MARIEKE DENCH: SWATCH
Marieke Dench’s new series of artworks, encompassing more than thirty-five circular compositions on linen mounted on board are the artist’s most recent suite of canvases. They are part of an extended body of artworks across a variety of media, which the artist has been developing now for more than a decade.
Dench has called her series ‘Swatches’. Clearly there are swatches or perhaps patches of colour throughout, which work en-masse to make this a visually commanding exhibition. Yet equally the series itself is a swatch, or rather a representative portion of a larger visual whole, one moreover that continues to evolve in the artist’s practice. ‘Swatch’ however is rather more suited to the series than one might first suspect. The word itself, dating to the 16th Century is of northern English or Scottish origin, yet its primary usage to signal a sample coloured cloth, sent to the dyers as a reference, belies a much broader currency in contemporary life. In popular slang it can imply a passing look, or spontaneously exchanging a piece of jewellery with someone else or it can be substituted for a word one might prefer not to say. It slides also into ‘swatchin’ as in very good or excellent.
Dench’s paintings consist of two principle elements, which are interwoven to produce the finished works. The first of these concerns the development and interweaving of overlapping round-edged rectangles, each with banded stipes of colour within. The effect of these vertically positioned and differently scaled devices is akin to a sea in which rhythmic shapes float from foreground to receding distance.
It is over these backgrounds that Dench has added her principal images. They range across pictorial motifs, historical and scientific illustrations and also mathematically precise diagrams. Dench’s eclectic array is reflective of the artist’s long-held practice of scouring her visual universe for linear compositions and graphical motifs that hold her attention. It is less a private world than a field of signs and symbols across an historic trajectory.
Here we see – a bird in the hand, a sensual tangle of feet, an old-fashioned template for outlining squares, rectangles and rhomboids. Also included are images of microscopic ‘radiolaria’, the tiny sea life first depicted by late 19th Century German biologist Ernest Haeckel (1834 – 1919). Yet alongside these and like a ghost of popular culture past the iconic cover of the Australian ‘red head’ matchbox appears in a neighbouring canvas. For those familiar with the flowing locks of that well-known red-headed babe, the further juxtaposition of an 18th Century gentleman’s wig in a nearby canvas will not go unnoticed.
‘Swatch’ is Dench’s follow-on exhibition from her 2014 showing of assemblages inspired by the origins of the colour wheel. Those previous works took a literal approach to the wheels invented by Isaac Newton, and it is here that we see the artist’s close attention to harmonies derived from a systematic appraisal of natural hues. In contrast this new series reveals a greater level of assurance, one in which the earlier experiments have been absorbed, re-synthesised and presented to dazzling effect.
DAMIAN SMITH, 2016
1. A sample piece of fabric or a collection of samples
2. A representative portion
3. A strip or swath of land
4. A characteristic specimen of anything
5. A word that is substituted in place of another word (name, person, verb, noun, etc.) that is meant to hold underlying connotations
To have a brief look at
To spontaneously exchange an item of jewelry (with someone)
meaning: Very good, excellent, awesome
MARIEKE DENCH’S MONUMENT TO COLOUR
The idea of the colour wheel came into existence in 1706 when a young Isaac Newton folded the bands of the rainbow into a circle, thus revealing the relationships between primary and tertiary colours. There was logic after all in those lovely arcs of light; yet it was precisely this analysis that offended the Romantic poet John Keats. By his accounting Newton had ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to prismatic colours’.
Our fascination with colour has long surpassed the desire to understand how the different hues manifest in nature. Today we have mastered the means of producing most any band of the visible spectrum and to infinitely vary its inflections. We routinely, for instance, purchase house paints without any thought as to where or how they materialised perhaps not realising that centuries of research and cultural bias inform our appreciation and perceptions of colour.
For the artist Marieke Dench colour is a subject of persistent fascination and in her latest body of work she has taken to exploring its parameters. This is no random consideration but rather a systematic analysis of a wide spectrum of tones – those depicted in the swatches of commercial hardware and paint supply stores. The title of her exhibition, ‘Monument’, is the name of a particularly innocuous shade of grey that is proving popular with interior designers of the moment. But Dench’s show is far from beige. There is a celebration of colour that is reflected in the titles of the works – Venus Fly Trap, Happy Days, Beeswings and Gravlax, to name only a few.
