Messenger Masks Suzanne Archer, 2018. paper, ink, charcoal, chalk pastel, graphite, acrylic paint, wire stands.

Nicholas Thompson Gallery

Nicholas Thompson Gallery | Nicholas Thompson

In this conversation with Art + Australia, Nicholas Thompson (director Nicholas Thompson Gallery) and gallery artist Suzanne Archer speculate on how the pandemic will effect the models of exhibiting art and how art might reflect this subjective and collective experience moving forward. 

Under government restrictions over the last two years I was still able to go into the gallery by myself for freight etc, so I would continue to install exhibitions, take photographs and promote them online. I always book in my exhibitions in advance so it wasn’t as disruptive as it could have been, and the artists were all happy to proceed as scheduled whether people could visit or not—because we had no idea when we would be able to return to normal.

Galleries have always been ambiguous in their function—yes, they are primarily businesses selling objects, but they also promote artists' long term careers and engage a general viewing public outside of an immediate expectation of sales. They contribute to broader conversations about art locally, nationally and globally, in print, online and in relation to public institutions. I think this pandemic in the digital era has raised questions about what is a contemporary exhibition—it has artworks by artists, it has a date and title, it can be written about and advertised, but is it still an exhibition if people can only see it online? Before the pandemic more and more galleries were abandoning the traditional conventions of printed catalogues, exhibition openings and traditional business hours. It is really interesting to think about how galleries and businesses will evolve from here.

During this time I think artists have suffered the most, as audiences have been unable to view their exhibitions in person. I have held several exhibitions where the work was installed and documented but nobody could get in to see them. It is a lot of work preparing an exhibition, and for no one to experience it can be devastating. Positively though, the digital era has allowed artists to build networks and support systems while working in isolation. These networks will have long lasting implications for how artists live and work into the future.

Once restrictions lifted I was able to stage a group exhibition with work by the artists whose solo exhibitions could not be seen, so every artist exhibited during the lockdown was able to have their work viewed in person.

Masks And Transformation | Suzanne Archer
 + Suzanne Archer in her studio, Wedderburn NSW Riste Andrievski, 2019. photograph.

Masks and Transformation

My home and studio are in the rugged bushland of Wedderburn NSW, where I have been based for the last 33 years. This peaceful environment has afforded me a positive sense of space and supported my wellbeing during the challenging time of the pandemic. I have maintained my regular studio routine but unfortunately the lockdowns meant that I was not able to attend my solo exhibition We Are the Stars at Nicholas Thompson Gallery. Earlier in the pandemic I was able to attend some memorable exhibitions that featured my work, including the #22 Dobell Drawing Prize at the National Art School, HOTA Collects (also the opening of the Gallery) in Queensland and the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

My paintings regularly reflect current themes or my recent experiences and environments and emerge intuitively with an underlay of semi-conscious control, whereas my three dimensional works tend to be presented as loosely planned themed sets or installations. With this process COVID has gradually become one of those subjects that imposed itself into my psyche, subtly at first with the paper masks with, which we are all now so familiar with, as objects for an installation, then appearing in my paintings almost surreptitiously. I am currently working on a paper wall installation about COVID, plus making standing paper figurative sculptures wearing masks.

 + Messenger Masks Suzanne Archer, 2018. paper, ink, charcoal, chalk pastel, graphite, acrylic paint, wire stands. 90 x 150 x 50 cm.
 + Mutter Masks Suzanne Archer, 2017. found bags, acrylic paint, wire stands, recorded sound. variable dimensions.

Whilst these works have emerged from particular COVID conditions I have been fascinated by masks for a long time. In 2012 I began to explore the possibility of making mask-like objects from fabrics. Mutter Masks (2017-2019) installation commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre is a collection of repurposed cloth bags sourced from second-hand shops accompanied by a soundscape of my writings of random phrases and words inspired by concrete poetry spoken by me. This was followed by another work Messenger Masks (2018) (collection Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery) constructed of paper, with drawn marks and words on the surface. Masks have made their way into several of the paintings from my most recent exhibition. Seclusion (2021) evokes the sense of being enveloped in a dense and primordial network of writhing botanical forms accompanied by several medical masks and a linear semblance of a human figure. Perhaps this could be read as myself in this landscape that I inhabit by choice. Windblown (2021) is a painting about wild unsettling weather when the branches bend dramatically, and leaves fly around. Once again, my subconscious interjected medical masks into the mix heralding it as a painting of its time.

 + Seclusion Suzanne Archer, 2021. oil on canvas. 150 x 150 cm.
 + Windblown Suzanne Archer, 2021. oil on canvas. 150 x 150 cm.

COVID has been all embracing of our lives, the daily news is almost a ‘must watch’. It is the potential of our subconscious influences that allow artists to work with such a theme as COVID, a terrifying life changing reality, by trying to turn this often-devastating fact of life into a transformative experience, a record of our own (or collective) personal history.

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