Sonia Payes

We revisit Issue 41, when Ashley Crawford took us on a journey into the multifaceted world of Sonia Payes – a Melbourne artist who creates photography, sculpture, video and installation pivoted on environmentalism to examine intersections between landscape and the body, the feminine and the natural.

A recent coastal installation by Melbourne artist Sonia Payes resembled bleached stone that had been buffeted for eons by ocean waves, honed clean, washed and sculpted by nature to the point that this mass of stone, rising out of the sand, closely resembled a feminine human face.

Of course we seem to naturally ‘see’ human faces in the strangest of places. We spot a majestic profile in skimming clouds, a howling visage in a roaring fireplace or a sombre, melancholy mien in the whorls of a tree trunk. But for all that Payes’ portrait may have been sculpted by hand; it had every appearance of something belonging to nature, something strangely remote from human intervention.

Payes’ blending of femininity and the natural has been an ongoing pursuit for well over a decade now. It carries hints, at times overt, of environmental concern in an age of climate calamity. But just as often it suggests a simple love note to her muse, her daughter, Ilana.

Ilana admitted to her own unease at walking into a room such as Payes’ recent massive exhibition at Scott Livesey Gallery in Melbourne to be confronted by her own visage in photographic portraits, intense installations and massive steel and stone sculpted busts. “My mother always knows what’s going on,” says Ilana of some of her mother’s portraits. “Even before I do. Ever since I can remember she has called herself a ‘white witch’. Perhaps it’s just a mother’s instinct.”

But there is far more to it than a simple mother’s homage to her daughter. “To me these works also seem like her first environmental images, even though they are portraits. They are landscape format, and the atmosphere has changed. There is an agony that seems to come from the earth, rather than an individual,” says Ilana.

If this suggests that Payes is a one-themed artist obsessed by a family member, nothing could be further from the truth. In that same show, Payes shifted with equal adroitness from visionary photography to emboldened sculpture, potent video to skilled experimental installation. In her ‘Minerva’ works her warrior women stare out from sheets of metallic material, witnessing events from another dimension, that of our own. Her multi-hued warriors were rendered in cyan, red and green inspired in part from a 2012 trip to China.

Elsewhere images sprang from adventures in Papua New Guinea and, most recently, the Serengeti in Africa. An outstanding work from Africa, yet to be shown, was a stunning portrait of a Masai warrior staring defiantly at the camera. Less obvious works from this journey featured strangely formed islands in dark, muddied waters – these were in fact a series of hippos, which had morphed into landscape. Her Masai visage was a return to a format with which Payes made her name, that of portraiture. The ‘Untitled’ project began as a series of portraits of Australian artists in their studios, from John Mawurndjul to Gareth Sansom, and grew to culminate in a lavish, 400-page, large-format, hardback book, published in 2007.

Over four years, Payes researched and photographed 60 artists in their studios and in their everyday lives to accumulate a comprehensive and often unexpected photo-documentary of Australia’s contemporary art landscape and the artists that populated it. Travelling throughout Australia and internationally, Payes’ tireless and relentless motivation captured intimate moments and scenes from the lives of her subjects. The finished book garnered much acclaim, while the large-format photographic portraits themselves were exhibited in galleries around Australia for several years.

However she rapidly moved beyond any chance of being pigeonholed as any kind of portraitist. Increasingly experimenting with format and content, her imagery took on extreme variations of strangeness, making her nickname as the ‘white witch’ seem increasingly relevant. Both the imperilled environment and, in her mythos, its savior ‘feminine other’ became her talismans.

In her video epic Corn and Quarries a distinct sense of ‘wrongness’, of Freud’s unheimlich – the uncanny – goes far, far further than in her earlier works. It opens, and maintains, its narrative from above, recalling the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as the camera zooms over the landscape. The sounds of icy wind supply a chilling soundtrack, the hillsides are broiling with life, tall stems dancing and swaying. But they are not wheat stalks. Nor corn.

Payes’ plants are comprised of human faces, or rather a face – that of her daughter Ilana – multiplied infinitum. As the viewer is almost forcibly projected over this chilling landscape it becomes apparent that the faces are arranged, Janus-like or in keeping with the entities that watch over Angkor Wat, to stare north, west, south and east, all-seeing but arguably, in their crowded mass and buffeted by the wind, not necessarily all-powerful. Indeed, perhaps in waiting for the thrasher machine to reap this strange crop.

Much of her recent move into environmentalism in her work was inspired by her witnessing the destruction of the natural environment during a visit to Papua New Guinea. “I had never felt the need to voice my concerns for the environment before that experience, but it compelled me to express that aspect of my interest,” she says.

“Her recent move into landscape and environmental photography might have being partly influenced by my nagging,” says Ilana. “This I will happily take claim to. A while back I became conscious of our environmental impact on the planet and became a little more active in environmentalism. I started to influence my young students to learn about issues such as deforestation, clean water in developing countries and organic food. My students became budding environmentalists. My mother was not immune from my influence.”

Payes considers the landscape and the body to be equal fodder as material for her tactic of metamorphosis. “The body and the landscape are as one to me, forever changing,” she says. “Without change there cannot be growth. Without growth there cannot be change. The body is in constant interaction with the environment. The two cannot be separated.” And as the feminine visage becomes the lodestone, the icon, symbolic of birth and then rebirth, it appears, emerging from the rich mulch of the earth and beginning to dominate the hillsides and protecting the beaches until Sonia Payes’ symbolism seems to take on a life of its own.

Hillview Sculpture Biennial
28 April – 27 May 2018
Sutton Forest NSW

Sonia Payes is represented by Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne

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