To view the portraits of Madeleine Pfull is a peculiarly evocative experience for anyone with strong memories of the 1980s and early 1990s—the décor, the fashion, the colours, the stylised ambience. These inexplicably addictive paintings explore domesticity and typicality from these decades, and are made all the more remarkable by the fact Pfull was born in 1993. But she has a distinct reason as to why her works are ‘set’ in the past.
“I find it very difficult in contemporary portrait painting for the work not to be dated as quickly as it is produced,” she says. “I am not seeking to make fast comments about contemporary life, so it works well for me to predate these paintings.”
The paintings depict women in a range of settings; they appear a mixture of uncomfortable, despondent and nervous. And a unique compositional process is involved: Pfull herself assumes the persona of these characters, wearing costumes, make-up and performing gestures and expressions. She then bases her paintings on photographs of herself.
Pfull has explored this practice and subject matter for several years, yet there are variations between different series. Of her new works, Pfull says, “The one change is that the characters are slightly more self-aware and happy to be viewed. These new ones feel a bit more playful.”
That playfulness combines with a striking sense of melancholy that hints at the frustrations of suburbia, ageing and, importantly, gender roles. But the paintings also transcend these things, creating an idiosyncratic, beautiful effect all of their own. “The repetition of the characters allows for them to become more than just women of a certain age and a certain era,” says Pfull. “I hope it allows for more nuanced meanings to come through.”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.