Robyn Sweaney

In Issue 42, Robyn Sweaney spoke about her artistic journey from the interior realm of the still life to the nostalgic suburban streetscapes that now populate her output.

My art practice excavates the complexities of Australian identity and place by responding to mundane rural and suburban environments. I am drawn to the quirkiness of the Australian landscape and am interested in how homes and streetscapes function as aesthetic incarnations of the belief structures influencing human behaviours on emotional, intellectual and spiritual levels. Over the years my practice has also included still-life, landscape and portraiture.

Mount Waverley, then an outer suburb of Melbourne, is where I grew up. During the 1960s and 1970s this suburban area slowly grew around our modestly designed, rectangular, flat-roofed house created by emigre architects John and Helen Holgar.

Thirty years ago I moved to Mullumbimby in northern New South Wales. The rural landscape and the country towns seemed a world away from the city I left behind. The small villages did, however, remind me of the suburbs of my youth – the landscape verdant and the houses humble.

I have always been interested in architecture, particularly modernism and post-war buildings, and how people choose to live. While riding around town one day I had an epiphany. By painting houses I could combine an expression of place with philosophical and poetic ideas. It took me outside the domestic realm of the home and the feminine association of the still-life. At that time Mullumbimby was changing with a new influx of people moving to the area and I wanted to capture something of the village that I knew and had grown to love.

In 2006 I had my first exhibition of paintings depicting local houses. It was named ‘The House Beautiful’, after a late 19th-century book by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and writer William Herman Winslow, which addressed the aesthetic, practical, social and spiritual concerns of creating a home.

As I was creating this body of work it became evident that these paintings represented homes, not just houses. Homes and streetscapes divulge more than their mere exteriors, functioning as repositories of identity. For us as viewers they can convey a complex emotional response depending on our own experiences. They are familiar faces within the distinctly Australian landscape, but each is unique in its own way.

My earlier paintings were in gouache and oil, both of which I still love using, but I now paint in acrylics on canvas and, more recently, board. The benefit of using acrylic paint is that it is quick drying and ideal for detailed layered work and thin glazing and, as I paint at home, it is also a less toxic medium.

Drawing is an integral part of my art practice, not only as a tool to collect information and record detail but also as an experience in itself – the direct and intimate process of mark-making. While I am drawing, time slows and thoughts and ideas unfold that not only explore and penetrate an ordering of space, a search for form and structure, but can also transcribe an experience, emotion or atmosphere that is totally personal. I also love a sharp pencil.

The drawing Southside depicts the side elevation of a house in Broken Hill where I did a residency at the Art Exchange in 2012. Southside is about light and shade, along with the juxtaposition of the considered placement of the sculpted manicured trees seen through a canopy of gum trees.

Residencies, travelling to new places and revisiting past landscapes has become an extremely important element to inspire new bodies of work. Last summer I spent time staying on the southern Victorian coast in Portland and on the Mornington Peninsula. Holding on is a simple landscape of tea trees bent by strong coastal winds, yet it expresses a lot about tenacity and endurance.

The paintings Understory and Silent Serenade both represent a pilgrimage and evoke nostalgia for time spent on the coast when young. This deep motivation to revisit places of my past could be the need to externalise feelings that give meaning and structure to distant memories. There is strong evidence of romanticism and renewal in both these works.

My recent work, including the painting Time & tide focuses on the coast and revisiting the still-life. In the painting Full circle I have combined one of my paintings along with collected ceramics and coastal foliage. I am interested in creating not merely picturesque still-lifes but synecdochal representations of place. These objects physicalise fragments of place by being displaced – pried from their original residence and recontextualised as revenant presences from another time and place.

I will be developing this idea further with landscapes and still-lifes that explore how the collecting of foliage and objects connects us through thought and memory back to that place or even an imagined or idealised place.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 42, 2018

Robyn Sweaney | Hidden in Plain Sight
2 – 20 June 2020
Arthouse Gallery, Sydney


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