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Grace Wright's gestural paintings, erupting with colour and swirling movement, are situated in the trajectory of Abstract Expressionism. A studio visit with the New Zealand artist confirms they engage with much more.

Grace Wright’s Painted Cacophonies Entice and Repel in Equal Measure

Grace Wright, The Passing Of Spring (2021). Acrylic on linen. 140 x 200 cm. Courtesy Gallery 9.

Just as Wright's very recognisable flat brushstrokes twist in unexpected ways, so does her work's relationship with a cacophony of influences, from Western art history to dance, nature, and the contemporary technological and socio-political moment.

In Alpha Paradise, Wright's inaugural show with Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland in 2020, elements of 17th-century painting floated to the surface of large richly layered acrylic paintings harbouring coiling compositions rendered in the contrasting colour combinations of the Baroque. Across the gallery, Prussian blues, viridian greens, bright yellows, moody umbers, and turquoises and pinks bloomed.

Exhibition View: Grace Wright, Alpha Paradise, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland (9–26 September 2020).

Exhibition View: Grace Wright, Alpha Paradise, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland (9–26 September 2020). Courtesy Gow Langsford Gallery and the artist.

Final Fantasy (2020), the largest work in the Gow Langsford show at over 3.66 metres in length, erupts with drama. Dark green tonal variations and murky browns are backlit in places, while strokes unfurl in ecstasy, anger, or panic at different points.

Grace Wright, Final Fantasy (2020). Acrylic on linen. 180 x 360 cm.

Grace Wright, Final Fantasy (2020). Acrylic on linen. 180 x 360 cm. Courtesy Gow Langsford Gallery and the artist.

Although devoid of figuration, these are history paintings reinvented for the present. An artist's statement by Wright notes how, under the conditions of New Zealand's first lockdown, nature's colours appeared more intense, which evoked to the artist 'some kind of uncertain cosmic future'.

The cosmic reference speaks to the influence of mystic artist Hilma af Klint on Wright's work, having studied the radical painter while completing her MFA at Auckland University in 2019.

With the legacy of af Klint in mind, it makes sense that Wright's influences are not embedded in the work as consciously as the organised chaos of Wright's particular style might suggest. They owe a great deal to the subconscious, albeit channelled through rules of pictorial engagement into logical conclusions.

Exhibition View: Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (12 June–19 September 2021).

Exhibition View: Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (12 June–19 September 2021). Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: Jenni Carter © AGNSW.

Deeply involved with theosophy, af Klint's painting was influenced by her practice as a medium, and she described her pictures as having been channelled through her.

Working without preparatory drawings, Wright allows her unconscious mind to lead the work—a process recalling the automatic writing and interest in the subconscious pioneered by Surrealism, which Wright also cites as an influence—albeit within strict parameters. She pre-mixes her colours, and rotates the canvas 180 degrees as she paints.

Grace Wright, View For The Brave (2021). Acrylic on linen. 180 x 130 cm.

Grace Wright, View For The Brave (2021). Acrylic on linen. 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy Gallery 9.

In discussing the painter Albert Oehlen, whose abstraction dallies with Surrealist methodology too, Wright recalls viewing his work at the New Museum in 2015, which demonstrated to her how painting could be 'so much more'.

These are not 'pretty paintings'; they are works that want to enthral and repulse in equal measure to create a visceral experience.

Following that encounter, Wright's more graphic work gradually gave way to fluid paintings revelling in increasing complexity.

An exhibition at gallery Parlour Projects in early 2020, entitled Fantasia for a Late Night, revealed a leap forward in the artist's approach. Seven large-scale paintings, including a monumental triptych, presented smears of pigments and tangled fleshy corkscrews of paint, which both clustered together and sprung apart.

Exhibition View: Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, New Museum, New York (10 June–13 September 2015).

Exhibition View: Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, New Museum, New York (10 June–13 September 2015). Courtesy the New Museum and the artist. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

Though Wright's background as a dancer and musician is often linked to the rhythmical action of her painting, the artist's engagement with the body can also be seen in the intestine-like brushstrokes that unfurl across the canvas, and the blushes of pink and blood red that suggest oozing wounds or congealed blood.

The painting Underestimating Courage (2021), presented earlier this year in the exhibition Making it all seem real at Sydney's Gallery 9, is a hot maelstrom of reds and pinks, with blue rippling through the work like veins. One is either looking at a fiery galaxy, or a throbbing mass under the skin.

These are not 'pretty paintings'; they are works that want to enthral and repulse in equal measure to create a visceral experience.

Grace Wright, Underestimating Courage (2021). Acrylic on linen. 170 x 120 cm.

Grace Wright, Underestimating Courage (2021). Acrylic on linen. 170 x 120 cm. Courtesy Gallery 9 and the artist.

Wright uses scale to both engage the audience's body in physically viewing the work, but also as a means to insert her own body—the female body—into the large canvases associated with the white, male American expressionists.

Finding New Ways of Belonging (2021), also presented in the Sydney show, unleashes paint in hurtling strokes across two canvases joined together to create a five-metre work. Awash with purples, light blues, dirty browns, the work could be read from left to right, with darkness ceding to light or vice versa, where light is sucked into a blackening storm, prompting thoughts of creation myths, science fictions, apocalyptic possibilities, and new beginnings.

Grace Wright, Finding New Ways Of Belonging (2021). Acrylic on linen. 130 x 500 cm. Exhibition View: Grace Wright, Making It All Seem Real, Gallery 9, Sydney (21 April–5 May 2021).

Grace Wright, Finding New Ways Of Belonging (2021). Acrylic on linen. 130 x 500 cm. Exhibition View: Grace Wright, Making It All Seem Real, Gallery 9, Sydney (21 April–5 May 2021). Courtesy Gallery 9.

While the artist's paintings can appear overly slick in reproduction, the works comprise both grand, sweeping gestures and worked up pockets of hysteria that are at once overwhelming and deeply personal. Wormholes threaten to draw you into an abyss, or repel you backwards to consider a world from afar.

In this particular brand of abstraction, power is as decentralised as form: a reminder that linear progression is a myth in a world experienced through extreme shifts of scale, and different subconscious and conscious interpretations. —[O]

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