The works are composed of overlapping colour wheels derived from commercial swatches. Over each composition, painted on a raised covering of glass is an image derived from the commercially available lines. Many of these appellations come from associations with nature; labeling them in this manner enables a connection between the hue and a cultural connotation. Dench’s art lays claim to this lineage, celebrating its complexity while reminding us that taste is deeply rooted in history.
Isaac Newton may have kicked off the modern analysis of colour but it fell to a later generation of artists to consider how colour could work as a language of the senses. In the 20th Century the idea of colour having emotional attributes was popularised by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky published his seminal essay ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ in 1911, and this proved influential with both his contemporaries and subsequent artists. According to Kandinsky ‘although the effect of the colours is forgotten when the eye is turned away, the superficial impression of varied colour may be the starting point of a whole chain of related sensations.’ Colours, he explained ‘produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance.’ In Dench’s work we see echoes of the period in which Kandinsky worked. Both Kandinsky’s ideas and also the colour wheels of the French painter Robert Delaunay, the co-founder of the Orphism art movement are recalled.
Alongside the vibrant works in the exhibition and included as a counterpoint is a graphite on paper composition titled Grey Rainbow. At first glance the work is a grey, almost monotone expanse. Closer inspection reveals it to be layers of rainbow colours carefully built into a grey field. The contrast between this piece and the remainder of the exhibition is striking, not merely because it is grey and they are not but because all of the pieces share a common palette that is ultimately capable of producing a vast spectrum of hues – the very essence of what our eyes perceive.
Dench’s works delight us but in doing so they not only celebrate colour but also recall the long evolution of our shared perceptions where this natural phenomenon is concerned. Indeed as her research reveals artists, scientists and mystics have all laid claim to colour though none have owned it entirely. Marieke Dench draws these threads together and in this her work has a depth that is not immediately apparent in the initial blaze of pigments.
DAMIAN SMITH, 2014
Pathways of Desire by Marieke Dench
Desire lines are those naturally occurring pathways created by the desirous peregrinations of humans moving through the landscape. We see them criss-crossing city parks and nature strips and occasionally abandoned grassy lots revealing where people prefer to travel even when neat concrete pathways might channel them in other more regimented directions.
In Marieke Dench’s new body of work the idea of desire lines is teased out through a series of small multi-dimensional paintings. These aerial views featuring landscaped neat-edged gardens are intersected by delightfully irregular pathways, not so much disrupting but rather embellishing the land that they traverse. Within these works however there is a curious conflation of imagery that gives us cause for reflection. In recent years Dench has travelled in central Australia looking at the colours of the desert. These are not the rusty reds and ochres that readily spring to mind, but the rich colours of the land that are so prominent at the beginning and end of the day. Pale oranges, delicate greens and exquisite purple hues are the colours with which Dench is especially fascinated; colours too that remind us how variable that landscape can be. These she uses in her latest body of paintings, and over which she creates her paths and byways of desire.
Desire lines are oftentimes perceived as symptomatic of rebellion, of a natural movement against the order of urban design or its failure to accommodate what humans naturally do. In the context of the outback however the concept of desire lines seems questionable. After all, the factors determining both human and animal migration are generally more linked to survival than to mere matters of choice. In Aboriginal terms dreaming tracks are a product of ancient knowledge and lore, utterly at odds with European concepts of the land, and by no means built on personal whims. The way in which these radically different perspectives of the land intersect looms large in post-colonial Australia – desire or obligation, stewardship or outright land-grab and sometimes if we are lucky an accommodation of both perspectives. Such are the questions that seem perennial in Australian landscape painting. For Marieke Dench such issues are by no means merely academic but are pertinent to her connections with the Aboriginal community at Yuendumu in the Northern Territory. Walking the land with the women elders of the region revealed something of the rich cultural template that illuminates that terrain. The land can be read, not only like a map but for a myriad of signs, meanings and trails, the significance of which is both spiritually and physically sustaining. It would be difficult not to be moved by insights such as these and for Dench the encounter has informed her own multi-layered perception of the environment and how it is depicted in her paintings.
In creating this new body of works Dench has used a variety of techniques. These include digital printing and paper collage, over-painted with translucent pigments and also shimmering mica powder and finally an additional sheet of glass spaced above the principal composition, and upon which the desire lines are painted. The resulting effect is akin to looking into a scientist’s specimen cabinet where tiny worlds are captured for later study. This quality of close examination underscores the artist’s approach to looking at the environment, learning for instance the methods of collecting and grinding ochre pigments and how this material is used for different purposes.
