Charmaine Pike

In Artist Profile 54, Bridget McLeod previewed Charmaine Pike's 'Rituals of the herd,' which is shortly to open at Defiance Gallery. In this essay, McLeod beholds the 'poetic dimensions' of paper, as it becomes malleable beneath Pike's pencil, paint, and texta.

‘Rituals of the herd’ marks Charmaine Pike’s first Sydney exhibition since 2017. Moving to the next body of work after a successful exhibition, the artist found her work was ‘getting too tight and a little hard edged.’ She was losing the looseness of line that she is known for and decided to take some time out. This proved an astute decision as she has produced a series of strong and energetic paintings and drawings that mark not just a return to form but an enrichment through her work. 

Drawing is central to Pike’s practice. Studying a Painting and Drawing Major at the College of Fine Arts (now UNSW Art & Design), she focused primarily on drawing, but the realities of the local market led her to develop painting. Her recent break allowed her to return to the joy of drawing, exploring the ‘poetic dimensions’ of paper and a variety of materials – pen, crayon, gouache and texta. 

Defiance Gallery Directors Lauren Harvey and Campbell Robertson-Swann have selected a suite of forty of these drawings to display in the exhibition. To Harvey, drawing is the ‘cornerstone which informs all Charmaine’s work’ and the freedom in her approach reveals the ‘immediacy and spontaneity of direct mark making.’ 

Concentrating on drawing has also had a positive impact on Pike’s painting. She states, ‘Without the pressure of a show, I had time to experiment, and that enabled me to get into the painting quicker.’ The freedom of mark making she finds so easily in drawing was also coming out naturally in the paintings as lines are applied and layered with confidence. 

‘Rituals of the herd’ is also one of the artist’s first exhibitions since her trip to China on a Nock Art Foundation Artist Residency in 2017. During this time, she visited the dramatic quartzite sandstone pillars and peaks of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. While these works are not directly depicting this landscape, the impression of the journey can still be felt. To the artist, ‘It was a very affecting trip, profoundly so because the forms that we were seeing over there mimicked what I am drawn to…it was like a spiritual homecoming. It’s like I knew them.’

The purchase of a set of highly pigmented textas during this trip also had a liberating effect on Pike’s work. Experimenting with these bright, unnaturally hued pens led her to be ‘braver’ in her colour choices, giving her the assurance to try colours she never would have in the past, not just in the drawings but also in larger paintings. Lime green, ultramarine blue, hot pink and fluro yellow pop from the paper and canvas making for a riot of energy juxtaposed with the primordial forms that characterise Pike’s work.

These forms are charged with meaning for the artist. They are not a literal depiction of any one place but draw from monolithic structures the artist experienced growing up near the New England area and on visits to central Australia, while also referencing truncated limbs of drought ridden bush, or animal skeletons with mysterious dimensions. 

To Pike, ‘That adage “how long did it take to do a work? My whole life” – it feels like that because it’s all poured in that well of memory, and I’m dipping in and out of that. It could just be a totally made up, instinctive form and it has started to look like something, and I’ve made it into something else. There’s an element of surprise which keeps me engaged.’ 

While generally considered landscapes, if natural features start to look too recognisable, Pike feels she has to ‘destroy the work a bit.’ This abstracting of terrain has increased in ‘Rituals of the herd’, as the artist has started to remove the horizon line that has previously tethered her works to this tradition. Coupled with the greater exploration of colour and patterning across the works, this exhibition marks a compelling progression in Charmaine Pike’s practice – one that was worth the time it took to develop.     

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2020.

Charmaine Pike: Rituals of the Herd
28 April – 20 May 2021
Defiance Gallery, Sydney

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