The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason.
Beyond the Gate dwells on the impossibility of utopia. At first glance, the scenes in Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings are bright and playful. They depict a kind of urban paradise with soft grassy hills, colourful and exotic flora and fauna, generous dwellings, and leisure activities aplenty. Mannequin-like figures dot the paintings, either hard at work, or enjoying the sunny weather next to pools or on the golf course.
However, things aren’t quite right in paradise. Within the flattened picture plane, angles begin to slip. We see impossible walls, paths that lead to nowhere, and awkwardly placed ladders. Two boys peer over a white picket fence where confident black swans have occupied a domestic pool. The treehouse above their heads, although colourful, is clumsy and impractical, and the title – Flying into Shallow Waters – suggests more is at risk than the boys’ toy aeroplane.
In Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s suburban landscape is the backdrop to an extraordinary tale at odds with the absurd uniformity of the pastel houses, lawns and topiaried hedges. Like Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings, his sets exaggerate suburban life, emphasising uniformity over creativity. This conformity is emphasised in Koroluk-Stephenson’s work through the repetition of plants, the Sims-like characters, and unremarkable dwellings. Like film sets, the paintings are dotted with props: slides, ladders, umbrellas, deck chairs, towels and inflatable swimming rings. They’re items of leisure and play, and in many instances, their presence and location are deliberately nonsensical, and their numbers excessive. In the presence of children, they represent an obsession with short term attention and instant gratification at the expense of lifelong learning and the development of creative play.
The artist refers to her scenes as “unreal spaces” that reveal the “absurdity of utopia,” but equally, the absurdity of suburbia. She sets up contradictions: on one hand, she believes the lush foliage alludes to the Garden of Eden, and yet the gardens, with their patterned plants and carefully constructed landscaping, are a little too tidy. Large stumps of trees are repurposed to support balconies, platforms and treehouses. With the trees removed from the environment, they’re replaced with ‘instant’ plants evidently out of place.
The stairs, ladders and slides symbolise instability, cautioning against false aspirations and utopian dreams. Before the Flood depicts a young family watching kayakers paddle upstream. Biblical reference aside, the presence of the dam appears to threaten the safety of the elegant, yet precarious-looking house. On closer examination, it looks like the only access to the relatively large house is via an unsecured red ladder, suggesting that practicality was not the architect’s forte. But it looks nice. With its strong lines and geometric forms, the house has a Japanese aesthetic, which is complemented by the nearby cherry blossoms, coneshaped trees and placid-looking pelicans. It’s a façade, and a potentially dangerous one.
The scenes in Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings are composites. They’re non-places populated by generic buildings, swimming pools, and rolling grassy hills, most of which are modelled on images found online. The large house in Evergreen is largely drawn from a contemporary prefabricated housing catalogue. Dwarfed by its neighbour, the other house is an original 1960s design with a similarly sloped roof and floor-length windows. Both are puzzlingly empty, even though (with the exception of the delicious-looking lawn) the surrounding plants look artificially well established and immaculately pruned. The exotic plants are unrealistically and uncomfortably perfect, as if dragged from a digital catalogue.
As constructions, Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings lack a specific locality. However, there is a distinct Australian aesthetic, and in some of the images we can see hints of Hobart: a notorious Sandy Bay unit block, a low bridge, yachts leaning into the ocean breeze, and a tiny Mount Wellington. Of all the paintings in the exhibition, End of the Line is the most suggestive of Hobart. Itis a collage of local imagery from realestate.com, resulting in unlikely angles, a redundant garage, and an awkward and painful-looking slide that is not only impractical due to the presence of a hedge, but also surplus to the needs of the bored-looking children.
