Reviving the concept of the muse via the Kelly Gang

Feature

Please note due to COVID-19 restrictions the exhibition The Long Shot at Linden New Art, is currently closed. Continuing our commitment to covering the arts Australia-wide, Art Guide Australia will continue to share articles and stories on artists and exhibitions during this time, encouraging viewers to experience art online. Part of the exhibition The Long Shot can be viewed online here.

Poised in front of two large windows in Jacqui Stockdale’s Melbourne studio is a woman astride a magnificent white horse. Bathing in a creamy light, the female figure straddles the muscled creature while wearing a mid-19th century cascading dress. She rides bareback and bare-breasted, cradling a Martini Henry rifle and donning a Ned Kelly-like helmet. She has aura: indomitable and strident. Her posture is pure heroine. And look at her belly: she’s eight months pregnant.

Her name is Historia. She’s one of Stockdale’s recent creations tied to rethinking the Ned Kelly mythology. “Historia was created as Ned Kelly’s love,” explains the artist. “She becomes the centre. She becomes greater than him.” Previously Historia lived in photographic form, and she’s now entering the third dimension in what Stockdale calls an assemblage, rather than sculpture. Stockdale, who is well-known for images and portraits that drift between photography and painting, has long worked at the crossroads of unpacking dominant Australian narratives, thinking through the myth of the Kelly Gang, colonisation, feminism and Indigenous rights.

Continuing these threads, this new sculptural rendering of Historia and her horse, titled Such is Love, 2020, will make its debut in Stockdale’s exhibition The Long Shot at Linden New Art, which considers the Kelly myth and history through a matriarchal, feminist lens. The exhibition contains what Stockdale calls a “delirium of characters”, all created from her extensive historical research. There’s Ned Kelly’s mother Ellen Kelly, better known as Ma Kelly, alongside a sexually-charged “Syphilis man”, Chinese immigrants chasing gold (Historia’s horse has dropped a giant nugget from its bowels), and Irish and English convicts and settlers. While Stockdale is bringing these histories and characters together to question what it means to identify as ‘Australian’, particularly in a moment of colonisation of First Nations people, she’s also concerned with the performative idea of masking. As she explains, “Masquerade allows you to reveal a lot of what’s been hidden, instead of the other way around.”

Jacqui Stockdale, Ma Kelly, Mixed Media, 140 x 80 x 80cm, 2020.

Masquerade defines much of Stockdale’s art. In her highly regarded series The Boho, which showed at the 2016 Adelaide Biennial, Stockdale created portraits from real life models, evoking members of the Kelly Gang. Historia, too, first arose from a model, but unlike other characters, she has no clear historical antecedent. She’s more akin to Virginia Woolf’s creation of Shakespeare’s sister—the imagining of a woman who never lived in the world, but does exist in aesthetic form to reflect on history and gender. Yet Historia is also a symbol of creating art in the present: she’s the result of Stockdale’s creative relationship with a real and living muse, filmmaker Siân Darling.

Considering the historically passive notion of the muse, and in light of our current #metoo era, the idea of the muse may, at first glance, seem problematic: the muse is almost always female; she is often a docile yet libidinal force; her power is inspiration, but this power is granted only so long as the artist, almost always a man, continues to find her inspiring.

Darling knows this history. “I’ve been called a muse by artists and by witnesses to the art that’s been created around me, and it’s really strange,” she explains. “I’ve thought, ‘You can do paintings and write songs about me, but where does that leave me?’ I never found it flattering. I found the title to be an incidental thing.” Yet rather than disavowing the idea of the muse altogether, Stockdale and Darling are rescuing the term from passivity, giving the muse new shape through mutuality, collaboration and respect. Even though the muse may be an old concept, it still has contemporary resonances and implications; a duality between past and present that threads Stockdale’s art.

Darling and Stockdale first met in the early 2010s at a fundraising dinner. One year later, Darling was modelling various characters for Stockdale’s work. Darling, however, isn’t Stockdale’s only muse, with Stockdale noting a muse can strike anywhere: “Once I start getting an idea, I often have these muses appear. They really do. I’ve walked up to somebody and have said, ‘You’re Ned Kelly’s lover. Can I put you into my show?’” As a filmmaker and creator herself, and someone used to being behind the camera and directing, Darling relinquished this role to Stockdale.

The seeds for Historia were planted in 2015 when Stockdale was creating The Boho portraits which, as Stockdale explains, “really looked at the myth and hysteria around Ned Kelly and the Ned Kelly story.” In the images, Ned Kelly is modelled by another Kelly: the singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, who is also Darling’s partner. When Paul was finishing being shot as Ned, Darling and Stockdale distinctly remember a theatrical presence in the air. Historia didn’t yet exist, but in a mood that was “provocative and playful”, Darling began to take on the character. “And that’s when all the planets aligned,” says Stockdale. Or, as Darling puts it, “And that’s when I picked up the rifle and took off my top.”

Jacqui Stockdale, Historia, 2016, Type C Print, Edition of 8 + 2AP, 140 x 110 cm.

From here the creation of Historia became an act of doing that was as professional as it was intimate: the pair worked instinctively to model and capture the character. “I’m not doing a portrait of Siân,” explains Stockdale of this process. “She evokes the character that I need.” For Darling, the modelling brings forth a particular kind of performativity, giving her agency in evoking a shared vision. “It’s a flirtation with something that doesn’t exist yet, and we’re dancing around to form a figure together,” reflects Darling. “I love the way Jacqui, when she’s styling what I’m wearing or adjusting something on me, or assessing the way I’m positioning myself, helps me feel personally invisible. As a model I dissolve, and I feel like she’s finding what we’ve both been looking for.”

While Stockdale and Darling’s collaborative understanding of the muse isn’t necessarily premediated on both being female—Stockdale has male muses, too—there is a sense in which Stockdale’s gender frees her. As she says, “If a male artist created Historia, it’d be a totally different story. I revel in the freedom of my gender, for once.”

The Long Shot
Jacqui Stockdale
Linden New Art
22 February—17 May

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

Tiarney Miekus