Suzanne Archer

'The Mermaid’s Tail' at Orange Regional Gallery brings twenty of the artist’s extraordinary paintings and drawings of the last five years into focus. From recent bodies and previously unseen work, the exhibition is a profound testament to this artist’s calibre and speaks to her engagement with nature as both subject and mystery: “There on the beach at Austinmer I thought I saw a mermaid’s tail - a reminder that not all things are what they seem to be . . . ”

Occupying the North Gallery of the newly expanded Orange Regional Gallery, Archer’s work is both monumental and domestic, and though the size of her work is large, there is a compatibility of scale that comfortably locates the work within the space. Moreover, the vast expanses of gallery white walls lend Archer’s highly physical work a certain lightness.

There is a density to the painting work of Archer that conjures the visual depth and richness of tapestries, where colour and texture is simultaneously impermeable, sharp, fractious and amplified. Contrasting tones intensify colour, while the quick sharp brush strokes lay a staccato-like textural rhythm that traces line and give the works a drawn quality. Add to this the artist’s subject matter, which leaps from the essence of the impenetrable bush surrounding her home and studio in Wedderburn, to bird bones, masks and the flotsam of life, and you have a body of work that touches on the gothic, pattern and Neo-expressionism without missing a beat.

The work is in fact rife with complexities where the tangle of the bush is interspersed with visual elements such as eyes, shells and shopping bags. Fuelled by an ever-expanding collection of the everyday, the artist’s motifs range from the mystical to the ordinary: the special to detritus, where each is absorbed into the rich pattern of the artist’s visual environment:

“For a long time there has been an area of my painting wall in my studio which displays a collection of photos such as my eyes, a mask-like image cut from a rejected painting, a green wrist splint and found bush objects and findings from the beaches of the South Coast. These images are random and are added to from time to time. They are included, intuitively, into my paintings to create disruptions that energise the works by often not making sense but by causing the viewer to question . . . why? This question for me adds a further visual and psychological layer to the work,” says Archer.

Underflow, 2022 is one of the larger works in the exhibition. This vast canvas (comprising three panels) is filled with the lower trunk and gnarled root ball of an ancient tree. The rhythm and repetition of the painting is intense with red on black providing the primary composition. Filling the structure are smaller denser (or looser) lines: curves, dots, dashes, splashes, marks, and colour. Indeed, what strikes as a red and black painting is dense with green, brown, salmon, purple and yellow with life seemingly bursting through the organic matter of both tree and river bank.

Winterburn, 2019 – also large – is similarly rich, with a profuse substrate of gold and amber gridded blocks exploding into bright puffs of exuberant purple and glowing lilac. Cracking through these rhythms and disruptions are seams of glowing red that again have the quality of the drawn line in their traverse across the surface. Floating through the middle of this painting is the ghost-like form of an inverted shopping bag, which touches back to the mask as an ongoing motif in her oeuvre.

Shifting from primordial to the throwaway medical masks of the pandemic, the shape used in Updraught and Tailwind, both 2021, is reduced to the kite-like or sideways diamond gesture. Brightly coloured in yellow or blue, with red seams or checks, the masks float across the canvas in resplendent ebullience. Compositionally arranged to discord the eye, the opposing colour strengths jostle for dominance. Meanwhile the dark matrix of Updraught shifts to assert its own authority as the strange red grids find form. Tailwind is similarly layered. For this work however, a luminous white ground seeps upwards into the surface to give the impression the masks are sinking. Conflating culture and science, some of the masks in this work are given eye and mouth arrangements – not quite eyes, not quite mouths, but strangely familiar.

It is this feeling of the familiar that pervades Archer’s work and lends the whole a sense of the uncanny, with insects, decayed bird corpses (showing the fragility of a wing) and the human/inhuman aspect of the masks. That said, her work is joyful and exuberantly rich with humanity.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63.

The Mermaid’s Tail
29 April – 25 June, 2023 
Orange Regional Gallery, Orange 

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