Anne Wallace on realism, motherhood and creating tension


Drawing upon passing scenes from life, and filled with allusions to pop culture, Anne Wallace’s realist paintings deliver images that flitter between intimate and suspenseful. Reminiscent of those moments when lived experience feels tinged with the cinematic, Wallace’s three-decade practice is a glance into personhood, womanhood, glamour and desire.

Tiarney Miekus: I understand you grew up in a very suburban environment within the relative conservatism of Brisbane in the 1980s. Did that influence your work and the way you portray women?

Anne Wallace: It’s funny because it wasn’t so much a very conservative place, but it was a middle-of-the-road suburban environment that I grew up in. My parents had a house built in the late 1960s and they’ve lived there ever since. It was a suburban housing development, so it didn’t have a lot of history or the feeling of history. But, at the same time, I was very aware of the history of my family and my grandmother’s generation, and the possibilities for living an interesting life—you know, my grandmother never left Brisbane. She was quite happy to be a quote-unquote ‘homemaker’. I grew up in a time when those things were being contested.

TM: It seems like when you were in art school you had a great sense of ambition. You once said you wanted to paint many works by the age of 20?

AW: Yes, I know! I was reminded of that when I saw the show [Wallace’s current touring exhibition Strange Ways] of how ambitious I was when I left art school. I just didn’t see the point in not [being ambitious]. I was really inspired by other artists who’d been incredibly ambitious and had been very driven to make substantial paintings.

Anne Wallace, Poptones, 2015, oil on linen. Collection of the artist.

I find that interesting because I’m from Brisbane too, and I feel like that sense of serious artistic ambition can be so easily waylaid.

AW: Absolutely. You’re so aware of that idea of the Sunshine State and ‘let’s go out’ and enjoy the fabulous lifestyle of Brisbane. It almost doesn’t allow for serious attention to your ‘thing’ that you do. I watched a film about L.S. Lowry recently and it was very interesting. I was a big fan of his when I was younger and he’s not a hugely ambitious painter by any means. His work was modest in its scale because he had to work in his tiny little attic, but he devoted his entire life to his art and didn’t really do anything else. I find that very inspiring and impressive. Painting was something that was so important for him to get through his life.

TM: Is that devotion to painting something you’ve had in your life?

AW: I was able to until the moment that I had children. In retrospect it was a very strange thing—I was very naive and thought that I could do both [painting and parenting]. Or I thought I could just take five years, look after my son, and then go back to my full-time painting career. But it’s definitely not been like that. Were it not for [parenting], I think I would have devoted myself much more wholeheartedly. But I’m glad that I haven’t. I did get to a point where I wasn’t wanting to be involved in the art world so much. It was the professional side of painting—I wanted to take a break from that. When you go to art school and you do postgraduate study, you are encouraged to really intellectualise your work and talk about it and be able to account for it. I think that process can be quite damaging in that it takes you further away from your original reasons for doing things. I think that happened with me. So I was quite happy to get away and join the so-called ‘real world’ for a little while. But I’ve discovered it’s very hard to get back to that totally self-absorbed process that being an artist is.

TM: You make a lot of cultural references in your work—whether it’s the The Go-Betweens, Sylvia Plath or Dylan Thomas—as well as drawing on your lived experience. What does it take for something to make enough of an impact that you decide to paint it?

AW: I have thoughts about the world that run parallel in my mind to the images that come up. Being a representational painter, I need things to paint. I have a need to paint objects, but they’re not really just paintings of [the objects] themselves. I choose them very deliberately because they’re usually in connection with other things in the painting, or they’re the setting of the painting, or they create a conversation that hopefully triggers feelings in whoever is looking at it. Or it captures what I feel about something so that I’m not literally painting a theme. It’s a bit paradoxical, actually, because on the one hand I paint clear representations of things but, at the same time, I’m not creating clearly transmitted ideas either. It’s trying to create a fertile ground from which thoughts and associations might come.

TM: You’ve talked about a sense of self-consciousness that comes with being a representational painter. Do you still feel that way?

AW: I definitely don’t feel self-conscious about it anymore, but I certainly did. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I was forming myself as an artist, it was ‘off’ to be a representational painter. Every way you looked the interesting stuff was being done in completely different media. While I couldn’t make work in that way, I did feel like I was tagged with being a conservative for continuing to paint. But it was maybe a good thing to not feel entirely at ease with your own medium. It problematises it, especially when your intention is definitely not conservative. A lot of my work is, deep down, politically motivated, but encapsulated in a subtle way. It definitely creates this tension—but I actually like that. The feeling of being out of time and being against the world, or against the stream in which art was seeming to go. For me being an artist is a highly individualistic thing.

Anne Wallace, The Go-Betweens, 2001, oil on canvas, QUT Art Collection. Purchased 2019.

You often portray women being watched. What interests you about those scenes?

AW: Frankly, the most interesting stories to me are the ones that involve women; the way they’re placed in the world, the way they’re looked at, the way they don’t necessarily have any agency in some situations. I’m old enough to have experienced a bridge between two generations. Feminism is now something that we can assume has made an impact, but when I was growing up it wasn’t really like that. It’s partly the background that I had and the school that I went to, but women seemed to not be owning the images of themselves, and had to endure representations of themselves. Although, people like Cindy Sherman were making work, so it was always being contested. But I’ve always felt very strongly that my work is about people. It’s simply because of my own experience that it’s women who are the most important subjects.

TM: There’s often a mood or tension in the paintings— how cultivated is that?

AW: The work does consciously involve clichés about the world—things that everyone can recognise, at least in Western shared history. But the tension is that I don’t want to be didactic. I want there to be a trace of an issue, or something that it’s about, but it needs to be very hidden or chance-like. It’s a fine balance between making something that has an easily identified meaning and not just making random surrealistic juxtapositions—that’s not interesting to me. Certainly, I have abandoned many paintings because they just don’t have that tension. It’s a curious thing. All I know is that there’s certain images that I can put together that have an authenticity when they go well. Each time I start painting I have to go through that process of trying to pin that down, but without really knowing how to do it.

Strange Ways
Anne Wallace
Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art
16 October—28 November

This article was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Interview Words by Tiarney Miekus