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In the Tracks of Isis

Memory Holloway

In 1983, when she was in Vence, Micky Allan began once again to paint. For almost a decade, she had used the camera as her primary tool, even though her photographs were often touched with translucent colour, blurring the distinction between photography and painting. Although painting and drawing over this period went underground, they were never fully renounced and were always seen as a major direction in her work. Even now Micky Allan is known more for her photographs than for her paintings, and it is only in recent years that the public has seen the full extent of her achievement as a painter.

Yet each medium has enabled her to investigate with an intense focus and speciflcity, those aspects of the world which have commanded her attention. The camera provided her with the means of documenting and speculating on social relations, politics and collective action. When she turned the camera on herself, or asked others to do so, she questioned the positioning of the female subject. How, she asks in her photographic series My Trip, is the photographer's subjectivity shaped by the broader social and political sphere. For a short period she turned her attention to recording political figures and the social changes in which she was both observer and participant. Like every artist, those very events which demanded her daily attention were also the rock bed of her artistic sources. In 1975, when she worked as an occasional photographer for Digger magazine, she did candid shots of Bob Hawke, Jim Cairns and John Halfpenny. She photographed the transvestites of St Kilda and the skinheads, phrased within the tradition of an alert social documentary.

Micky Allan's preference for photography in the seventies and her return to painting in the eighties, need to be seen in the wider context of the debates within the art community itself. Among the many arguments which circulated during the early seventies, one of the most prolonged and widely contested was whether painting could any longer sustain the privileged position which it had claimed throughout the sixties. In the most theoretical chapter of his encyclopedic 1970 edition of Australian Painting, Bernard Smith voiced the doubt which many artists had begun to express about the future of painting and its relevance to modern life. In such a situation, it is not surprising to find many painters concluding that painting was now an exhausted art; some turned to sculpture, or to process art in which the performance was of much greater importance than any resulting objects. What was to replace painting? Terry Smith, drawing on American responses to the same question, answered in the following year in his list of prescriptives summarized as 'The Situation Now'. Painting, he argued, was not obsolete, just less practised than previously and its importance was not the object it became but the ritual, the process which went into making it. Most importantly, art, whatever physical shape it might or might not take, should be "an activity continuous with life, not a special sort of activity separate from our social communication systems, our ideas of what we are in the world, and in doing so it has the real option of changing the ways we see ourselves ..." He concluded by noting that the Melbourne response was different from that of Sydney, that here, one might move across essential boundaries (say between painting and conceptual art) with greater ease.

This debate had its effect on all advanced contemporary practice. In artist's statements made by Micky Allan at the time, the language which she used to define her aims, clearly drew on current usage. What she personally brought to the debate was a specific knowledge of the feminist collective, of the need to push art closer to her own experience and thereby to make it relevant to current issues and her own life. She worked for one and a half years at the Pram Factory in Carlton as set designer. She documented performances and provided visual material for the first feminist play staged by the Pram, Betty Can Jump in 1972. At the time, The Pram was the nucleus of all that was experimental, radical and advanced in Melbourne. It was here that Micky Allan joined a loosely formed feminist collective where knowledge and experience were shared. One of my earliest recollections of our friendship is that of visiting the house she shared in Fitzroy with Laurel Frank (the subject of one of her earliest photographic series, and one of the creators of the 'Popeye' puppets) and Virginia Coventry who first showed Micky Allan the processes and techniques of the darkroom. There were posters and paintings everywhere, costumes for Laurel Frank's puppets in process in the garage, the smell of coffee, Drum and photographic developer.

Micky Allan's photographs from these years were both the product of mid-seventies collectivism and a contribution to it. One thinks of other women who emerged out of this matrix of Carlton, Tamani, the Albion and early feminist consciousness: the photographers Sue Ford, Ponch Hawkes and Virginia Coventry, the actresses Evelyn Krape and Jane Clifton, Robin Laurie who went on to become an acrobat with Circus Oz, writer Helen Garner and director Kerry Dwyer.

The meaning of the photographic image, like meaning in books, lies within its own dematerialized self, beyond form. For Micky Allan, the exchange between viewer and viewed was a crucial reason for her use of the medium. In 1979, while she was artist in residence at Sydney University, she told an interviewer that she "saw photography as a form of social encounter, that what happened at the time between you and whom you photographed was extremely important. In that sense in comparison with painting it is much more integrated into what is actually going on". It is significant that when the artist has written or spoken about photography, she has emphasized what transpires between the moment of creation and the moment of completion. What is important to her has been the content produced in the interstices, in the transaction rather than in the final formal achievement of the work.

