John Barrett-Lennard 'Introduction' 2006


Siné MacPherson
Goddard de Fiddes

Siné MacPherson’s work is a type of conceptual, realist painting. Her paintings are specific to times and places, and highly aware of a complex interaction between codes of representation and the organic experience of everyday life. They marry rigor and sensuality, intellectual richness and material pleasure—and in that they have much in common with the best art of the last half century.
The birds that appear in these paintings have been recreated from the coded descriptions of them found in a commonly used field guide to Australian birds. MacPherson has taken the schema and taxonomic structure, and the books deliberately dry text and refledged the birds in their original colours. Her description of them borrows from the form of the source document—whether the field guide for the Grassfinches series or two other artworks underlying her Dress Ups—and repaints, reinterprets them in her paintings.
The original author or artist had transcribed or depicted the birds, things which are normally fleeting and highly variable, in an ordered representation. They captured aspects of life, parts of our Australian environment, indicators of place and frequently markers of identity, and rendered them flat and inanimate. The text of the field guide, and more clearly the two artworks MacPherson draws on (a 1918 woodcut by Norbertine von Bresslern-Roth, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, and Albert Tucker’s 1961 ‘Parrots in a Queensland Landscape’) can be seen as still-lifes, their subjects posed, summarised and motionless, not so much reproductions of life but of stillness.

Siné MacPherson has explored the codes of descriptive language and the visual icons used to represent everyday phenomena in much of her work of the last decade. Her Lexical Spectrum transposed a list of colour names from each page of various country-specific editions of the Oxford English Dictionary into vibrant grids with thousands of tiny patches of colour. The dictionaries map the English of the former British settler colonies and its spread from its source—while the paintings depict the use of colours, colour names and colour as description within recorded language and the ordered framework of the dictionary. Other works reproduce the newspaper diagrams that accompany four day weather forecasts—compressed, iconic representations in groups of four small paintings. It is significant that these icons represent weather that is yet to come, a prediction of the future and of something that is absolutely ephemeral and transitory, foreseen but perhaps never realised.

MacPherson’s work is often precisely located. Albert Tucker’s painting depicts Rainbow Lorikeets, which are not native to Western Australia but are now naturalised here—and her overpainting replaces five of them with species of parrot that are commonly found in south-west Western Australia and suburban gardens in Perth. Her series of twenty-five Grassfinches paintings depict all the native, Australian species and include the catalogued, local variations within them. The field guide lists for each bird the colour and pattern of the bill, face, forehead, crown, nape, back, rump, throat, breast, sides abdomen, flanks, under tail, tail and legs; and the basic palette of colours and patterns could be rearranged in millions of possible combinations. For MacPherson it is the finite permutations which actually exist, the concrete, complex stuff which is out there, and the limits of that field (rather than the scale of the possible variations) which is compelling. Her programme underlying these paintings transposes earlier systematic representations into something which becomes a record of its own making—a making that encompasses the organic, ephemeral individual birds, their systematic depiction and cataloguing in text and images, her awareness of both these prior representations and of actual birds in the Australian environment and her recasting of all of these in alternative visual forms.

John Barrett-Lennard