Natural history meets artifice in Judith Van Heeren’s new exhibition Sea Garden at Murray White Room – extending the artist’s longstanding interest in the genre of natural history painting, concentrating on a small series of tonal and atmospheric oceanic environments.
Van Heeren, whose work is included in the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, says Sea Garden was partly inspired by a particular painting in the French section of the Louvre, which the artist encountered while artist-in-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2010.
Painted in 1769 by Anne Vallayer-Coster, a precocious talent whose patrons included Marie Antoinette, the delicate Rococo still life that impressed Van Heeren is titled Sea Plumes, Lithophytes and Shells.
“The painting is just so exquisitely painted and full of mystery and intrigue. At that time I imagined the oceans as being unbelievably alive, and that image just stayed with me,” says Van Heeren. “What this painting has is a jewel-like preciousness so I wanted these new paintings to embody that preciousness, being like encrusted jewels.”
Gallery director Murray White says Van Heeren’s style and manner perhaps draws on the esteemed artistic traditions of her country of origin. “It’s as though the artist inherited an Old Master aesthetic, particularly demonstrated in her early work painted in a full realist palette,” said White.
“But what should be understood about Judith’s work is that this is contemporary genre painting, simultaneously interested in scientific conventions while being also deliberately artificial. Judith depicts flora and fauna in impossible combinations, with species that would never coexist.”
“In painting terms, Judith is a very impressive artist – the exquisite detail and sense of realism in her work belies the attendant artifice and the surreal, which is what makes the work so compelling to me,” White added.
Van Heeren’s new work continues the artist’s three-decade long investigation of the natural world and the way it is represented, but it specifically draws on a formative moment the artist experienced while diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
“I wanted to paint the beauty and also the fragility of this part of the world – these sea gardens under the surface of the ocean – that the majority of people have never seen and maybe never will see. I wanted to paint it in all its glory but also to capture it as fraught with tension,” says Van Heeren.
In Van Heeren’s works, sharp foregrounds characterised by a lurking chiaroscuro give way to ghostly white horizons. Undulating corals and finger-like anemones sway in a silent dance, yet there’s a muted stillness that betrays their ostensible movement. These liminal landscapes are at once animate and inanimate, energetic and inert – still life and natural history painting.
Though rendered with a smooth technicality, in their references to natural history paintings, Van Heeren’s work is interested in the ‘slippage’ between these kinds of representational systems and the world itself.
“What I want to do is different – I want to give each of these scenes its own voice. I’ve had a love of nature my whole life and even in my lifetime everything has changed so rapidly,” said Van Heeren. “I think, with these sea garden paintings, it is almost a homage to something that we may never see again.”
The works are also, inherently, about the time-consuming process of painting itself. “By giving this subject my time, giving it my sensitivity, I want to make it enticing and beautiful,” continued Van Heeren. “When you paint something, rather than rendering it on a digital screen, it takes a long time. I wanted to imbue these works with a sense of that mysterious process.”
Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1989, Judith Van Heeren has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions including Murray White Room, Melbourne (2016); Spring 1883, The Establishment Hotel, Sydney (2015); Sydney Contemporary, Carriageworks (2013), Art Basel Hong Kong (2013).
The artist’s work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria; Art Gallery of Western Australia; RACV Collection; City of Stonnington Collection; City of Port Phillip Collection; Holmes à Court Collection and Artbank. In 2010 Van Heeren was the recipient of the Moya Dyring Studio residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris.
Judith Van Heeren: Sea Garden
Murray White Room, Sargood Lane, Melbourne
Exhibition continues to 5 May 2018
Image: Judith Van Heeren, Sea garden with anemones, 2017. oil on Belgian linen, 62 x 76 cm / Judith Van Heeren, Sea garden with pink sea anemone, 2016. oil on Belgian linen, 48 x 50 cm