For more than five decades Lesley Dumbrell has been making her own mark in the male-dominated enclave of geometric abstraction. “I have always said I’m a feminist and I’m very proud of it,” explains the artist. “I think what feminism did for me was liberate my brain to say, ‘You can just do whatever you want. And if you happen to be interested in weird images of patterns, and that happens to be how you think, then, well, go for it.’” And she has, opening doors for both herself and others along the way.
Dumbrell is an artist with a singular vision, which she has pursued with steadfast vigour. First in Melbourne, and now from Bangkok where she has lived since the 1990s, Dumbrell paints meticulously precise, yet lyrical, abstract compositions that are sometimes awash with subtle shifts of colour. Her work is inextricably tied to the light of the landscapes she finds herself in, and her overarching concerns— time, colour, illusion, pattern and scale—have, she readily admits, remained unchanged over the decades.
For Dumbrell, abstract art is a language, and, like any language, it has to be learned. “I guess the first art I really could not understand was Mondrian,” she explains. “I thought, ‘They just look like squares to me; I don’t get it. I don’t understand.’ But I decided it was my fault, not the artist’s fault. And I studied him really closely and after a while it just clicked together. There are no words I can say for what that meant, I can’t intellectually analyse it. But I suddenly got it: it’s an abstract language.”
Learning a language, whether linguistic or visual, takes both hard work and determination, qualities Dumbrell seems to have in abundance. “I like the difficult paintings,” she says, explaining how she sometimes finds even her own paintings difficult, despite years of perfecting her unique visual language.
Getting a painting right—finding the correct combination of colours, lines and forms that somehow resolve into a synergistic whole that allows the work to “sing” and to say what she wants in her own ineffable language—remains a struggle. “It becomes a kind of battle,” she admitted in a 1979 interview with James Gleeson. “Quite often I lose them all together.” Even now, more than 40 years later, she’s still in pursuit.
Dumbrell’s most recent painting, a blue-on-blue composition where triangles seem to dance and vibrate across the canvas on carefully plotted trajectories, took her four months to complete in her Bangkok studio. At one point, she nearly gave up. “I thought I was going to lose it,” she admits. “But then I thought, ‘Bugger it, I am not going to lose it,’ and I just kept changing some of the lines and seeing if that would work. And I eventually pulled it together,” she laughs.
Dumbrell laughs a lot, her humour clearly part of an adamantine strength that propelled her to push through institutional doors at a time when being a female abstractionist was far more difficult than it is now.
Today, her work is held by the National Gallery of Australia and most state galleries. In 1999 she was honoured with a retrospective at The Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, Shades of Light: Lesley Dumbrell 1971-1999, but she was left out of the seminal 1968 exhibition The Field at the National Gallery of Victoria, a fact that still causes consternation in some quarters. Since her first solo show—held in 1969 at Bonython Gallery in Sydney—there is no doubt that Dumbrell has made her mark on Australian art history, forging a path for others, too.
In 1975 she became one of the founding members of the Women’s Art Register in Melbourne, an institution driven by a desire for change and the need to create opportunities in art for women. “It was just the beginning of women starting to say we’re sick of being second-rate people,” Dumbrell recalls.
As well as setting up the register, which remains a vital resource today, Dumbrell and her compatriots realised that even though women made up at least half of the student body, there were very few female teachers in art schools. “So we got together and put some pressure on [the art school], and we started to open the doors for women,” she says. “It was a huge push. And it did make quite a lot of change.”
Dumbrell is still making changes. Recently, for the first time in her long career, she started working on sculptures: three dimensional laser-cut metal structures that play with illusion in the same way as her paintings. Asked where she is going to show her new work, she says, “I have a number of options, which is the first time in my life I can say that! That is exciting.” Lesley Dumbrell is still experimenting, and still opening doors.
Dumbrell’s latest work can be seen in Lightworks: Lesley Dumbrell, Trevor Vickers, Virginia Coventry and Richard Dunn at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, 2 October – 29 November.
This article was originally published in the July/August print edition of Art Guide Australia.