Gabrielle Courtenay

The raw matter of Gabrielle Courtenay’s work often appears to her like a dream-like force. Branches, root forms, discarded household objects—these drop down or are carried up into Courtenay’s hands by conspiracies of the world beyond her, as she moves across urban parks, coastlines, and the storied spaces of her own and others’ homes. Wood Spirit, 2022, for instance, broke into Courtenay’s life as an apparition: the branch which gives the work both its structure and its auratic power bobbed up to the surface of a pond in Centennial Park by the shore of which Courtenay had been sketching with a friend during the first of Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdowns.

Since colonial occupation, this site on Gadigal land has been the place of Sydney’s second commons, of an early-nineteenth-century water reserve, of the first water pipes to supply the city, and of the public park that sits at the centre of its self-imagination today. The place is alive with the rhythm of human activities—with people taking their passage around the Park’s shorelines and through the parkland, some repeatedly across whole lifetimes. These shores are also where Courtenay would come to wander as a child growing up in Sydney (she is one of six), weaving away from the world of human sociality in pursuit of more-than-human connection. These shores, I suspect, may be where Courtenay’s journey as a feminist artist—and what she understands to be a complexly related exploration of the visible world as a spiritual world—began.

I’d also like to suggest that these shores can help us to figure a few aspects of Courtenay’s artmaking, both as she has worked towards Following the Moonlight Path and more broadly over her four decades of practice. Our planet’s shores are zones where the ‘matters’ of the natural world and of our human lives are brought into startling communion with each other. This is Courtenay’s prerogative, too: to soak our history and happenstance through with a something deeper and more divine, in a process of estuarial alchemy.

This alchemy can be read right on the surfaces of Courtenay’s artworks. An iridescence—at once a visual, chemical, and metaphysical condition—disperses itself across many of the pieces in Following the Moonlight Path. When we talk about this show, Courtenay describes a procedure by which she builds up her sculptures’ surfaces with mixed bronze powders, before treating them and  burnishing to fold a glow deeply into their bodies. Her paintings, like Metaphorical Bloom #1 and #2, both 2023, and Aphrodite, 2021, obtain this glow through the layering of pigmented gessos, metallic acrylics and paint mixtures onto the canvas, one translucence nested into the other. Courtenay also speaks of her desire to grasp at the haptic sensation of beauty as she encounters it in the natural world, rather than at the forms in which that beauty is instantiated in one encounter or another. Her hard-wrought sheen softens the sense of her works’ representational-ness, subtly moving them towards a more abstract state of beauty. As such, we might think of her hand as tide-like, lapping away at the anecdotal visions that she encounters in order to transform them into truer, more poetic forms.

It’s also important to note that, like a tide, Courtenay’s work is iterative. For four decades, she has returned with resolute focus to a set of core ideas and image-vocabularies: our human wovenness into the natural world, the imperative to act consciously in our current period of acute environmental crisis, and an open-ended iconography drawn from a variety of Christian and non-Christian sources (one which, characteristically, turns away from the face towards humbler, and more encompassing, images).

Despite these sustained interests, each return of the tide is unidentical with the last. Courtenay’s interests are continually inflected by her own life as it changes, by the historical events that she is witness to, and by her explorations of other artists’ work. Writers including Tracy Clement and Victoria Hammond, for instance, have noted the varying influence of William Blake’s symbology in Courtenay’s paintings throughout her career; in this most recent body of work, Courtenay reflects that she’s been especially interested in feminine divinity as its reflected in Blake’s images of harpies. Note the way that feminine torsos and limbs, at once human and arboreal, appear throughout this exhibition bound up with bird-like elements, as hybridic forms of life at once sensual, authoritative, and foreboding. Look at Connaturalis, 2022, with its burnished branch for an arm, stretching up from a bed of shining black feathers. This is another aspect of Courtenay’s littoral magic: her works are often art-historical studies used to critically reflect on the conditions of contemporary life. A harpy becomes a harbinger of the environmental and climatic change which besets our mother earth.

All of this is to say that the shore lines on (and as) which Courtenay works is a meeting-place between what is solid—diurnal, legible—and what is stranger and more urgent to us. This shore is a contested site of contact between human beings and the things we think are beyond us. It’s the place where familiar things are threshed from the world only to appear again, later, aslant. This shore is where Courtenay always works, no matter whether she is in her Alexandria studio, walking through forests on visits to Yuin land, sourcing materials, or digging through her home and history.

Courtenay seeks to be in, and to take her audience to, a place where the flotsam of our lives is thrown up, polished down, and made potent, in a way that is both intensely personal and communal. She seeks to take us to a place where there are no accidents, only coincidences that were meant to be, and where goddesses are the branches, the roots, the stars around us. This is where art takes us, after all: someplace known to the water within us, where things and histories jostle about, and where forms coalesce and break apart, just as we do.

Following the Moonlight Path
21 June – 1 July, 2023 
Sheffer Gallery, Sydney 

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related