During the 1980s Susan Norrie rapidly became one of Australia’s most prominent painters. Her considerable technical ability was matched with an intellectual inquiry into the nature of painting after modernism. Along with many other postmodern painters, Norrie had an ambivalent relationship to painting: as was remarked upon at the time, her well-painted images, increasingly slick surfaces and elegant compositions deliberately set out to both seduce and repel.
Early works such as ‘Fruitful corsage, bridal bouquet, lingering veils’ 1983 (AGNSW collection), exhibited in Australian Perspecta 1983, have a deliberately feminine sensibility and subject matter as they both draw on, and mark a departure from, the ‘central core’ imagery of 1970s feminist artists. In this work the thickly painted accoutrements of a dressing table are sexually charged. Resembling fetish objects and genitalia, they also seem to suggest a decaying moment in time, reminiscent of Miss Haversham’s wedding breakfast. By the later 1980s Norrie drew more directly on both historical paintings and on pop culture. ‘Fête’ 1986 (AGNSW collection), which won Norrie the inaugural Moët & Chandon art award in 1987, has a surfeit of imagery but most prominent is the Mickey Mouse figure in a Pierrot’s costume, recalling Watteau’s famous ‘Pierrot’ of 1718/19. The commercialisation of culture, entertainment and leisure seemed the subject of this layered and ambiguous painting.
‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Peripherique’ came out of the Moët & Chandon residency Norrie undertook in France. The series title is the name of the ring road that encircles Paris, a confusing road marked by innumerable signs to potential destinations. In Norrie’s painting the word ‘debit’ is repeated again and again in differing scales, emerging from and submerging into the deeply varnished, darkly toned layers of paint. The elaborate copper-plate writing recalls the text of historic documents but is actually derived from Hallmark greeting cards. The word debit suggests loss, owing, debt; of paying your dues. It perhaps refers to the debt of artists to the past, but also of course to financial credit (another painting in this series had the word ‘credit’ repeated across it) and debt that structure contemporary living and have become even more pervasive since this painting was finished. Repeated with this much attention and scale, the word ‘debit’ seems to imply a central lack in this societal structure that is far greater than just economic.
A sense of the gothic and an affinity with death pervade many of Norrie’s paintings. In ‘Model seven’ from the series ‘Room for error’ 1993 (AGNSW collection) Norrie has repeated a recipe for embalming fluid found in a house-hold book from 1926, ‘Henley’s formulas for home and workshop’. Each panel is coloured to refer to bodily fluids and the sticky surface (like ‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Peripherique’) implies decay and corruption. In the early 1990s Norrie broadened her conceptual enterprise to include sculpture, installation, moving images and sound. Her subsequent installations using both found film and original video are among her most impressive works to date.
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
oil on canvas
244.0 x 365.0 x 6.5 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Not on display
© Susan Norrie
Shown in 2 exhibitions
Peripherique, Wollongong Art Gallery, Wollongong, 06 Oct 1989–22 Nov 1989
Review: works by women from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 08 Mar 1995–04 Jun 1995
Referenced in 4 publications
Anthony Bond and Victoria Lynn, AGNSW Collections, 'Contemporary Practice - Here, There, Everywhere ...', pg. 229-285, Sydney, 1994, 235 (colour illus.).
Virginia Spate, Susan Norrie Peripherique, 'Peripherique', pg.7-21, Wollongong, 1989, 19, 20.
Wayne Tunnicliffe, Look, 'Write now: when images are not enough', pg.24-27, Sydney, May 2005, 25.
Wayne Tunnicliffe, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Cultural memory, critical distance', pg.154-203, Sydney, 2006, 182-183 (colour illus.). illustration on pg.183 is a detail