Janet Laurence The Matter of the Masters


I first spy Janet Laurence leaning breezily from the second-storey window of her studio loft in Chippendale, a broad grin on her face. Even above the roar of Abercrombie Street and the cacophony of surrounding construction sites her enthusiasm is infectious. The artist urges me to come upstairs, where there’s a party going on. Her studio is in a building which houses a creative hub of architects, graphic designers and artists, who this morning are celebrating a colleague’s birthday. The space feels alive with energy, much like the neighbourhood itself, which in recent years has undergone something of a renaissance. Nearby, White Rabbit Gallery has become one of the city’s cultural must-sees, and a raft of smaller galleries has sprung up in its shadow, while across the open space of Chippendale green, the vertical gardens of Central Park rise from the site of the old Carlton United Brewery like a sci-fi Babylon.

Somebody hands me a piece of cake and we sip champagne from plastic cups. Laurence brews us green tea in a small ornamental pot that we never do drink. We leave the party for the comparative serenity of her studio next door, where she places the tea beneath the watchful gaze of a taxidermied owl.

Laurence’s studio is seemingly both of this world and not. Books on old masters are crammed next to catalogues, postcards and pictures. On stacked shelves glass beakers, tumblers and pipettes – too many to count – hold a cornucopia of treasures collected over a lifetime. Translucent muslin drapes drift from rails onto branches suspended from the ceiling, taking their form from both the things they caress and the light that streams through the windows beyond. They amplify the light and heat of the moment – there’s more humidity in the air now, with the sun fully risen and bodies inside.

This is less a work space than a natural laboratory, a greenhouse, an incubator. There is death and life everywhere. Burnt bones, ground to pigment and mixed with medium become experimental paints for bits of stick on laboratory benches. Deer antlers, cast in resin, take on new lives as translucent sculptures that memorialise the trace of animals long returned to the earth. The world has stopped turning here, but it is a brief, pregnant pause. It is not a morgue, but a petri waiting for a spark. Laurence arranges her treasures inside acrylic boxes, finding the frissons between objects that animate them. She describes her practice as ‘alchemical’ and ‘transformative’, but I see nothing so nakedly mercurial in her process. These are poetic gestures where creative energy is given off as she brings objects into collision with the very stuff of their making.

Laurence has forged a career by giving meaning to transformations, in particular between the stuff of nature and the objects we make to interpret it. ‘So much of my practice revolves around our relationship to the natural, organic world,’ she says, ‘this way of looking at art also threads it back into nature.’ Her way of looking is scientific almost, precise and considered. Even the materials she uses to encase objects in her natural wunderkammer – glass, acrylic, mirrored and diaphanous materials – are like focusing optical lenses that encourage us to look at looking itself. ‘We can see inside every part of any body now,’ Janet says of this scientific vision, ‘we used to think it was kind of magical. Our constant technology is enabling us to see into the world and into nature in particular.’

As she speaks I envisage the rhizome of a tree’s roots as they spread through an environment. The artist’s reach is similar, but in her work she visualises the pathways from nature to human intervention and its poetic outcomes – a kind of nature-culture network. I understand what she means now when she speaks of alchemy, and when she says that ‘to make culture of nature is kind of magical’.

Though she trained in Italy and America and lived in Europe, Laurence found herself coming back to Australia wanting ‘to do something with our landscape’. But she didn’t simply want to paint pictures of the environment, she wanted ‘to look into its being’. In 2012, when the Art Gallery of NSW’s Australian galleries were renovated and the collection completely rehung, her work In memory of nature 2010 was staged as a contemporary intervention amongst canonical paintings by Elioth Gruner and WC Piguenit, asking us to look again at nostalgic visions of the world.

Her new installation, The matter of the masters 2017, takes an even closer look at the techniques and traditions of painting itself, taking its inspiration from the exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. It is the fulfilment of a project that she began contemplating in the 1980s, when she was a student at the New York Studio School alongside the Rijksmuseum’s Australian head of conservation, Petria Noble, then a post-graduate student of conservation. In 2002, Laurence spent time with Noble in the conservation department of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where she became fascinated with the hidden histories of Dutch paintings and understood the potential of conservation techniques to renew our readings of art objects. ‘People place a painting into the context of its historical times,’ Laurence says. ‘That’s great, but to do it scientifically is really important, too. ’

This is a work that seems to bridge time and place. Natural elements, borrowed from the mineral collection of the Australian Museum, mingle with bone fragments, bits of wood, ground pigments bought from Rembrandt’s studio, raw linen and fragments of old paintings. Interspersed within them are scientific images from conservation studies: infrareds, X-ray fluorescence maps, ultraviolet images. On the wall hang photos of the work at various stages, printed on a thick, velvety paper. It’s not clinical, though it borrows the language of scientific method.

These things tell us something about how the paintings were made, but they also create new material aesthetics that could not have been dreamed of by the original artists. Printed on DuraClear slides, the conservation images are translucent, ethereal, enchanting. I remark how one looks like a Turner. And yet I’m also reminded of the scientific and technological marvels that made the work of the Dutch masters possible in the first place. Vermeer transformed his studio into a camera obscura and mixed grit into his paints to simulate the earth. Rembrandt’s studio was also something of a wunderkammer, Laurence tells me, describing it as a chemistry laboratory. She shows me a book on his practice, his collection of cultural curios, animals, scientific instruments, all the product of the Netherlands’ immense global reach and the power of the Dutch East India Company.

I think about how our ability to collect – as individuals, as a society – becomes a portrait of our actions on the world. It’s a sobering thought. ‘History is laden with so many layers of activity and that’s why in this period we can’t just look at it just for what it is, but we have to see into it and see its ramifications,’ Laurence says. ‘We can now see into all this matter and see where it comes from.’

I bend down to look at a reproduction of a 16th-century Dutch still life – it’s a vanitas skull – encased alongside pigment-giving rocks. I notice the reflection of the room in the acrylic box, the refraction of the light underneath the objects. At the base of the installation is a mirror that reveals both the underside of the rock and my own face, not to its best vantage, and for once I find Ecclesiastes instructive: vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. As I return from my reverie I hear her saying ‘it’s a bit like a forensic thing’.

What is uncovered in this pathology are the tendons that bind people to objects and to nature – our own, and the environment that surrounds us. ‘I think that the artwork has always stood there as an incredible iconic thing,’ Laurence muses, ‘But actually, it’s also got deep capillaries connecting it to other things too.’ I think about this as I say my goodbyes, cast a guilty glance at the cold tea, avoid eye contact with the owl, descend the stairs and step back into the real world.

First published in Look: Art Gallery Society of NSW, Feb 2018