At first glance, there would seem to be little in common between Johnnene Maddison’s latest, small painting and Gaugin’s well-known painting, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.” The colours are completely different, the composition is completely different, the subject matter seems different. Yet, when I look at Maddison’s painting, a memory of Gaugin’s work springs to mind. Why?

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There are visual elements within both works that have tenuous similarities. In Gaugin’s work there is an inexplicable perspective introduced that places the viewer with and slightly behind a group of pious people in the foreground, while we seem to be looking down upon others, including a cow (seen from above) in the top left corner of the work. Diagonally crossing the picture plane is a brown, shape of irregular contours that represents the bough of a tree. Our view of the main event, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, is therefore simultaneously across and down. Are the foreground figures standing on a hill? Are they somehow, curiously up in a tree? Have they perhaps been lifted physically and spiritually so that they may better witness this spectacle? They seem solid enough in their grouping. Indeed, almost unmovable as visual elements, as does the solidly coloured shape that separates them from the almost incidental “main event” that presents itself as a small configuration in the top right corner of the picture plane.

Maddison’s work has no such colouring, nor theme, nor composition. Why then, when I look at her work, am I reminded of Gaugin’s work?

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Thematically, Maddison’s work is abstract to the extent that no specific representation is evident, so the similarity is not there. Colour-wise, Maddison’s work is predominantly pastels (rather than red), which would seem to form a ground of sorts. If anything, Maddison’s work conjures, in my mind, a presence of ocean or the bay of an ocean, but like Gaugin’s work, the viewer is presented with shapes both in the foreground and in the top left corner that might be continuous, but seem separate from each other, possibly even in a different perspective. Though Maddison’s shapes are smaller, her grouping of three monolithic shapes in the bottom left corner are somehow reminiscent of the main grouping of three women in the foreground of Gaugin’s work. They are sentinel-like in their visual presence, overseeing, almost asymmetrically framing, a view of some, something, a busier configuration of shapes, that seems tangled, that occupies the low-centre of her work, while on the right edge of the work an almost geometrically perfect rectangle reasserts the actual flatness of the picture plane, declaring the work as a painting and not as an illusion of spatial depth. Both the busy, lower-central configuration and the right-edge rectangle seem to have been partially covered over by feather-edged strokes that didn’t respect the previously well-defined sharp edges of these shapes, just as the inevitable erosion of ocean waves fails to respect the integrity of any well-honed shape, either naturally occurring or man-made. It is as if something is going on in that busy configuration that exists within the presence and awareness of the other shapes. We cannot know what it is that is happening, nor can the observing shapes know. They and we simply exist as observers of we-know-not-what, but somehow we know it’s important, on-going, irresistible.
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The viewer’s point of view has been elevated, lifted up, in order to be able to look down upon the figurative tussle almost over the shoulders (so to speak) of the observing sentinels. In Gaugin’s work, one also notices the cow. It causes one to consider the innocence of the docile beast that seems somehow irrelevant or unrelated to the gravity of the scene being played out before her. In Maddison’s work, one wonders if the blue, fish-shape is an extension of the grouping of shapes in the top left, as a peninsula might be seen from above. Or is it a shape more related to ocean than it is to land, perhaps even bridging the gap between two worlds? Its presence makes this viewer wonder things like, how was it that Christ was seen to have walked upon the water? How was it that fish-like creatures developed legs and began walking upon the land? Is Maddison’s new work indeed intended to represent sentinels by the sea in one form or another? Are they silent witnesses to the erosion, the devastation wreaked by time and natural forces? Do they somehow represent a desired connection between the earth-bound and the spiritual? Do they pose questions about faith, myth, and scientific theory?

Abstractions, though delightfully unspecific in their nature, have the capacity to prompt thought. Somehow, such abstractions when used in theatre are easily accepted. Entire scenes in plays are sometimes built around a single prop as the actor demonstrates that by stretching one’s mind, by participating in the abstraction of the specific to the general and back again, one thing may be conceptually transformed into another thing, and another, and another. This is true in visual art as well. At least it is so for those with eyes that can see and minds that can think beyond the quick and easy dismissal of the unfamiliar.

This is a great work by Johnnene Maddison! She is a woman with much to offer her viewers and much left, yet to be said by her.