Photographs record in time one moment, immediately displaced by another; recording life, they preserve it, hereby forming part of a collective visual memory, as Barthes has said, of writing one's body within time. The particular importance of preserving the image in time while recognizing the ephermeral nature of life, may suggest why Micky Allan has so persistently registered growth, maturity and decay in her human subjects (Babies, Prime of Life, Old Age) as well as in the urban landscape (Botany Bay). The perceived effects of time is the one theme which links all her photographic work: recording the body in time, considering the effects of youth and old age, watching one's own family line reproduce itself over time (The Family Room). "There's the fact that a photograph is a moment in time," she has said, "something that happened. I like that as a starting point."1

There were elements too of conceptual and performance art in her work of the seventies, though whatever she did was always carried out in the context of the carefully made object: the Live-In Show, done first in 1978 at the George Paton and Ewing Galleries, and then later in Sydney at Frank Watters Gallery, was a remarkable response to a number of these theoretical positions, but executed without a theory or demonstrating a programme or creed. The exhibition was an accumulation of her past work, of the Old Age photographs, of My Trip, of large charcoal drawings of gladioli, Australian emblem of suburbia, and personal memorabilia, installed around two pivotal points: the artist's bedroom, with bed and pastel-painted furniture, and at the other end, a park-like setting with benches and leaves strewn on the floor. Throughout the four weeks of the exhibition, Micky Allan was there, eating and sleeping, watching television and reading, signalling that this was a performance of a kind. Many performances, like this one, used the body as a field of thought and action, and intimate personal histories were identified in the seventies as a rebuttal of the earlier formalist values, codified by Clement Greenberg in New York, and transplanted in Australia by The Age critic, Patrick McCaughey, on his return from New York in 1971. In the early seventies, not to be a formalist was to be outside the favorable attention of the popular art press. But by the middle of the decade, the high formalist cult of impersonality had waned. "Autobiographical and confessional art," wrote Robert Pincus Witten at the time, "stands in greatest possible contrast to earlier formalist values. An essential constancy persists in the seventies, living personality, hallmark of modern art, is maintained, although no longer manifested through facture, that is individuality of touch, but through an unrepentant prideful even autobiographical confession of those areas of human activity in which artists are uniquely personal."2 It should be added that from a feminist position, 'writing' in the autobiographical mode is an indication of "the desire to free oneself from the androcentric critical attitude which delights to divide the work into 'them' and 'we'."3

For Micky Allan, this structure meant the possibility of focussing on the individual while never losing sight of the whole. Babies was the first and tentative use of the serial scheme with only seven photographs. As they progressively engaged with others, the babies accumulated signs of gender and projected codified mental states: surprise, doubt, withdrawal, pleasure. "Gradually," she observes, "there were more bows, the eyes engaged with the viewer, and a sort of primeval knowledge gave way to social knowledge." The Babies presents an epistemological problem: what do babies know, and how do we know what they know? Do they have a knowledge which is later "clouded by being in the world" the photographer asks, and how does the social order imprint itself on the infant? These were questions of early socialisation also asked by British feminist, Mary Kelly, in her Post-Partum Document (1982) in which she presented Lacan's theory of the entry into the Symbolic through the acquisition of language. Micky Allan's approach was less theoretical, and directed more towards the interrogation of pictorial convention: lurking in these close-up observations there is both an acknowledgement and rejection of the convention of 'beautiful baby' photographs similar to those which might equip the contestant to win shopping mall baby contests. Micky Allan's Babies like her figures of Old Age are terrifying in their directness, their naked exposure of the fragile and unprotected.

What needs to be recognised here is that in the seventies, many women took infancy and old age as a theme,4 with permutations on mothers and daughters (Nancy Friday's My Mother My Self, was a widely read text), and discussions of the psychodynamics of female bonding through friendship, mothering and creativity.5 In Micky Allan's work, as with other writers and artists, work on the family followed. The Family Room done for the Adelaide Festival was an installation of fourteen full-length portraits of one family. In an interview of the time, the artist emphasized that she had hung the photographs so that there was no particular viewing point which would yield a final, true and closed reading. 'The exhibition is like the world", she said at the time, "it isn't understandable from a single point of view." Each observer creates the reality they see, a 'reader-centred' view which leaves interpretation open, neither true or false, but more or less rich, with strategies that are more or less appropriate.6

