Laura Jones’ exhibition I woke up like this, turns the gallery into a portrait gallery; instead of headmasters, heroes or saints though the portraits are of close friends and fellow (often creative) travellers. The title of the exhibition subtly directs the viewer to the way women present themselves as their natural self when they dress and put makeup on for a night out. It is also an appropriation of a line in an equally tongue in cheek Beyonce track Flawless (that also directly addresses feminism and the constraints on women). Behind this “authenticity” lie numerous subtle tricks of seduction and social power. Jones paintings can be seen the same way: they hide behind their surface a matrix of social interaction and friendship and feminist politics.
Jones works hard to allow her sitter to express themselves through their own choices including clothing and pose. The clothes are all models own and in this show almost become a character themselves. The images are still and relaxed and do not have the high energy of a photographic selfie. In this way her work can be seen a little at odds with the contemporary world, a refuge even. The paintings have in them the time in the studio, the chats over a cup of tea, the shared discussions of anxieties and loves. The studio becomes a home, a space of femininity (as Griselda Pollock might say); it is a space that allows for possible resistance and strength.
Ann Elias in her recent book Useless Beauty has made a thorough working through of the floral still life tradition in Australian art and some of her conclusions are provocative and apposite to Jones practice. Although not illustrating the book Jones has read the book with interest. The still life is seen as a gendered genre, a woman’s genre, from Margaret Preston to Margaret Olley. It is traditionally domestic, feminine and beautiful. By focusing on this genre, and indeed the female portrait, Jones knowingly engages with this lineage. It represents a poetry of the intimate, the friend and the home and in this way women’s power.
This is perfectly mirrored in the generosity of spirit behind the painting of the work. Jones’ work, whether portrait or still life, is based in studio observation. She sets up her subject in her studio and draws from life. Her work exudes a stillness and mindfulness that has struck a chord in many people. She is an astute observer of texture, colour and line and looks carefully always at “the thing” in front of her; her paintings never fall back on an overarching style or method and there is a searching quality in her work.
There is a beautiful humility to this approach. John Berger described why he drew a little everyday even though he abandoned painting for writing, “It is that rare thing that gives you a chance of a very close identification with something, or somebody, who is not you. So maybe it is not so different from storytelling after all”. I like this reading of observational art. It is not about the Self seeing better (as John Ruskin would have exhorted) but about getting outside yourself altogether. The question is not what do I want this rose to look like but more how does this rose want or demand to be painted.
In these works Jones has turned her studio into a stage to profess admiration and love for the strong women around her. Although, like flowers, the works lead with a complex surface beauty, what really unites them is a deep respect for their subjects. It is this respect, in relation to the usual honorific oil portrait, that really sets out the shows political dimension; young women, not old father figures, are shown in pride of place along the line.
Oliver Watts – October 2015