special virtue as a portraitist, it’s her ruthless fidelity to visual truth. The surface effects are perhaps a way of softening the blow.

Sally Robinson, ‘Ella Rubeli’ (2019)

The final stanza of this exhibition is devoted to geometric abstract paintings and small sculptures, which are surprising departures from the earlier pictures. On their own terms, these pieces are immaculate creations, but it’s hard to see them as a major advance on the figurative works. It’s a myth that an artist ‘progresses’ from figuration to abstraction. In many cases it’s merely a choice, a desire to keep one’s vision fresh by trying something new.

This is one way of reading Robinson’s tilt into abstraction, which she handles with her usual aplomb, but for an artist who has built her reputation on strong, recognisable subject matter, it’s difficult to see these new works as much more than sophisticated decorations. This impression is only confirmed by her dip back into subject painting, in Boy Soldiers and Antarctica (both 2015), where a fuzz of words doesn’t detract from the potency of the underlying images – of a military cemetery and a sea filled with icebergs. There’s no doubt Robinson is a more accomplished artist at this late stage of her career, but those vivid works of the 1970s and 80s have an iconic dimension that once seen, is never forgotten.

 

 

Sally Robinson,

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 20 April – 2 June 2024

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May, 2024