Painting, by contrast, has answered another need, to accommodate the sensual (the dripping gardens, the shape of a mountain, as Micky Allan recently described the area around Vence), the slow, almost imperceptible shifts of light and colour, to transform an imagined, dreamlike realm into something palpable. It is significant that in recent years she has virtually abandoned photography. If the central organising theme other photographs is the passage of time, the voyage, both real and imagined, is the mainstay of her painting. Travel, and a certain restlessness absorbed from moving around, have always been a feature of her life. When she was two, her parents took her to Japan where her father worked as a patent attorney. She attended the International School there until she was seven, returned to Australia, matriculated from Merton Hall, and at seventeen, spent a year in Kansas City on an American Field Service scholarship in 1961. She laughs when she recalls that the first exhibition she ever had, was held at that time in the high school in Kansas City, with strong encouragement and recognition of talent on the part of the Americans. Travel has since become a common point of punctuation in her life, both in and out of Australia: the 'hippie trail' covered in 1970 on the way to London where she taught for six months; the circular movements from one household in Fitzroy to another a few blocks away and back; the residences in Sydney and later in Vence and Paris. But the desire to travel can only partly explain the later paintings which resulted. There is a long tradition of women travellers, of travel literature written by women, and of sketches done on the site. Travel, from the 19th century onward, promised a segment of experience and a span of time over which a woman could take control of her life. In travel, women sought and often found what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called 'the sacred experience'. And in Australia, it is this particular conflation of specific place and elevated experience which makes its appearance in the paintings of the eighties. From the very recent work done in 1986 and 1987, it appears that as she has settled, her work has increasingly revealed its origins in that state of elevated, otherworldly, 'sacred' experience.

* * *

"There are no reliable maps. We'll have to make our own."
Danvers, in Graham Greene, The Other Side of the Border (1936)

Travels Without My Aunt, is Micky Allan's largest exhibition of paintings to date, and the first to appear after sustained travel in the south of France, a six month stay in Paris and travel on the East coast of the United States. Shown at Gertrude Street Artists' Spaces in November, 1985, the twenty-six works make up an odd imaginary map of her trip, and thereby recall the photographic work of My Trip, done almost a decade before.

My Trip used the camera as a buffer, much as John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley had used his poodle as an ambassador in making contacts with strangers, as the two of them toured America. The dog was more than a travelling companion; he was a sounding board for the writer's philosophical musings and a hedge against loneliness. Micky Allan's journey, like that of Steinbeck's, was a personal quest, not so much to find roots, or even identity as his was, but to test the boundaries of how a female travelling alone in the countryside might be received. The camera functioned as protection and explanation. 'Who are you' and the implied 'What are you doing here' are questions easily answered by the distracting request to photograph and be photographed. Later, she published the proceedings as an artist's book, in which she recorded with scientific accuracy the precise time and place of each photograph and what was said by whoever held the camera. The outcome is more than a photographic diary confirmed in time and place, with the 'reverse-angle' effect of photographer being photographed by those she will in turn photograph. My Trip is evidence of the interest that questions of time-motion had for many artists in the seventies, especially those involved in conceptual practice.7 Three years later, Micky Allan carried out another project, Yooralla at 20 past 3, in which time features once again as one of the central organizing factors.

My Trip is a Michelin guide to ordinary Australia; there are no spectacular sights or scenic views; the trip is devoid of exciting 'romantic' incident; the people the artist meets are ordinary, the car in which she travels battered. There are no starred monuments or hotels of excellence. The mundane is elevated to a position of preeminence.

Travels Without My Aunt, 1985, continued the parody of the tourist guidebook, but where My Trip has a rhythmic regularity of pace, the structure of Travels Without My Aunt is episodic, disjointed and arbitrary. The twenty-six paintings can be seen in any order; there is no point of departure and no return home. Travels is not an illustrated factual travel account like those done by explorers of earlier periods. It is an accumulation of images, drawn together during travel and living abroad, re-presented at random for the particular potency they had at the time. In some paintings, such as / Clutch My Ideas, not one place, but many places are represented simultaneously through readily identifiable tourist landmarks: the gondoliers of Venice, the skyline of Melbourne punctured by the Spire, and assorted conglomerates of Italian churches and towers. Travels operates much in the same way that one might pack souvenirs into a suitcase not in any particular order but layered and stacked one against the other so that they might all fit. This holds as true for the entire series as for individual paintings within it: Banksia Men stacks together layer upon layer of pastel, of Japanese woodcut and small cutout photocopies taken from Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. (Rather than make a complete and final statement, the artist has chosen, as she did before in The Family Room, to view the whole from a multiplicity of viewpoints.)

