Robyn Stacey – ‘Australian Art Review’


Art exhibition review

A Cultural Excavator


A large, full watermelon, shiny and ripe, is stabbed open with a nineteenth-century silver knife, as a dripping slice sits waiting to be consumed.  A fecund display of fruit and flowers is draped across an antique table, plates and baskets spilling over with their bounty.  These visually sumptuous photographic montages by Sydney-based photographer Robyn Stacey, are far from the images one envisions being taken from a museum collection, more associated with faded, dusty specimens than the lush, fleshy compositions displayed here.

Since 2000, Stacey has developed a singular obsession with photographing works from Australia’s oldest natural history collections.  Her fascination with natural history began after viewing the vast and diverse collection of Alexander Macleay, who arrived in 1826 from Britain as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales.  Macleay brought with him an extensive collection of flora and fauna from around the world, which he then added to with specimens from across the Asia-Pacific region.  This important collection later formed the basis of the Macleay Museum, housed at the University of Sydney, and the Herbarium at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, as well as spawning the Australian Museum.

Stacey has since developed an ongoing relationship with the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, allowing her unprecedented access to some of the most significant and somewhat hidden natural history collections in the country.  The photographer however has little interest in documenting museological material in a dry, scientific manner. Instead, she reworks and reimagines traditional museum displays.  Combining the genres of western still-life painting and contemporary art, she presents these historical items in a fresh and unique way, transforming them into exquisite visual compositions. 

Her large-scale artworks lure the viewer into the world of the nineteenth century collector, her striking arrangements and lighting evoking a heightened sense of reality.  The spectator is encouraged to view the works with the sense of wonder that the early collectors must have experienced when seeing a new exotic plant or insect for the first time.

The photographer’s interest in Macleay’s collection has led her to photograph other prominent colonial history collections, such as that of William Charles Wentworth.  In her recent solo exhibitions ‘Empire Line’ (2009) and ‘The Great and the Good’ (2008), held at Stills Gallery in Sydney, she records artifacts from the historic estates of Macleay (Elizabeth Bay House) and Wentworth (Vaucluse House).  Stacey has little interest in shooting the lavish interiors of these homes.   

She comments,

“I’m not an architectural photographer.  They don’t appeal to me anyway; I find them too cluttered.  I’m more interested in taking individual items and putting them together in a way that you wouldn’t get in the house … There is always a feeling of human presence, even though there is no-one in the photo.” 

She documents the small details of colonial domestic life, such as the fruit, flowers and vegetables that were grown in Wentworth’s garden (as in ’Fontaine de Vaucluse’).  The items also reflect the specific tastes and desires of the Estate’s owners.  ‘The First Cut’ reveals Wentworth’s sensual love of melons, as well as his appetite for young women. 

The delicate beauty of these images often belies an underlying narrative.  In ‘Miss Eliza Wenworth’s Glassware’, the antique goblets of Wentworth’s daughter, are presented like a sparkling bouquet of flowers, arranged in a wooden washing bowl, their glistening yet fragile beauty perhaps a reflection of young Miss Wentworth herself.

In ‘9pm – Elizabeth Bay House’, Stacey recreates a typical simple, evening supper taken by Alexander Macleay, whilst studying his collection late into the night.  Always there is a contemporary immediacy present in her imagery, as though the inhabitants of the house have just left the room.

In earlier exhibitions, such as ‘Beau Monde’ (Stills Gallery, 2006), her works almost take on a surrealist dimension.  Vast clusters of butterfly specimens and shimmering Christmas beetles are pinned onto black velvet globes, transfigured into bold arrangements of tantalising beauty and contemporaneity.

Beneath the photographer’s interest in creating visually rich and vibrant images from historical material, is another drive to explore the act of collecting itself.  Stacey intimates that the desire to classify and categorise the natural world not only revealed the private collectors own idiosyncratic obsessions, but as a whole helped define the eclectic culture of the new colony, thus forming the foundation of our own national identity today.

Additionally, her photographic suites explore how the act of collecting impacts on the fields of science, nature and culture.

As author Ashley Hay wrote in her 2005 exhibition catalogue essay,

“…in all Stacey’s work history, science, knowledge and pure visual pleasure intertwine”.

Robyn Stacey is now considered one of Australia’s foremost contemporary photographers.  Her work is held in most State Gallery collections and is studied as part of the NSW and Victorian Higher School Certificate syllabuses.  She also conducts a busy parallel career as a lecturer at the School of Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney and sits on the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.  A recipient of a number of major Awards and Grants, her most recent overseas residency took her to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands (2003-6), to pursue her interest in Flemish Art and particularly the still-life painting of the Northern Renaissance.  The Vanitas still life is a particular type which evolved in Leiden in the 1600s to remind the viewer of mortality and the passage of time and Stacey sometimes uses its emblematic objects, such as skulls, skeletons and decaying flowers, in her own still life compositions. Surprisingly, little digital manipulation is used in her imagery.  Each still life is painstakingly styled and constructed, referencing the intricacy and artistry of seventeenth-century historical painting traditions.

Her Australian residencies over the past decade at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney (2001-3), the Macleay Museum (2002-6) and The Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales (2008-ongoing) have led to the production of three handsome publications in collaboration with Ashley Hay ‘Herbarium’ (2004), ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ (2007) and ‘Museum’ (2007).  Each residency occupies an intense process for the artist, spending months at a time in situ with the curator at each House.  She is currently working on another project with the Historic Houses Trust at the colonial estate at Rouse Hill, on the Western outskirts of Sydney.  This project will lead to another book publication and the work will be exhibited at the Australian Centre of Photography, Sydney, in December, 2010.

Indeed, Robyn Stacey’s passionate desire to continue unveiling new ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ to the public shows no sign of abating.  This represents good news for contemporary art lovers and historians alike.

SydneY Art writer and editor, Victoria Hynes
Art exhibition review
Robyn Stacey artist profile by art writer and editor, Victoria Hynes