Suzanne Archer

Reaching into our archive to celebrate Archer's exhibition "Paper Trail," with Nicholas Thompson Gallery, we're delighted to share Prue Gibson's reflections on the artist's work from Artist Profile 11.

Throughout her forty years of making art, Suzanne Archer has honoured the death of animals and the natural decay of life through her paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Whether it be bird carcasses, native marsupial corpses, or horse cadavers, her subject matter has corporeal significance and spiritual possibilities in common, all accompanied by heartfelt compassion.

She explains that the dead animals she collects, mostly from her immediate bush environment but also from friends and acquaintances as gifts, are alive. “I am more than happy to bring back dead animals to the studio. It doesn’t upset me. It is stimulating to see them in that way. Even though sometimes the end of the animals’ lives may have been tortuous, it creates an emotional response in me which I am then able to invest in a painting. They have a life of their own, once they are in my work.”

Nature is at the core of Archer’s preoccupations, and death is one of Mother Earth’s non-negotiable laws. Perhaps it is only because nature is most closely and easily examined upon death, that it is especially attractive to Archer. And only in death are such polarised ideas as decrepitude and regeneration investigated simultaneously. American artist Anni Albers said, “The reality of nature will appear to us as never ending. As we examine it, it is endless. It obeys laws never totally lucid to our understanding.”

Archer was born in 1945 in Surrey, England and at the ripe age of fifteen studied at the Sutton and Cheam School of Art. As part of her studies, she was invited alongside a small privileged group of students from various art schools to work in an art annexe studio in Suffolk. There, walking among the hedgerows, she discovered dead birds and rabbits, caught in the prickled thickets. These she photographed and painted. Once she built the studio in the bush in western Sydney, which has a steep valley down to a Georges River tributary, she began collecting local nature in earnest – snake skins, dead birds and turtles. At one stage, in the corner of her studio, she built a vast three-metre-high pyramid of bush detritus—birds’ wings, feathers, wood etc.—the beneficent offerings of the landscape.       

Archer completes considerable bodies of drawings and sculptures in preparation for her paintings. “Painting is my primary practice. It’s my passion. My paintings take longer than the sculptures, which are the three-dimensional support for the paintings. I love the smell, the texture and the illusory quality of the paint. With paint I can create shadow and depth. I can transform the subject into something monumental.”

Archer considers the act of drawing a resource tool; an integral part of her process of exploring ideas. But they are also finished works on their own. Through her drawings and sculptures she, “gets to know her subject.” In this way, she toys with composition, meaning, spatial complexities, and the possibilities of her palette.

Interestingly, Archer moves from two-dimensional drawings, then creates three dimensional sculptures or tableaux in which she examines concepts of entrapment and mystery, fiction and history. Then she moves back into the two-dimensional to create her paintings. There is a constant shift in and out of space, backwards and forwards from one dimension to another. This is an interesting way to work. For the viewer, there is little difference between the drawings, sculpture, and paintings in terms of their finality or resolution. But for Archer, the dynamics of experimenting with space and changed perspectives are crucial.

Archer’s studio is like a natural history museum. A great dehydrated kangaroo hangs from the ceiling, a gift from fellow artist Luke Sciberras based in Hill End. There are bandicoots, wombats, rams’ skulls and horns, heron corpses, and taxidermy bought on eBay. She also has cabinets full of puffer fishes, bones, teeth, feathers, and an abundance of birds’ nests. These are arranged around her light-filled studio, almost bigger than the home, a dwelling she and husband David Fairbairn built by hand.

In a lead up to her current works focussing on birds, Archer held two exhibitions based on her experiences at Sydney University in the veterinary science unit. In 2002, a student alerted her to the possibility of joining dissection classes and she was soon a regular attendant. Horse carcasses were hung, ready to be studied. “They were confronting and beautiful but dangling like puppets,’”says Archer. “All the students were stroking the heads of the dead horses, in sympathy, before they began work.”

Her more recent works were conceived through a fascination with birds. A heron found on Wollongong Beach (already dried by the sun) and a taxidermy pheasant and rooster generated investigations into mummified creatures and mythological birds, ridden by various imaginary characters. “The mummified birds were about containment,” says Archer. “They are mysterious. How long have they existed? What is the story of the person mummified within? From my collection of dead dried birds, I started a whole set of mummified birds, thinking about that elaborate embalming process. But then I just had to paint them.”

For her sculptures, Archer creates steel armatures, then amasses paper and glue. Sometimes more papier maché is applied or sometimes hessian strips are wound and tied with jute string. But, always, the sculptures are then painted with acrylics. “I tried to lighten up this recent series of work. Several people had found my vet science work gloomy and they felt I was too fascinated with dark aspects of life.” While that is not a pertinent analysis of Archer’s aesthetic convictions, she responded to it enough to alter her work. It includes fantasy figure riding birds into a whimsical dream land. Crow with Rider, 2009, is an immense painting, a paradise of French ultramarine blue. In it, her crow and figure echo a sculpture called Crow and Rider, 2008, except that her painting is monumental and the bird has come alive. There is no brooding or melancholic self-absorption. She conveys joy in her work. “It’s like the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Mexico. That is a whole celebration of death. There are sugar skulls and music and the people are honouring the dead through festivity. Death is just another stage. I’ve always needed to find another way to look at death, as a celebration of another existence.”

Archer has incorporated the traditions of Vanitas painting into her sculptures. In recent work, she created tableau scenes of skulls, versions of hunted game, fish on platters, and objects that inferred the passing of time. These scenes, tableaux, or shelf sculptures were then given mats as bases and background wall hangings, then placed inside vitrine cases. The inferences of memory included mementoes such as a figurine that she bought at a second hand store many years before. “For me, I can’t paint something that is loaned to me. Several people have lent me skulls or bones but I can’t bring myself to use them in my work. They need to belong to me.”

Although Archer’s sculptures are energised creations, she feels most connected to life when painting. “Painting is psychological and emotional. I spend time investigating so that they will impart mystery.” And it’s true. Where Archer’s sculptures are immediate and imaginative, rich with allusions to the history of art, her paintings move from the intimate to the immense: strenuous,  joyful imaginings of the next intangible stage of life. 

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 11, 2010. 

Paper Trail
15 June – 2 July 2022
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne 

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