A New Normal

Catalogue essay by Sharne Wolff

“Shyness is nice, and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life
That you’d like to...” (The Smiths, ‘Ask’)

According to the artist, Abbey McCulloch is ‘quite a shy person’ and ‘incredibly self conscious’ which makes the story behind her exhibition of paintings entitled A New Normal all the more intriguing. A few weeks away from the deadline for entries to this year’s Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, the artist was faced with an interesting decision. She had no suitable subject amongst her friends and was too shy to ask anyone else to be her sitter. With time fast running out and despite years of reticence she decided to paint herself. McCulloch became so immersed in the project that she didn’t grasp the irony of her creation until after the portrait was completed. Eventually, ‘The Wimp’, the only title she felt was apt, was selected as a semi-finalist for the Prize.

This initial picture led quickly to a personal exploration and, after almost a decade of solo shows, an intriguing shift in her practice – she produced a series of self-portraits. Gazing out from the initial portrait the artist appears more vulnerable than cowardly. As she became braver McCulloch experimented with photography and all that she’d previously found confronting about being so ‘self indulgent’. In ‘The Black Iris’, painted immediately after ‘The Wimp’, the artist is seen cutting her own hair while simultaneously clipping a rare black iris. One self looks enraged while the other carries on despite the threat.

From that encounter the series moves on but with a lighter aesthetic and an increasing confidence. The atmosphere of the show emerges from backgrounds of at paint in a palette of faded ice cream pastels – pinks, yellows and greens abound. Although her subjects remain gurative, the strong lines and animated characters of previous work have become more gestural with indefinite edges and thin veils of clothing. The results are softer, freer and more playful.

Of course it’s hard to say whether any self-portrait is ever really a true portrait of the artist. Cindy Sherman considered she became an ‘unconscious actor’ when taking photographs of herself because the process naturally involved a search for information. As a young woman whose work has involved a fascination with women and femininity in all its forms, it seems inevitable that McCulloch’s search reveals her both as a person and as a woman of her generation.

There is a distinct spareness in these works where the artist gives the viewer only necessary detail. Without any particular narrative, McCulloch has thrown hints with her eyes that seem to hold the key. Like an actor on the stage, the artist places herself on the canvas with her ego in the paint. Once so private McCulloch arrives as an artist who, with a newfound resilience and maturity, can make her own way.

Sharne Wolff, 2012


Sugar by Dr Jess Berry

In her latest exhibition Sugar, McCulloch takes her observations literally into new physical spaces, extending her paintings into clay sculptures. The translation into a new medium is entirely successful. The hallmarks of her paintings - liquid and dynamic movement, emotive facial expressions and languid lines - are all present in these three-dimensional forms. Their materiality however, suggest the artist has an enlivened understanding of the possibilities of the figure.

These women are palpable expressions of unashamed abandon. Sensual, powerful and jubilant, they convey an understanding of what it means to live, love and feel through the body's senses and forms. It is entirely obvious that the materiality of clay offers the artist a tactile opportunity to mould and shape these bodies into new figurations not possible through pigment. They are quite simply, made to be touched and experienced through our own bodies and sense of what it means to be comfortable in your own skin.

Dr Jess Berry, 2017

Senior Lecturer Design History/Theory

Monash University


Catalogue essay by Dr Laini Burton

Like bursts from a camera shutter, Abbey McCulloch’s series PERFORMANCE captures not only the most consciously posed and poised bodies, but those moments in between that reveal the out-takes, where gestures belie that vivacious, confident woman caught only a millisecond before. Somehow we all know one of these fabulous creatures. She oozes with self-possession, acuity and style. She has a kind of élan, or je ne sais quoi that can be neither bought nor photoshopped. With a prolonged gaze however, we might realize that she is not one but many women, she is composite and contemporary taste, she is a construction created by you and I, and ‘them’ out there. Suddenly, McCulloch’s aim comes into sharp relief, as she problematises the very act of looking to turn it on its head. She asks simply: What do you want from her? And in asking this question, McCulloch characterises the expectations we place on others and ourselves in the performance of everyday life.

At a time when women are entering public life at unprecedented levels, the media prevails to remind us of how to look, what to eat, or how to act as a form of institutional power encouraging self-regulation of our bodies. Unsurprisingly, women have developed various ways of dealing with this reality. We adopt many masks. French scholar Joan Riviere wrote of womanliness as a mask, worn to stave off the threat to masculinity should she be detected as possessing power in assuming such a guise. Writing in 1929, Riviere laid the foundation for discourses on gender and performativity that dominate critical writing half a century later, not least by the notable Judith Butler who identifies culturally prescribed behaviors and conventions as constituting these performative acts we so readily engage in.

Yet ‘performing’ identity can draw criticism as being duplicitous or inauthentic. However it is in adopting these masks we enable ourselves us to ‘pass’ through any number of circumstances we navigate in our daily lives. Indeed, masquerade can function to simultaneously mock and unmask the truth. It presents ‘the truth in the shape of deception’[i]. Philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote of this deception as mauvais fois, or ‘bad faith’, framing it as an existential and ethical problem. They conceived of ‘bad faith’ as a form of self-deception in which our thoughts, decisions and actions are based on believing oneself to be as one thing, while knowing they are actually another. Sartre understood that by acting as if one were a mere thing, one denied themself the freedom to transform into something very different.[ii] What McCulloch’s subjects lay bare is the ineluctable performance anxiety that accompanies masquerade, urging us toward further ‘deception’ or ‘bad faith’.

But (I hear you say), she is so convincing, this vision! While at times McCulloch’s seemingly quick paint strokes and licked surfaces coalesce in a confident subject, the light touch hints at her vulnerability. She is rendered as exposed to judgment, and dances on your inability to decide if she is complicit or naive in sustaining the illusion of control over her image. Floating forms retreat and emerge almost simultaneously, McCulloch deliberately isolating them as if denying them any props to substantiate their posing. Where there appears more than one figure, they seem to mirror or compete for attention. Each subject hints at a tumultuous internal space, as she perceives us contemplating her image.

McCulloch’s capacity to register and mediate multiple states of being—subject/object, moving image/still image, authenticity/deception, surface/depth, controlled/in-control, scene/seen—renders every subject as a ‘work-in-progress’, constantly inventing and reinventing herself. In this frenzy of a digital age, McCulloch’s carnal bodies represent the dialectic between the physical and the psychological position of women; that is, they embody the entanglement of personal power and control, alongside the sexual contrivances of body image construction today. We cannot escape the social processes that are implicated in our presentation of self, since they are wholly immersed within a landscape of rapidly changing and largely unknowable forces of consumer capitalism. In this sense, McCulloch’s paintings are refreshingly honest. They are an avalanche of contradictions, not unlike life itself. What simmers at the fringes of these paintings is a disquiet that speaks of the rather embarrassing truth. That we are all—every one of us—engaged in a performance of ‘self’.

Nevertheless, sexuality and eroticism prevail here. McCulloch invokes a sensuous exchange between paint and viewer that somehow slips between criticality and fleshly desire. There is of course no judgment or guilt in doing so. McCulloch only asks that, in reflection, we become aware that we are all subject to the call to beauty.

Dr Laini Burton, 2016

Lecturer, Queensland College of Art

[i] Efrat Tseëlon. Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality. London: Routledge 2001: 5.