ROBYN SWEANEY, Lie of the land, acrylic on polycotton, 70 x 100 cm

Dwell - Robyn Sweaney
Wednesday 24 May 2019 to Sunday 21 July 2019
The Boyd Gallery

View the catalogue here

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Murwillumbah South NSW 2484
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The paintings of Robyn Sweaney excavate the ontological edifice of the built environment, focusing on the textures and timbres of the Australian vernacular. For the past fifteen years, the artist has responded to a magnetic yet inexplicable resonance with place rooted in memory and the subconscious. Her mimetically detailed mid-century dwellings physicalise the aesthetic, ideological and social structures shaping human behaviour, embodying the undulations of a landscape chiselled by the shifting hands of culture.

Across multiple bodies of work – including ‘Topia’, ‘Fade to Blue’, ‘The Summer That Was’, ‘The Nature of Things’ and ‘Backwards Looking Forwards’ – Sweaney captures the polychromatic personality and physiognomy of suburbia. Avoiding the sterility of new housing, which, in the artist’s own words, ‘seems to sit on top of the landscape rather than within it’, she focuses her brush on the history and memory that lace the joints of modernist buildings. Situated within the broad perimeter of social realism – or ‘suburban realism’ – Sweaney’s mid-century snapshots function as ethnographic time capsules; relics of a receding moment in Australia’s history.

Siphoning inspiration from artists including David Hockney, William Delafield-Cook, Howard Arkley, Eugene von Guérard and Jeffrey Smart, as well as still life painters, photography, philosophy, architecture and poetry, Sweaney pictures humanity’s primordial relationship with the home. ‘Dwell’ expresses her obsessive pursuit of this subject whilst also referencing the human intimacy of homes; the way we bear all inside these man-made cocoons. Her tightly-choreographed scenes built on single-point perspective create a space where architecture, colour, light and composition mingle with memory, feeling, nostalgia and identity in a way that taps into the existential valency of the built environment. Sweaney explains, ‘what I am searching for is more of an illusion or an emotional response rather than a contemporary reality’

In the early period of Sweaney’s practice, her paintings spotlighted the pride felt within the confines of one’s front fence. This optimistic tenor has, over the years, been tempered by an exploration of the tenuousness of security. With our worlds and landscapes in constant flux – life experiences, urban developments, human conflict, natural disasters – the cushion of domestic comfort conceals a sharp edge. Compounding this, the artist acknowledges that we cannot view the contemporary Australian landscape without being confronted by the spectre of imperialism. Hers are cultural landscapes altered by humans over time, shallowly veneering the not-so-distant colonial past. However, Sweaney avoids entering dark terrain: ‘I’m hoping that they don’t express unhappiness but are more reflective in nature.’

A tension is evinced by the uncanny conflation of polarities in Sweaney’s ubiquitous Australian vistas. Their cloudless, single-hued skies, static interiors and manicured gardens evoke the motionless similitude of an architectural model, fossilised in time, and yet there is also a strange sense of kinesis – as if glimpsed fleetingly from a car window. Space and time are confounded by a subdued palette one degree from reality, while truth itself is betrayed by the tacit idealisation of gardens a little too neat, compositions a little too balanced, houses a little too clean. Human absence is infiltrated by a shadowy presence at once haunting and strangely comforting – a freshly trimmed hedge, empty mailbox or half-drawn curtain reminding us of the life within. Here Sweaney incarnates family road trips from her childhood, where she would relish the twilight moments before people closed their curtains; that irrational feeling of comfort radiating from the inner glow of foreign homes.

Travel has played a profound role in Sweaney’s practice over the past fifteen years. Amongst the many different rural settings that she has passed through, and painted, is the coastal region of Victoria where the artist grew up. Her seaside landscapes and beach houses explore the mnemonic power of place. Through trees and native shrubs we glimpse fibro shacks resting in inert, airless plots, as if the silent salt breeze has triggered a sort of atmospheric osmosis. Suburban locales in Northern New South Wales also feature heavily in her work, evincing a desire to preserve the elusive essence of a rapidly changing landscape that the artist has called home for the past three decades.

Sweaney renders each scene with a sensitivity that does not proclaim to know the innermost secrets hiding behind each closed door. She – like us – is an outsider. Nostalgic yet never sentimental, Sweaney shows us the profound meaning that can be distilled from the mundane; the poetry from the prosaic. We witness the forgotten beauty that embeds the aging walls of our collective history. - Elli Walsh

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