Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

2019 2nd Art Writing Prize - Jessica Stewart

Further information

Artwork Details

Artwork: Julie Dowling, Wudjula Yorgah (White Woman), 2005, acrylic and red ochre on canvas, 120 x 100 cm, CCWA 821.

Exhibition: The Artist and Her Work

Exhibition Catalogue: The Artist and Her Work with texts by CCWA Curator Gemma Weston and artist Taylor Reudavey (PDF)


Wudjula Yorgah (White Woman): Duality and Dynamism

by Jessica Stewart

The intensity of the blue, the shimmering luminous quality of the skyscape, compels you toward Julie Dowling’s portrait of Sheila Cruthers. But it is the mesmerizing figure herself that draws you in, demanding that you look, then look again. Nearly life-sized, the art collector dominates not just the canvas, but the wall, even the entire gallery over which she presides.

Given the title Wudjula Yorgah (White Woman), though painted with dark skin, Dowling’s image of Lady Cruthers is an engrossing balancing act. The Australian artist, of both First Nation Badimia and non-Aboriginal heritage, has cast her friend in a similar mold. Though created in 2005, just six years before Cruthers’ death, Dowling’s work imbues her subject with extraordinary power. As reflected in its title, the portrait is a study in duality and in dynamism.

Through Dowling’s employment of the Renaissance devices of triangular structure, and the Golden Mean, the diminutive Lady Cruthers has herself become mountainous in form, more colossal than the mountain range she is presented against. The artist renders her as distinct from, yet denizen of, both the earth and the sky that serve as her backdrop. In nature, but removed from it, she radiates a commanding sense of physical presence.

The figure’s hands are what arrest you first: massive, and in utter stillness, suggesting a self-contained potency. It is not just the scale of her limbs, but their placement that denotes vitality. Lady Cruthers’ legs are crossed in opposition to her hands: where the proper right hand is laid atop the left, the proper left leg drapes over the right, effectively sealing the body inward. This rhythmic balance is repeated throughout the pictorial structure, with a sense of alternately closed and open, different and like.

Whorled and veined, through their remarkable heft, Cruthers’ hands invite comparison to her face. Though of more delicate scale, her visage is chiselled, worn like leather, and of its hue. The skin is composed of red ochre, literally of the soil, and Cruthers is at once weightily grounded in the verdant green grass, yet somehow hovering. She is haloed in iridescence, her hair echoing the shape, rhythm, and palette of the clouds. They are white, yes, but a white that announces its spectrum: saturated in, and composed of, colour. Cruthers’ own energetic nimbus expands outward above them, in dazzling rainbow formation, to the edge of the canvas and beyond, a tremendous primordial force issuing skyward.

In attire, Cruthers appears an icon of suburban womanhood, clad in sensible blue trousers and matching striped shirt. She is bejewelled, yes, but not in the glitter of diamonds one might expect. Instead, she has donned a lengthy strand of pearls, presumably fake, of a bright cold white that rhyme with her blouse buttons. At first glance, she appears serenely aunty-ish. But belying that initial suggestion of warmth, Dowling’s sitter is aloof, her gaze entirely inscrutable. This is a portrait of the art collector as next-door-neighbor/goddess. Enthroned in her cheap plastic armchair, she exudes not frailty but preternatural strength.

In contrast with the statuesque immobility of the figure, Dowling has created a dramatic effect of just-arrested movement throughout the canvas. Even the sedate clothing appears to ripple, to undulate, the sleeves particularly sinuous in their folds. The stripes are not uniform, but become wider and more ragged at points, sustaining visual interest throughout. The blue lines establish a darker effect in some places (proper left chest) and a lighter one in others (proper right). The proper right shirt side remains untucked, displaying more fabric, while the proper left collar appears to fly upwards, launching a diagonal emphasis. The navy trousers have a richness, a texture of velvet, and they are highlighted with a white which intensifies that sheen. Adding to the chromatic complexity of the clothing, the white of the shirt, like the hair, the clouds, and the chair, has taken on a pinkish-ochre hue.

Enhanced by Cruthers’ just off-center placement, even the ubiquitous rigid suburban lawn ornament becomes organic in its hint of irregular curves. And Dowling holds our attention fast with more diagonal thrust.  A gap between proper left arm and chest reveals a portion of the seat adorned by the slightest patch of green grass, while on the proper right, more lawn and chair are visible, but adjoining the leg.

The immediacy of a freeze-frame, of stilled motion, is perhaps most prominent in the lushly-layered blades of grass that surround the seat and its occupant. An intense dynamism is conveyed through their variegated colouration and electric stippling. The implied movement in the vegetation draws our eye upward to the mountains, to the sky, and back toward the sitter, in a perpetual cycle. And the many-coloured spheres in both earth and sky lead our imagination to Aboriginal painting writ large, to the elders. This is no ordinary portrait. Sphinx-like, it gives little away, but asks you to decode its mystery. Siren-like, it requests your return. 


This Page

Last updated:
Thursday, 9 April, 2020 8:36 AM