Dench is an accomplished Australian artist who has been awarded numerous prizes and commissions. Her works are held in prominent public collections; they are a pleasure to behold for they are delicate and well formed compositions, rich in meaning and visual nuance. However for all their allusions to a constructed ordering of nature, it is both their evocation of contending cultural perspectives and their whimsical way of depicting man’s natural inclination to break with the boundaries of society that imbue these works with a subtext of particular contemporary relevance. Marieke Dench’s desire lines are both symbols and signs of the yearnings that many in the modern world know well, the wilful striving to be free of all convention, to travel where we will and to shape the world by our actions. Ironically though, we in the West have done this now for some time and the results have not always been to our liking, which indeed is the nub of Marieke Dench’s paintings.
Damian Smith, 2013
Obfuscated Terrain by Marieke Dench
Obfuscated Terrain is Dench’s eighth solo show. The culmination of her practice, she brings a string of personal motifs to this group of works, the seeds of which were born out of travelling to the Northern territory desert. These collected motifs have been refined into a personal iconography deftly used to express ephemeral concepts of journey, location and rights of passage. Phenomena that occupy a space beyond the description of the atmospheric landscape.
By obfuscating the terrain, Dench reveals herself as a master cryptographer.
Using a subverted language she obscures her subject in order to engage the audience. Dench reveals just as much as she wants the viewer to see and disguises what she wants to conceal. Symbols vital to her research and concepts are simplified and morphed into her own codes which when pared back almost become purely formal visual devices. Her interpretations of the desert landscape are littered with encrypted meaning, navigational flight co-ordinates offering reflection of the terrain on one level while on another, reflecting a long held interest in urban structures, grids, topography and mapping. Stripes mirror the vertical strata of rock traditionally found in ochre mines. However it is the transitional quality that implies a personal direction and passage that forms her underlying subject.
Weaving her skills beyond printmaker, painter, sculptor or object maker Dench sidesteps a singular classification. She understands the narrative of the landscape we live in and expresses it via her atmospheric interpretations of landscape. The work is unified by the techniques that she employs to direct the viewer. Sensory light qualities are thoroughly researched by Dench, who understands both her materials and the treatments she gives them. She has many optical devices at her disposal to engage the viewer.
Dench’s light-washed studio is an Aladdin’s cave containing pigments of every conceivable shade. She has an intimate knowledge, understanding and respect of her materials, inviting visitors to meet colours the way people introduce old friends. Paints are mixed from scratch, in seemingly inexhaustible combinations. Mica pigments are mixed into hues and tones with the talent of an alchemist. Samples of the desert ochres from her travels inspire the palette selections she makes. Ground mica, both references these minerals from the earth and lends an intriguing reflection that plays with the quality of optical interference. This lends a gem like-chatoyancy and shimmer reminiscent of the luminosity of oil on the road’s surface.
Dench has a honed knowledge of colour, spatial relationships and how they involve the viewer. Some of her works on linen combine graphic striped ochres on the under surface. These reference both the natural lines found in ochre mines and the strobed effect of passing trees in a moving vehicle. Dench has a profound understanding of the way colours interact.
Dench continues to use illusion, playing with our perception of depth and motion by manipulating the colours of her palette and their relationship to each other. These colour relationships set seemingly inanimate shapes into motion: circles begin to pulse in different directions.
Her works also quote aerial perspective. Due to light scattering in the atmosphere, an object viewed from a great distance has a lower saturation and contrast of colour. By using high contrast in the foreground and lower contrast in the background Dench re-creates this illusion of depth. Warmer pigments come towards the viewer and the cooler colours recede: Dench understands her tools well.
The collection is divided into three selections. First is a group of linen paintings that have a defiant sculptural quality to them. Dench has used a “double painting” technique where two linen pieces are reversed, with the painted surfaces facing inwards touching each other. The raw un-primed linen is exposed to the viewer as the linen defies convention by being placed backwards over the stretcher. With the precision of a surgeon Dench deftly cuts through the raw linen surface and peels back the top layer so that both painted surfaces are revealed. The result is intriguing; the two pieces mirroring each other’s reflections. By objectifying the linen, giving it this extra dimensional quality, the viewer has a physical response to her work. Necks crane, knees bend and the viewer is moved around the work.
