Melitta Perry

Northern Rivers-based painter Melitta Perry casts a web of possibilities across the beloved landscapes that she paints. Dropping domestic objects, isolated houses, and human figures into wide, airy settings, her storytelling is suggestive, ambivalent, and affectionate all at once.

That the figure in Melitta Perry’s Birdwatching (Regent Honeyeaters), 2022, has her back turned to the viewer is emblematic of the artist’s approach to narrative. It’s emblematic, that is, of emblems themselves. This woman’s story spools out in so many speculative directions at once – magnetised towards the future and the past, equally – while never revealing its hand too openly. Her shoulders run into a piece with the mountain ridge on the picture’s horizon line; her gaze follows it, though her binoculars are lowered across her knees. She is in the open field, both on the canvas and within its imaginative world, surrounded by light, lucid expanse. She seems precisely not to be birdwatching. 

This figure, like all the human and other-than-human protagonists in Perry’s latest body of work, sits within a landscape inspired by the artist’s long study of the New South Wales Northern Rivers. In this place, stimuli of all kinds are abundant; it’s a verdant, luscious area, with so many strata of natural and human history percolating through the hills. Sometimes, to me, it feels as if the action of these histories is even more of a fermentation than a percolation: a building up of things, and then their eventual breaking-down under the weight of their own humid excess. Perry has lived in this area for twenty years, having returned there from a period spent living and working in the UK. She describes her intimacy with the area as having built up over time, on seasonal and generational scales: “My verandah has an old couch that is witness to the sunset over the western ridge line, where I can follow the point at which the sunset moves along the horizon as the seasons play out. My daughter has grown up wandering in and out of the studio, accompanying me on field trips . . . ” Much of the source material for Perry’s latest body of work was drawn from just such field trips: photographs, journals, pieces stumbled upon in op shops along the way.

Other materials are more eclectic, and used both more and less literally than landscape is, as a setting. Poets shape her thinking: Dorothy Porter, Randolph Stowe, Phillip Larkin. Perry also uses her own household items as “props” in her studio, placing domestic objects into environments where they are at once foreign and familiar. Sometimes, this “same same, but different” relationship between Perry’s objects and the landscape they dwell within is figured through an echoing: in An Aside (Orange-bellied Parrots), 2022, has its parrots both perched on the back of a chair, and embroidered into its cushion. Citing themes of interest as including “memory, lineage, lore, colonialism, and sovereignty,” the insertion of storied items into differently storied landscapes produces softly ambivalent lines of association in Perry’s images. Her historical research into the locations she paints is meticulous, yet her storytelling imaginative and associative. She never paints on behalf of others. 

For all her ambivalence, Perry’s gaze is warm. The windows in her houses are often just glinting with enough light to suggest that you’d want to go inside, to see what is (or was, or will be) going on. Perhaps this warmth has to do with touch – she emphasises the analogue nature of her work, noting that she builds, stretches, and prepares her own canvases. Perhaps it has to do with the ease with which she inhabits the same spaces she paints.”I think there is a quiet happiness that comes through in the works,” she says, “that is the result of embracing the beauty that is found everywhere.”

Melitta Perry: Weaving the Borderlands
30 April – 14 May 2022
Anthea Polson Art, Queensland 

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