Ric Spencer 'The Vital Art of Looking' 2006


A review by Ric Spencer
The West Australian 27th August 2006

Siné MacPherson
Goddard de Fiddes

Judging by her work at Goddard de Fiddes, Siné MacPherson holds a deep mistrust of information, its source and intention.
Her paintings remonstrate with the seemingly innocuous act of looking and learning. Watch and learn, we say to our kids, but are we interested in teaching them how to watch? Is it more important to learn from looking or to learn how to look? This is the crucial distinction MacPherson is asking in this series of paintings.

Judging by her research level, I don’t think she likes superfluous or shallow art, either. For MacPherson, ungrounded art, image-making or art for art’s sake seems to be part of the problem of the lexicon of life. The way our knowledge is regimented by systems of language has for some time been MacPherson’s beef. Her idea of semantic suicide is “looking into” the cyclical problem of looking and accepting what we see. It constructs a language that reinforces the limitations of our observations. What ensues from MacPherson’s research in this case is a series of vibrant, shimmering and somewhat unsettling paintings of parrots and finches.

These parrots are not just any parrots, though. The series at Goddard de Fiddes is built around two historical works concerning birdwatching — Albert Tucker’s Parrots in a Queensland Landscape and an old woodcut by Norbertine von Bresslern-Roth.
MacPherson has found these images interesting — but why? Are they proof of the skill of artists in some way?

These images have become part of the lexicon of seeing by being proffered simultaneously as icons of Australian art history and symbols of the art of observation. We believe these are important works because they look so damn convincing but also because they are put forward by our trusted institutions as being works of importance.

But what makes these images special? Is it the skill of observation or technique, or is it the rose glasses of time and our collective need for an Australian history and culture? MacPherson, although well aware of this cultural history, stays focused on the here and now and as such her work becomes site-specific. Albert Tucker’s Rainbow Lorrikeets, not native to WA, become five species of parrot local to the South-West. Norbetine von Bresslern-Roth has her finches systematically rearranged into graphs representing the percentage and position of colour on each bird. This graphing is then reapplied to the painting in a flat, formless design.

MacPherson’s finches seem somehow very much alive. We aren’t being asked to believe these birds are real and, as such, we somehow gain a greater sense of the present from the painting. By drawing on the language of history and representation and applying this to a site-specific relationship between nature and image, MacPherson extends the life of representational art, breathing new possibilities into the wide gap between observation and preconceived knowing.

Ric Spencer