The second selection is of small works on paper. Dench employs the “double painting” technique, pairing sheets of rag paper and then housing the fragile ensemble in acrylic boxes. The boxes reinforce the idea of object present in the work. Incised paper tabs fold vertically to sit like butterfly wings off the paper.
Through these incisions the paper underneath is visible. Dench has mirrored the colours, so they reflect each other and take on the quality of an aerial map. Revealed are clusters of watercolour dots. The dots are a signature developed by Dench that rather looks like tears on a page, or the quality of rain hitting a dry dusty surface. Dark edges with a watery centre evoke the smell of rain. However the palette cannot help but remind us of a Daltonian colour test used to diagnose colour blindness. Colours tease us into wondering what they hide or camouflage, which is in itself is another form of cryptis, obscuring and concealing.
The third selection is larger works on rag paper that combine both the “double painting”, watercolours and a technique Dench refers to as “pouncing”, which is where she perforates the paper. These hand punctures are reminiscent of the technique of transferring a renaissance painting onto the fresh fresco surface. Perforations add texture and detail and look curiously like lichen growing from the paper. These larger works joyfully encompass the direction of the subject and the collection itself.
Sarah Ross 2010
For ten days in July 2008 Marieke Dench travelled in the Northern Territory, specifically to Alice Springs and the surrounding country. The story of this landscape and her experiences within it are the inspiration for these new paintings.
The artist, together with five other women, was privileged to spend time with female indigenous elders from the Yuendumu community. Although Dench has travelled to this region before, on this trip she had the rare opportunity of staying at sacred sites and exploring further – deepening her knowledge and understanding of the area. At these sacred sites she walked the land with the female elders who shared their Dreaming with her: recounting their specific family stories. The artist spent an afternoon painting in a riverbed translating some of these stories into images.
The indigenous women told Dench Dreaming stories that related directly to the ‘skin’ name they had previously given her. Receiving the skin name allowed the artist a personal insight into the ancient and complex naming system used by indigenous people, and how it directly influences all social interaction with family and community members.
Whilst the circle and dot motif has figured consistently in Dench’s mark making repertoire as a metaphor for the way we explore objects in a landscape, it was on this trip that the female indigenous elders taught her their own method of translating stories into visual form through a very contained, systematic and symmetrical application of the dot technique.
As her own practice incorporates the use of pigments and complex colour mixing, visits to a number of ochre pits in the area around Yuendumu were of particular interest to the artist. The indigenous women instructed Dench in the finer details of collecting and grinding specific ochres. Large rocks were collected and the slow process of grinding ochres by hand commenced. Traditionally these ground ochres are mixed to make body paint for use in sacred ceremonies.
The artist was invited to spend an evening with the Yuendumu women’s family: listening and watching indigenous song and dance. Another afternoon was spent searching in the dry riverbeds for red seedpods, which were then made into necklaces and body ornaments. These experiences strengthened Dench’s passionate interest in the Australian landscape and her respect for indigenous culture, and strongly informed this new body of work.
Back in her Melbourne studio the artist began experimenting with how best to translate her impressions from this recent trip into paintings. For this body of work, rather than a paper or canvas support, she has utilised a French chalk ground on board: applied via an exacting and time-consuming process. This traditional Western European ground forms a base for the application of Dench’s particular hand-mixed pigments.
As with previous bodies of work the artist is not concerned with a literal rendering of the landscape she has visited. Instead Dench devises her own language of abstracted forms and motifs that she layers and washes with stains of colour to evoke the Central Australian landscape: raw umbers, deep aubergines, verdant greens and burnt oranges. Strong lines running vertically from an inscrutable blue suggest deep ochre pits containing myriad mineral colours. Receding straight lines register the endless roads and tracks that are etched into and dissect the Australian landscape, converging on a seemingly unreachable horizon.
As Dench works in her Melbourne studio surrounded by shelves stacked with glass jars containing pigments and samples of the ochres she was given, she is transported back to the Northern Territory. Recalling this intense light, she floods her paintings with shimmering and hypnotic colour.
Monash University Museum of Art
Black Box Series
The Black Box Series sees Marieke Dench collect a variety of information
from her travels through the Australian urban and natural landscapes.
Scorched red ochre lines scar Australia’s vast arid land. Deep set horizon
lines, bleeding limey white salt pans take us to the heart of the desert. Soft metallic surfaces speak of the hidden minerals of the earth. Housed in perspex boxes, painted with navigational co-ordinates, each work is a
reflection of a moment in time and an interpretation of the landscape.
