Georgia Spain

Georgia Spain’s paintings are a celebration of human relationships and the chaos of contemporary life. Her work draws upon a variety of sources, from heartbreaking scenes of people sheltering together from the recent catastrophic bushfires, to the cruelties of ancient Greek tragedies.

Pinned to Georgia Spain’s studio wall is a cluster of postcards, photographs and magazine clippings. There are images of dancers, a game of tug of war, a hot-dog eating contestant hunched over a mound of food, tables laid out with feasts, a group of cheese-rolling competitors throwing themselves down a hill with their limbs outstretched in unlikely directions, and a Pieter Bruegel painting that Spain is attracted to for its “chaos.” While Spain doesn’t directly replicate this source material, she captures the dynamism in these scenes, and, to quote one of the scribbles on the wall, the “messiness of bodies.” She’s interested in ritual and ceremony, spectatorship and crowds, myths and legends, and the things that draw humans together. 

Spain emigrated from Ireland to Melbourne at the age of nine, and moved to Tasmania just before the pandemic hit. Her tiny studio sits on a bushy block near the exquisite beaches of South Arm. In this environment, you might expect to see the influence of the landscape in her subject matter. Yet, her preoccupation with the human form continues to dominate. Late last year, she completed a residency in Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, as part of a Brett Whiteley Scholarship. While many of her fellow residents took the opportunity to paint the surrounding landscape, she painted the artists instead. 

People have been a consistent subject for Spain since art school. During her time at the Victorian College of the Arts, she felt it was “the most uncool subject” (a sentiment I occasionally heard during my own time at art school). However, when she’s tried to paint other subjects, “people creep in.” Spain’s not alone. Humans have been creating images in our likeness for tens of thousands of years. The recognition and creation of anthropomorphic imagery has long been an integral part of human evolution. Far from being “uncool,” the human subject will continue to be relevant, even if the fashions of representation change. 

Our ability to recognise and emotionally respond to the abstracted body is demonstrated in Spain’s increasingly distorted figures. In her 2020 exhibition, Beginning in Blue (Left in Red), Spain’s people are relatively well-defined. The figure in Fire Fighter, 2020, has basic features, but the shorts, tee-shirt, hat, and stick-like limbs are recognisable and distinct from the smoky red background. The water spurting out of the hose is more red than grey, indicating the impossible task of fighting the catastrophic fires. In The Finale, 2020 – also part of Spain’s bushfire series – the figures wear similar block-like clothing. The people huddle together while the fire rages in the background, the tops of the trees blurring into the streaky red flames. The distinction between individual figures is at times ambiguous. A couple link limbs in a comforting embrace, the pink hands of one extending into the exposed shoulders of their partner. Despite the crowd and the horror of the situation, there’s an honest intimacy to the scene.

Spain’s 2021 subjects are even more cryptic, with many figures near indistinguishable from one other. In Mergers, 2021, three figures become one. There’s a certain horror about their patterned skin and distorted expressions, and yet there’s also a comforting warmth about the way the figures lean into each other, particularly the smallest child-like form, which is cocooned into the mass of rounded flesh. The ambiguity is even more pronounced in Fruit Pickers, 2021, where plants and people appear to morph into one. A faceless figure reaches upwards while another seems to be enveloped by the leaves, leaving us to question whether it is in fact human, or perhaps just an anthropomorphised tree trunk.

While the 2020 exhibition, Beginning in Blue (Left in Red), was inspired by specific news events, the experience of the pandemic left Spain with the desire to explore “psychological spaces” and a more “internal world.” Faced with the impossible task of “capturing all the elements of a human being,” she found herself “drawn to the depth of emotions we experience,” as well as our desire for “touch” in the face of forced solitude. This intimacy is evident in Group Hug, 2020, in which half a dozen people are woven together in an absurd criss-cross of limbs. Spain notes that the events of the last year have had a significant impact on the way she views “big groups of people,” although that hasn’t stopped her from painting large gatherings. By abstracting the human form, her subjects aren’t situated in the here and now – in a time where social distancing means that hugs are almost taboo. Instead, the paintings represent the timeless notion of human desire. For a similar reason, Spain’s recent subjects rarely wear clothes. She observes, “Clothes tie people to a time or place. I realised I didn’t need that.”

Many of Spain’s recent paintings draw instead on stories and mythologies learned at Steiner School as a child, from the Greek monster Geryon and the characters in The Bacchae, to Little Red Riding Hood, 2020. Splitting the Body, 2021, depicts a ring of people. The central figure’s bare chest is almost skeletal in its patterning, with violent shadowing in blood-red. It’s based on the Greek tragedy of Pentheus, who was mistaken as a wild animal and torn apart by a group of women. There’s a violent energy to the painting, but also a hint of celebration. In fact, the dynamism and hedonistic spirit of the group recalls Matisse’s famous The Dance, 1910. Spain draws parallels between these ancient myths and contemporary society, noting that they “tie into [her] interest in social collapse, chaos and apocalypse.”

While Spain likes the texture, depth and physicality of oil painting, she uses acrylic paint for its immediacy. At the time of writing, she was reluctant to call any of the paintings for her upcoming show “finished” because of the way she works: constantly returning to paint layer over layer – sometimes to the point of completely obscuring the original image. Her aim is to focus “less on the final image” and more on the process, the painting quality and the brushstrokes. Enjoying the process is central to her current work, allowing her to communicate the depth of human emotion through “freer, frantic, and energetic” forms. We can see this process of layering in Standing, Waiting, Kissing, Waving Etc., 2021. In this celebration of human relationships and desire, the underlayers of background patterning give the painting a real vibrancy and complexity, despite the seemingly sparse background. Spain’s “messiness of bodies” truly captures the chaos of our time.  

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 55, 2021. 
Images courtesy the artist, Egg & Dart, Wollongong, and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Time is the thing a body moves through
1–22 October 2022
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

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