Jacqueline Hennessy

Hennessy, the inaugural winner of the Tweed Regional Gallery – National Art School MFA Residency Award, explores the possibilities and politics of concealment in her most recent suite of paintings.

In The Vigil (Nocturne), 2021, a set of fingertips emerge from a lace cuff, reaching across the painting’s frame to shine the light of a candle onto the scene. These fingers are declarative, deliberate in their gesture. They’re also demure, though not in the sense of being compliant to the demanding interrogative gaze of the viewer. Rather, their shyness is in the way that these fingers themselves fall into the shadow of the candle that they hold: the light fills the frame, but obscures the body of the woman subject.

Hennessy painted this recent suite of works on residency at the Tweed Regional Gallery’s Nancy Fairfax Artist in Residence Studio, as part of the Tweed Regional Gallery – National Art School MFA Residency Award. She spent much of her time on the residency riffling through the Gallery’s recreation of Margaret Olley’s home studio, considering the way that the space itself acts as a portrait of Olley. Hennessy was interested in the way that domestic objects told a story which was at once about Olley, particularly, and about femininity and creativity in more general senses. 

Her other source material was a set of photographs of her own body. Indeed, the relationship (including, importantly, the divergence) between painting and photographic practice as methods of capturing a subject – especially, a woman – is one of the key concerns of this body of work. Hennessy’s paintings show women’s bodies as apparitions in a monochromatic field, at once striking and soft. Typically, we don’t see faces – instead, the figures perform a range of overdetermined gestures, stretching toward communicative richness that tells us about their characters in detail, or else are shown in moments of private bliss or boredom. One sits, her back towards us, on a chair. Another grasps a bunch of flowers to her torso, her hair falling over her face in what looks a happy, evasive accident of rapture. 

As such, these works short-circuit some of the ethical problems which come along with photographing one’s subjects. Without the literalness with which photography refers to its subjects – its verisimilitude – the real-world power dynamics which exist between the beholder and the beholden can be averted. Hennessy not only averts these issues, however, but subverts them as well. In moving from photographs of her own body to paintings, and in absorbing the imagery of Olley’s domestic life as well, Hennessy moves toward a more imaginative treatment of the feminine subject, and becomes, at once, the creator and the created figure. This is an effect of both painting as a form, and of the artist’s particular engagement with it. It is an exercise which allows Hennessy both to investigate the subjection that bodies experience when they are held (down) by a gaze, and to reclaim the act of representing the (or, her) body for herself. Hennessy can choose what to reveal, and what to conceal: where to shine the light, and where to let the shadow fall. 

Still life
19 March – 25 July 2021
Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre, NSW

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