The mythical ‘Great Australian Dream’ of home ownership has encouraged urban sprawl on our city fringes, and while End of the Line, Flying into Shallow Waters and On the Rise, hint at inner city living, other paintings such as Making Way and From the Ground Up suggest new, greenfield developments dominated by large kit homes. Home ownership has a special place in Australian society. It’s an obsession. Type ‘Australian real estate’ into Google and it identifies 124 million results. The first page lists sponsored investment sites, homeloan deals, and newspaper articles reporting record auction prices and the consequential unaffordability of ‘the dream’. It’s political, it’s social, and it’s dirty. In the 1940s and 50s, Prime Minister Robert Menzies openly established home ownership initiatives to counter communism. He reasoned that people who owned a house, a garden and a white picket fence, were unlikely to turn revolutionary. Despite the fact that home ownership is now financially out of reach for many young Australians, the ‘dream’ remains central to Australian culture and identity. Like Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings, it’s a constructed ideal. Her houses, landscaped pools, golf courses and colourful plants would not be out of place in a housing development brochure or model.
Although many of the figures in Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings seem emotionally neutral, the relationship between the people in Upper Limits is intriguing. In front of a modest house balanced on stilts, a young woman crouches over a partly-constructed swimming pool, while two men appear to be holding a conversation on the grassy slope. One is dressed in a suit, and could be a real estate agent, and perhaps the title refers to a ‘maxed out’ mortgage and the ‘limits’ of the dream. Of course, it could equally relate to the precariousness of the raised house on the edge of a rocky retaining wall, or the wooden staircase perched on worryingly high supports. A tree stump, absurdly incorporated into a bizarre wooden platform, represents the destruction of the natural environment, and a desire to control nature through the replanting of more desirable and flamboyant foliage. The golf courses located in most of the paintings further symbolise this drive to impose order on the natural environment through the artificial construction of smooth surfaces, varied lengths of grass, water hazards, and ‘natural’ grassy knolls.
Despite the exhibition title, few of Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings depict physical gates or fences. Notions of ownership, division, and even exclusion, are suggested via more subtle means. For instance, Divided Living depicts a block of units on the left, and a large modern house with floor to ceiling windows on the right. The two are not divided by a fence, as would usually be expected. The division is instead implied by the size and the distinction between public and private space. Although the house is closer to the front of the picture plane, it still seems disproportionately large compared to the sad-looking flats. In the early twentieth century, Modernist architects associated glass and transparency with technological and ideological virtue, destroying the distinction between public and private life. Walter Benjamin remarked: “to live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence. It is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism that we badly need. Discretion concerning one’s own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an affair of petit-bourgeois parvenus.” 2 However, the practicality of the material means that these kinds of houses tend to be quite costly, and not as egalitarian as once imagined. Unlike the shrouded units, the occupants of the house aren’t concerned with curtains, and we can see their vast living and bedroom area, along with their designer furniture and artwork, suggesting that the links between class and privacy have greatly changed over the last century.
While Divided Living comments on class through ownership, many of the other paintings suggest social division through labour and leisure. Themes of work and play are repeated throughout the paintings, depicted by two distinct groups of people: the workers and the holidaymakers or ‘leisure makers’. The workers, heads down, are absorbed by their labour, subject to the gaze of the leisure class. In Making Way, the workers are watched by a group of children and teenagers wearing t-shirts and swimming costumes. A teenager observes from a deckchair, while others stand on an oddly situated viewing platform, phone in hand and uncomfortably out of place. Where there are no ‘leisure makers’ (or ‘leisure seekers’) on scene, their presence is nonetheless suggested: in Higher Ground a towel lies casually on the freshly laid turf, and in From the Ground Up, an inflatable ring sits atop a turquoise pool.
Throughout the paintings, surplus deckchairs and brightly coloured umbrellas sit empty, waiting, and the pools, treehouses, golf courses, slides and tents - things usually associated with holidays – sit in a landscape that’s still being created. Again, it’s a contradiction designed to deconstruct notions of luxury and ownership.
Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings address an overwhelming number of themes, from the destruction of the natural environment to the absurdity of suburbia and notions of greed and desire. The works highlight our harmful attempt to control nature through the irrational recreation of exotic landscapes in our gardens and parks, and that instant gratification can be a substitute for happiness. As Richard Flanagan writes in The Narrow Road to the Deep North:
And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter – professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space – was vested with the greatest of significance, and everything that did matter - pleasure, joy, friendship, love, - was deemed somehow peripheral.
It may be sunny in paradise, but those exotic plants have a sting.