Pouncing – Marieke Dench
In late 2003 Marieke Dench travelled to the Northern Territory. This journey inspired the recent series of paintings and works on paper. The artist had the opportunity to visit a number of remote Aboriginal communities and art centres including Ikuntji Artists, at Haast’s Bluff, Warlayirti Artists at Balgo, Warlukurlangu Artists at Yuendumu and the Warmun Art Centre at Turkey Creek. Here she was able to speak with Indigenous artists and learn more about their use of natural pigments and traditional painting methods. Chartered flights enabled the artist to traverse the region, extensively photographing the landscape from an aerial vantage point. After returning to Melbourne the artist requested copies of the flight maps. These maps became a starting point for the exhibited works.
The experience of travel has been influential on the practice of many artists: the chance to step outside their everyday environment and, however fleetingly, immerse themselves in another culture. From the late sixteenth century it became popular for young aristocrats to travel through Europe putting the final touches to their classical educations. The Grand Tour, as it became known, was a sort of fashionable finishing school for the privileged classes. While Australia too has a tradition of artists travelling overseas to immerse themselves in art and culture, there has also been a history of artists undertaking the trip up north to experience Australia’s timeless heartland.
Travel has long informed Dench’s art practice and like the Grand Tourists of previous centuries Dench returns home from her journeys laden with memories and mementos. Extensive travels throughout Europe have provided rich inspiration and source material for earlier bodies of work. The artist has previously used fragments of European city maps and the designs of grills and manhole covers. Abstracted, layered and embossed, raised against the paper’s surface, these fragments suggest an urban structure and civic order but are not always explicit in their origins. Similarly in these recent works the flight maps are used implicitly. Sections used in the works imply passage, movement and circuit.
It is always a privilege to visit an artist’s studio. Dench’s studio, tucked away upstairs in a former factory off Sydney Road in Brunswick, is ordered meticulously. Fragments of paper: maps, working drawings, photographs and test strips of pigments covered in written notations adorn the walls. This is evidence of the artist’s careful planning of final works. Marieke’s techniques can assist in our understanding her work. For example the title of Dench’s show ‘Pouncing’ describes the Renaissance technique of transferring a cartoon (a full-sized preliminary drawing) onto a prepared surface. In fresco painting the lines of the cartoon are perforated and transferred to the plaster surface by pouncing (dusting with pigment through the perforations). This pouncing technique is echoed in the way that Dench perforates and pricks the surfaces of the paper and canvas and in her use of powder pigments.
Dench talks of having an immediate and overwhelming (almost spiritual) response to the Northern Territory landscape. Anyone who has flown over inland Australia will be familiar with the sense of awe at seeing this vast landscape etched deep with the evidence of the constant geological forces that have and continue to shape it. While flying over the Kimberley and the country around Kununurra the artist was struck by the intensity of the colours she could see; the shock of seeing deep aubergine stains alongside scorching ochres, raw umbers, burnt oranges and verdant greens. She could visualise a hand casting raw pigments directly onto the landscape. Back in the studio Marieke replicated this visualisation in works on paper and canvas. The artist dissolves the pigments into water, allowing the colour to spill and flow across the surfaces, paralleling the geological dispersal of mineral, rock and soil across the landscape. Using pigment mixed with gel the artist builds up areas with Braille like grids of painted dots. For the artist the circle or dot is a metaphor for the way we explore objects in a landscape. The movement of the eye travelling around the artwork parallels the way our bodies negotiate objects in the environment.
What is significant about this body of work is the shift from an exploration of the urban, man-made and controlled environment to an environment that is natural and uncontained. Rather than choosing to depict specific landmarks or places these works are the artist’s non-literal response to the Australian landscape. While thematically these works shift markedly from previous works, unifying motifs and artistic concerns remain. The circle reappears in both the use of the paper format and the build up of surface areas through raised grids of dots. There is an ongoing interest in the sensory through the use of texture and the tactile, cartography, the diagrammatic and the abstraction of forms.
Dench’s works are a crystallisation of her impressions and responses: refractions rather than direct representations. Indeed there is something of the alchemist about her practice. Toiling away in the studio the artist mixes pigments and transforms her base materials. This series of works is the culmination of that mystical transformation.
Kate Barber, September 2005