On the surface, Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings look like a game of dress-ups, theatrical sets designed with props and embellishments for a play about to begin. As we wait for the actors to appear, Koroluk-Stephenson’s objects begin their own dialogue, exchanging gestures and viewpoints across the spectrum of light, shadow and colour, announcing their roles in her playful visual vocabulary. Like a dramaturg carefully working the relationships between characters, concepts, sets and props, she balances many stories within each space, the theatrical nature of her settings enhancing the performative nature of her objects and of her paintings themselves. But there is an ambiguous quality to these dialogues as she juxtaposes familiar and unfamiliar objects, mixes landscapes with interiors, and shifts the terms of reference between different cultures and histories across various scenarios. In the mix of modern and classical replicas and representations there is a sense of incongruity and uncertainty alluding to hidden histories of value and meaning such that we may ask - what landscape is this? Who lives here? Where have these objects come from? Where are we?
On a formal level, Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings stage an interplay between two and three-dimensional space. She divides space through walls and drapery that conceal and shape its dimensions, blending interiors with exteriors and hinting at views out the window, beyond the frame. Her folded screens ‘Somewhere in the Middle’ occupy the shared ground between two and three dimensions, embodying tensions between representing pictorial space and dividing it. Her mix of architectural design features – walls, patios, columns, stairwells, windows, selections of ‘landscape’, artificial lawn, white picket fences and the array of classical and modern objects, creates a rich vocabulary not only for exploring the ways we divide and construct particular spaces, but also the divisions between cultural environments and meanings. Blending the hyper-aesthetics of a modern interior design catalogue with elements of pastiche, KS’s approach carries with it a deeper critique of the positioning of cultural materials and artefacts, the shifting and sometimes illusory nature of their value and significance, and how they come to occupy certain spaces and mean certain things.
Shifting focus from her recent works on Australian suburbia, ‘Middleground’ hints at the legacies of colonialism in Australia and the ways in which cultural significance is constructed and exchanged, but also sometimes lost, through particular objects and images. Her ‘Blue Room’ works gather a cast of European and Australian artefacts, where the emphasis is less on their individual meanings or histories, and more on the role they play within a post-colonial dialogue. Stone cairns and maps tell stories of journeys and placemaking, peacocks, globes and model ships speak about the spectacle of exploration and Europe’s fascination with ‘the exotic, Picasso’s ‘Head of a Woman’, or the black and white Aboriginal shield point to European appropriations of ‘the primitive’ for its own cultural ends. Amidst these ‘relics’, ‘trophies’ and ‘legacies’, Koroluk-Stephenson places iconic Australian paintings and artefacts such as the infamous ‘Big Blue Lavendar Bay’ falsely attributed to Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan’s beloved ‘Ned Kelly’, and the rather lonely portrait of John Glover, revealing other dimensions of Anglo-European attempts to forge a ‘national’ vision within Australia against a backdrop of European influences. Critically, she doesn’t give these pieces centre-stage, but instead lets them linger in the background ironically overlooking the pre-cut strips of turf and artificial plants, the staircase or passageway leading nowhere and glimpses of the Tasmanian shoreline out the window.
In these and her other works, it’s perhaps not so much that these objects or artworks lose their meaning or that Koroluk-Stephenson wants to reduce their significance for political reasons, but more a case of showing how they gain or lose particular meanings in certain contexts and spaces. In her ‘pink’ paintings, Koroluk-Stephenson turns to the feminine to explore these tensions, in particular the relationships between Anglo-European myths of femininity and the exotic. In ‘Interior with Australian Venus, after Rayner Hoff’ she elevates and decentres Hoff’s famous sensual Venus, (1927) exploiting the sculpture’s contours like a fashion editor, scaling it down to fit the compressed, domestic space. Juxtaposing Hoff’s Venus with key flower paintings by women painters such as Georgia O’Keefe and Margaret Preston and various eroticised natural forms, Koroluk-Stephenson showcases the exotic feminine in different guises, highlighting its gendered politics within the modern period.
In other works, such as ‘Ancanthe after a Lady’ or ‘Vestiges, after John and Jane’ Koroluk-Stephenson uses conflicts between idealised femininity and the lives of real women to explore tensions within the Tasmanian colonial landscape. Through various classical references, we see the remnants of Lady Jane Franklin’s life in the vestige stones and Greek columns of her ‘Ancanthe’ house, the site of her vision for a garden and culture of the arts, cut short by the disappearance of her husband John during an Arctic voyage. Koroluk-Stephenson places the Hawaiian feather cape, gifted to Franklin in Hawaii by King Kamehameha IV in 1861 on a bright yellow wall, the tropical colour at odds with an otherwise European palette, a symbol of her displacement following many years of searching for John at sea. In ‘Anne and Aphrodite Koroluk-Stephenson’s juxtaposition of a manicured hedge with pristine bust of Aphrodite and the rugged peak of British-named Mount Anne (after Georgina Anne Frankland) in the background, places women at the uneasy centre of Europe’s attempts to naturalise the Australian landscape and its own myths of grandeur.
The combined effect of Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings is a playful but profound sense of displacement and the feeling that even if we were to recognise a place or an object, it is ambiguous and only partially there. Her works maintain the seductions of the picturesque whilst unsettling the codes of the many artefacts and objects that we use to construct the appearance of a civilised world, asking us to look more deeply at what is hidden within the stories we tell about ourselves. Beneath her carefully constructed veneers, Koroluk-Stephenson’s works perhaps reflect deeper tensions within modern Australia, the legacies of European influence and the co-existence of displaced cultures, not the tyranny, but the ‘nearness of distance’ that pre-occupies contemporary Australian consciousness. In this sense, her works seem less concerned with the details of the past, and more with the workings of the present – a ‘middleground’ where many myths and histories mingle in close proximity, carving out the space like a set, but preventing us from entering.
Dr Eliza Burke, October 2018