In calling the series Travels Without My Aunt, the title itself, a play on Graham Greene' s Travels with My Aunt, is indication enough that the series of paintings will take the viewer through strange territory without maps, a common theme in Greene's novels. Henry, the protagonist, soon finds that his guide, his Aunt Augusta, is unreliable and provides ambiguous but interesting sources of information, and he comes gradually to look at the world from a point of view which disregards convention. Greene concludes with a lesson, that in artistic practice, as in travel, there are rewards for those who break away from the restraint of accepted rules. This was a theme which Greene first handled in 1936, in Journey without Maps, and he returned to it many times in his novels. In 1936, he used the idea to examine the very nature of artistic discovery, the way in which he responded at first to the local environment and how the quest for meaning followed; how the evaluation of his experience finally resulted in the attempt to create a new and imaginary, fictive world. This very process seems so close to that of Micky Allan in Travels, that it is not at all surprising that she had Greene at the back of her mind when she set down what seemed to be disparate and unconnected images. All along she was evaluating, selecting, sifting and, in the final totality, she confronts a world labelled before her by others, and responds by renaming what she has found. (In the artist's statement which accompanied Travelogue done in 1980, she described the three kinds of travel which constituted the work: 'the intimate journey', 'social travel', (and by this she means travel which indicates a social conscience) and 'travel through notions of art'.8 The idea of travel and its use as a metaphor is central to her work.) She does this without the authority of convention (or Aunt Augusta). Greene's epigraph to Journey Without Maps (taken from Oliver Wendell Holmes) has a particular resonance for Micky Allan's twenty-six paintings:

... I, like all others, find a certain number of connected fragments and a larger number of disjointed pieces, which I might in time place in their natural connection. Many of these pieces seem fragmentary, but would in time show themselves as essential parts of the whole ... If I could look back on the whole, as we look at the child's map when it is put together, I feel that I should have my whole life intelligently laid out before me.9

In her exhibition at the end of the year in 1986 at United Artists, her work did indeed appear to be fragmentary, as Travels Without My Aunt had also seemed, until one slowly related one painting to another, when a cohesive pattern emerged. The dark canvases of 1986, including the two Unfilled paintings in this exhibition, were linked by the mazes, labyrinths and scientific symbols enmeshed in an aquatic environment suggestive of the depths of the sea. These signs operated as a kind of shorthand which referred to esoteric knowledge, and many of the initial observations came from a visit she made to Naples in 1985 where she noticed geometric patterns in the friezes and floors of a local church. The paintings with mythological references began to develop from this time.

Throughout the recent work of the past two years are references to Eastern religions, especially to Taoism and Sufism, and theosophy, to alchemy and to Egyptian mythology. The artist mentioned in passing the following story of Isis and Osiris, the Egyptian goddess of female creativity and life, and the god of the land of the dead. When the body of Osiris was cut into fourteen pieces by a jealous brother, Isis, his wife, searched throughout Egypt until she had retrieved the fragments, so that Osiris was resurrected, if only briefly What is significant about this story for Micky Allan is the search for the fragments, and the possibility that what is divided and in pieces can be made whole once again. "All knowledge," she says emphatically, "'must be connected up. We just don't see it."

This is an observation of someone deeply involved in a search for meaning beyond visual pleasure alone. It is unfashionable perhaps in the late 1980s, in Australia, to speak of the 'spiritual' in art, yet in Micky Allan's recent work that is precisely what we see: the underlying precepts of occult and mystical thought, manifest in the signs and diagrams which have come to represent esoteric knowledge. "All art worthy of the name is religious," Matisse observed, not long after he had completed the chapel at Vence, "be it a creation of lines, or colours: if it is not religious, it doesn't exist. If it is not religious, it is only a matter of documentary art, anecdotal art ... which is no longer art."10

Micky Allan's painting in the 80s represents a culmination of her search for meaning, for beauty and for the spiritual in art.

NOTES

1. University News, University of Sydney, No. 15, 1970.

2. Robert Pincus Witten, Eye to Eye, UMI Research Press, 1984, p. 125.

3. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "A Response to Writing and Sexual Difference," Elizabeth Abel, ed., Writing and Sexual Difference, University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 295.

4. Mary Kelly was at work on an old age series in 1982 when she came to Australia.

5. The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, ed. Cathy M. Davidson and E. M. Broner, New York, Frederick Ungar, 1980; and E. Abel, '(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women, Signs 6, Spring, 1981, p. 434.

6. See Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature, Newhaven, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 144-45.

7. Robert Rooney photographed a morning and evening change of clothing in AM:PM; Sam Schoenbaum recorded in writing subtle minute alterations in his physical and emotional state; John Davis produced a video in which he slowly wound up a piece of string into a large ball. Place, Monash University Exhibition Gallery, Department of Visual Arts, 1975.

8. Travelogue. Text accompanying exhibition, Watters Gallery, Sydney 1980.

9. Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps, London. Heinemann, 1936.

10. Henri Matisse, in J. D. Flam, Matisse on Art, New York, Phaidon, 1973, p. 140.

I would like to thank Alba Romano, Pauline Nestor, Anne Edwards and Peg McGuire for their interest in and support of this project.


Memory Holloway
Micky Allan, Perspective 1975-1987, exhibition catalogue