At first glance, Susanne Kerr’s large gouache paintings of delicate floral arrangements convey lightness and whimsy—but something else is going on under the surface.
Among the towering florals, tiny people are absorbed in their own worlds. These female figures gather in anxious clusters, or tussle against silken ribbons that cascade, wrap, and bind them. The contrast in scale between people and plants only adds to the sense of unease.
“It’s very purposeful,” Kerr explains. “I wanted to draw people in with the beauty and almost calming them with the natural environment; and then for them to start absorbing what might be going on with these figures.” The ribbons, she says, represent “human intent or internal dialogue”—the social constructs that tie us down.
Kerr’s work is aesthetically influenced by Chinoiserie—a 17th- and 18th-century European style that drew heavily on Chinese and Japanese art, adapted and reinterpreted through the Rococo design of the time. Characterised by the use of background space, a deliberate asymmetry, and ornate decoration with natural motifs, this style offers a rich ground for the artist to construct unsettling combinations of form and figure.
Based in New Zealand, Kerr is also inspired by her daily walks within the local bushland, but the birds and plants in her paintings are cosmopolitan in origin. “I do pilfer from different countries,” she laughs, “and I also put flowers together that don’t necessarily flower at the same time.” Form and colour are more important than fact, as well as the symbolic meanings of flowers that exist in both Western and Eastern cultures: “There’s always a little bit of symbolism and iconography that’s traced through my work.”
Please note that due to COVID-19 restrictions Gallerysmith is currently closed. Works from this exhibition can be viewed online here. We recommend visiting the gallery website for the most up to date reopening information.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.