Beyond the Opening

-- Demystifying Contemporary Art --

Hilary Jackman | A year on the line

/ the relevance of still life paintings [alternative title]

A culmination of over 60 years investigating form, light in the landscape, and still life, this exhibition is a seamless development of Jackman’s oeuvre. The exquisite works she has produced here testify to her ambition to truly see, and to capture a visual truth in the environment that surrounds us. Jackman is someone I admire deeply for many things, but for the purpose of this article, it is for her unwavering commitment to paint.

Still life painting is generally more complex than at first glance. Part record of the times, part technical investigation and part cultural statement – it could represent all or even none of these things. Regardless, when using a traditional framework such as Australian Tonalism, in an attempt to depict the presence of an object (its dimension, perspective and tone) there is a hair width between brilliance and disaster. Technical execution is paramount; consideration of composition, light, texture and placement, overall balance and a certain spark is what will make a still life sing. And to make it sing is the challenge! These elements grapple and fight each other on the canvas. One mark here and it unbalances the mark over there. A certain harmony is what many still life painters strive for.

It can be difficult to appreciate a singular still life work. It may seem nostalgic or passé, perhaps focused on artistic investigation rather than a clear narrative. However, in context of a broader body of work, a still life can become imbued with meaning. With time the nuances and quiet storytelling become evident. It may then become evident that a work relates to a larger body of work which relates to a painting movement, and then one can begin to appreciate the cultural contribution and broader meaning that may even span generations. No longer is the still life simply a ‘still life’. A still life can represent the past, present and future.

A year on the line

In this intimate exhibition, smallish works about the size of your opened laptop are hung in a neat line around the perimeter of a repurposed artist studio turned exhibition space. The works are inside a room inside a warehouse. The floors are worn concrete and the lobby walls are scuff marked – tangible reminders of the active workspace concerned with the development and production of art.

Having been taught by students of Max Meldrum, Jackman’s work reflects the principles of Australian Tonalism* characterised by the precise application of tonal values, optical analysis and simple compositions. The subject matter depicted reflects her interest in the environment and objects that reflect the temporal nature of things.

Compared to previous works this series of paintings seem a little crisper. They are darker, more poignant. Jackman’s exploration into light is different from other recent works - darkness is being used. There is a dimness, a focus on creating weight and three dimensionality of an object through the manipulation of light and dark – or through the technique of chiaroscuro*. There is also a sense of infinity, timelessness, on-going-ness.

The compositions Jackman depict here use daily household objects. Some compositions, a stack of mixing bowls, a collection of lemons, or a delicate vase with stem of drying gum leaves are depicted singularly on a table top, radiating in the glow of a gentle spot light, unfettered by any other distraction on the canvass. Jackman brings humble items of urban necessity to our attention. These tools of living painted in a manner that is both delicate and robust are virtuous, resonating honesty, respectability, modesty and purity.

Hilary Jackman Bowls 2 2018

oil on canvass 35x35cm

Image courtesy of the artist

Photographer: Jephrey Neale

There is one painting however that particularly draws my attention. It is a tabletop landscape I found initially beguiling yet the more I gazed, the more I saw – or perhaps thought I saw.

Hilary Jackman Blue glaze 2018

oil on canvass 46x46cm

Image courtesy of the artist

Photographer: Jephrey Neale

The beauty of this work for me is in its execution – I could reach out and take hold of the shallow dish. But the other beauty in this particular work is the composition, the unseen light source and what the objects represent. There is a female character about the vessels and a masculinity about the weights. They seem to talk to each other. They are related, not only through the utilitarian colour scheme, their urban form and functional purpose, they represent our world – our cultural world. The human world. At a guess the cup is Chinese, the jar perhaps Dutch, the bottles Vietnamese, the jug English – drawing a bow to the relationships between these cultures or human society.

The glass sphere or perhaps bubble has been included in vanitas* since the 16th century and is said to represent the fleeting nature of things, and in later years, the future. Perhaps this painting is Jackman’s version of a contemporary vanitas. The inclusion of the sphere is at least a nod of acknowledgment to painters gone by. The sphere reflects the light inwardly of itself. The faceted sculpture on the other hand reflects light outwardly. It is a contemporary object. Its purpose and meaning perhaps not yet clear in a cultural context.

Together the objects, their arrangement and execution, bring to mind a sense of infinity. They create a timelessness stretching back to the horizon of the past and into the future. It is as if the hugeness of Earth’s urban socio-political representation is perforating our atmosphere and permeating space.

Not only are the selected objects and their arrangement seemingly speaking of the past, present and future, so is the composition itself. Hilary seems to be conjoining the Australian Tonalism framework with chiaroscuro techniques developed during the Renaissance*. The outcome is a seemingly simple composition with tone and palette both tightly controlled. The introduction of darkness (and lightness) atop this framework produces not only a strong contrast, but brings a moodiness to the composition, a weight to the objects, and drama.

I’m asking a lot of the arrangement on this canvas. I have no idea whether the narrative I’ve explored bears any relation whatsoever to the intention of the artist. However regardless of what narrative is intentionally woven or not, or what the viewer weaves themselves, an original still life painting that resonates, that creates a spark within the viewer, can become an object that augments the viewer’s character and their life experience. A carefully placed work in the home or work environment can become an active daily reminder of purpose, ambition and values. It can reflect the past, relate to the present and talk to the future. A still life is never simply a still life, and Jackman’s work is certainly no exception.

*Australian Tonalism – An artistic theory that prioritises tone over colour, simple compositions over complex or narrative based, and keen observance of the subject insitu in order to most accurately capture its essence and surrounds. Developed by Melbourne based Max Meldrum in the 1930’s, Australian Tonalism firmly challenged the status quo of Australian painting, and was also practised in Europe and America.

*Chiaroscuro – Is a technique used in art that uses bold contrasts between light and dark to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures.

*Vanitas – is a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death.

*Renaissance - is a period in European history covering the span between the 14th and 17th centuries. Some scholars mark this period as the beginning of the modern age with an invented version of humanism and the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy. This new thinking came to manifest in art, architecture, politics, science and literature.


META DATA DATA Find more information about Hilary Jackman.


This exhibition was held within Artery Cooperative studios.

Hilary Jackman

Exhibition : A year on the line

10 March to 18 March 2018