Anna Platten- The Devil is in the Detail (Part one)

Anna Platten is a South Australian painter who is famous for her portraits. She is many things; a consummate painter, a teacher, a wife and mother. Her works are often explorations into the self; autobiographical reflections, bravely exploring her own thoughts and fears. Her life experiences are boldly expressed on canvas; though they are shrouded in symbolism.  She speaks from the heart and paints with extraordinary realism. “The Devil is in the Detail” is an assemblage of works from private collections and the Art Gallery of South Australia’s own. It is currently showing at the Art Gallery of SA until early November; this exhibition takes the viewer on a journey through the artist’s work from the 1980’s til the present day and is in my opinion a must see.

Myself as Madonna, 2003

The word “Madonna” is one with a number of connotations. In this work we see a reference to all of them. Within this self-portrait from 2003; Anna Platten depicts herself dressed in the singer Madonna’s pointed bra and a heart-shaped G-string. The Madonna of religious Art remains one of the most painted icons in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  In reference to this Platten shows herself enthroned with her son Felix; he is wearing as sailor suit with a straw hat with a blue rim, looking very much like the halo often used to signify the Christ child.
Next to Felix is a small lamb with a blue bow; its eyes stare dead out at us as if it were stuffed, I thought perhaps is it is in reality a reference favoured children’s toy, but no it was taken from a photograph from G. Parkin studios where a boy in a sailor suit is standing next to his pet. It stands astride a railway track that encircles the pair. In this painting Platten is heavily pregnant; dressed in spotted pyjamas, the shape of her rounded belly is mirrored by other rounded shapes into which train tracks enter and leave. Seemingly speared into these pizza oven shapes are poles holding various figures; some are female saints and still others look like children’s dolls, some are dressed in skirts. These figures are haphazardly arranged in the background; some stare out toward the distant sunset, while still others carry flaming torches or people in their arms.

This whole scene takes place upon a wooden stage with a burning sunset in the background. Light and shadow are key components to the composition and are used to great effect, leading the viewer’s gaze throughout the work.  Bright reds are used to create interest at key points and are balanced with the large red stage curtain bordering the right hand side of the piece. One thing to note about this work is that for her, the gathering and fabrication of the objects contained within it are central to the works creation. Platten rarely paints from memory; rather, she uses photographs, building her composition in this way first, before committing it to paint. Still many other of her works are drawn full size in charcoal as she interprets the effects of light.

This is a painting that is rich in symbolic rhetoric. Heavily pregnant Platten is tired, her face withdrawn in shadow. She wears pink rabbit slippers; which refer to her nickname “rabbit” that she had as a child. These slippers stare up at her rather than out as if offering comfort. The Madonna bra worn over the top of her pyjamas is also a reference to her youth, she wore a bra at all times even to bed, and eventually it became more comfortable to wear it over her pyjamas. The mirror in her right hand that she waves in front of her face does not face her; it faces us, and asks that we perhaps look at ourselves. Felix places his small hand on her lap while her loving arm encircles him it is a warm moment between a child and their mother.

In many ways this is a work which makes a statement on the expectations our society can place upon women. As a mother she is to be all things to everyone and in this regard she feels locked in or trapped this is represented by the train tracks that circle her. In the background are the women society places on pedestals, expectations of what you should be and do, how you are to act as a mother.

“Thunder”, 2008 is part of a series of paintings often referred to as the “Journey” series.  In this series Platten was inspired by a 16th century Biblical illustration which depicted the human soul as a wandering fool or jester.  The Biblical reference for the series is Psalm 69:5 “You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you.”

In this work the figure of a woman; dressed in period costume, is astride a white hobby-horse. She is wearing a jester’s hat and is holding a basket under her left arm and a curious windmill on a long stick. She is barefoot and alone. The surrounding landscape is stormy and green. The light upon the woman is from the rear; her face in shadow.  Again it is the striking tonal qualities in the work that direct the viewer’s gaze. The landscape she walks through is empty and stormy. The dress is one which Anna Platten and her sister discovered in an op shop in London; because of its age it enhances the notion that the woman has been on a journey for a considerable time.

The figure in this piece is quiet and reserved; with a thoughtful look in her eyes there isn’t a touch of sadness in her gaze,  maybe curiosity. Her youthful face is in shadow; hidden to a certain extent. One of the things I admire most about this piece is the manner in which the woman holds the articles she is taking on her journey. Delicately she holds the pin wheel aloft; perhaps to tell which way the wind is blowing, to give guidance as to where she must travel. The reigns of her white hobby-horse; silver like the horses saints might ride, are carefully grasped.  The sheer foolishness of setting out on a journey into a stormy wilderness riding barefoot on a hobbyhorse with a jesters hat is something that strange as it may seem I can relate to. In a retrospective reverie of personal feelings I connect with the figure; her vulnerability and determination.

This series is one of awakening, it is about the journey of life and how we interact with it. We are all on a pilgrimage of discovery; we must all pass through life. Like fools we know nothing of where we are going or what may happen, yet that is the adventure.

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