by Mel Deerson
I begin with the hair. These tendrils gently waving and unfurling like vine-shoots; sort of autonomous. Backs of heads; fringes; locks swinging into frame like curtains in a breeze; no eyes. The hair shifts and indicates looking or leaning, a hidden gaze. The faces turn to me and, disconcertingly, they bring the hiding with them. Orange petals and blue clouds obscure their features, a blur veils them like I’m looking through a soap bubble or a dream. What I’m saying is, that there are paintings which look you in the eye, and there are paintings which look elsewhere, and Kristina’s are paintings which look elsewhere. It’s like their attention is on something I can’t see.
It makes me think about the definition of being absorbed. To let yourself be enveloped in something else, or to turn inward. And how similar it is to being abstracted - when I use it for a state of mind – to be abstracted is to be mentally immersed, lost, somewhere else. It could be that when you’re abstracted you’re absorbed and vice versa. What I’ve noticed is, Kristina’s paintings often tend to abstract themselves in the middle of things, like they’re falling asleep while they’re talking to you. For instance, look at how in Crush, it begins to move into abstraction almost exactly in the centre of the image. From left to right, you have the maroony striped material, and the hand, and then when you hit the centre of the image and the point at where the fingers begin crushing, the painting starts to dissolve itself into a rhythmic pulsing pattern. The stripes turn into these slightly vegetal dapples, or the dapples turn into the stripes- I can’t tell the point at which it moves from one to the other. It’s faintly disturbing. The name of the painting, Crush, points to the moment where the picture falls into abstraction – at the point where the fingers crush and destroy the flower.
It happens in Bloom too: when you spend some time with it, you realise the eponymous yellow-orange-red bloom isn’t a flower at all, but is actually a roiling, doughy, painterly heaving mass, like it’s dropped in from a different painting. The ‘bloom’, like the ‘crush’ of Crush are the point where abstraction and figuration meet, where things break down or new things emerge. Break, Tangle, Cloud too – they all abstract themselves, unfocus themselves, right in their centre where we expect to find something solid, graspable. In Circle and Turn, the turned-away figure and the abstract background meet in the hidden and intangible gaze that is the centre of the image – the imaginary space between the looker and what’s being looked at. The one with the small hand and the leaves, Hand held, is absolutely un-holdable, I slip and slide around it as different parts heave and roll themselves forward and back in relation to each other, abstraction absorbing and swallowing figuration and throwing it up again. It all has the feeling of chasing a bit of shell around the whites of a raw egg with an extended finger. Not-quite-pin-downable.
I make it sound unpleasant but it’s not. At their small scale it’s strangely pleasurable and has a sort of humorous hum - this slight state of tension, this hovering-between. The painting shrugs a benign I don’t know when I try to make it show me, goes back to its game.
Which brings me to the bubble painting, Hover. It’s my favourite. It feels like an outlier, because it seems to be the picture in the series which is most clearly staring me in the face. It declares itself boldly as a picture of a bubble. Almost embarrassingly obvious, a rainbow blue-pink-green-magenta-umber sphere floating in…and here I pause, because it’s not quite clear what the background actually is. A sky? It doesn’t really feel sky-like; the lovely energetic vibratory paint-strokes are very present, crowding the bubble and pushing up against it, around it – it’s a background that doesn’t recede. And as I focus, the bubble starts to become more and more solid seeming, and instead of floating it feels embedded, heavy, like a glass marble nestling on a doona. For a painting that’s busy telling me it’s an ephemeral wisp of nothing, a bubble in the sky, almost-air on air, it’s so chunky, painterly – the bubble seems vulnerable to the encroaching choppy rhythmic abstraction, the difference between them no more than a few curved strokes, a rearrangement of colour. And as I look at that strange little hovering sphere, I realise how close a bubble is to abstraction itself in the first place, just a circle in space. All these little contradictions, pushed so close together the distance between them is membrane-thin, held in tension in this rainbow surface which turns again and again, holds its own breath, becomes airborne.
Despite its seeming obviousness, Hover still attends away, half awake, half dreaming. This is what I mean when I say that Kristina’s paintings look elsewhere. It’s not a specific somewhere; the attention of the painting lies in that imaginary place, hidden between the figure and the abstraction, foreground and background, between the thing and a picture of the thing. And just now, I had a memory of wrapping an orange in a piece of plain scrap paper and giving it to my brother as a birthday present when I was very young. Having a sense that it was the wrapping, the concealing that was the important bit - the thin layer which faced outwards but signalled inwards towards something enticingly hidden, creating a small joyous space of unknown-ness around this everyday object. And it feels the same with these paintings - the gaps and misdirections and coverings, these weird kind of magical spaces between seeing and not-seeing, the feeling of being presented with something both obvious and mysterious at the same time. Even with Kristina’s bubble where it seems to most clearly go ‘here, this is it, take it’, it’s still not fully graspable. It’s an orange wrapped in scrap paper. That’s what makes it a gift.
Kristina Tsoulis-Reay’s paintings give visual form to the elusive images that constitute memory. Her latest small format paintings represent moments, gestures or sensations that have been thought, imagined or distilled over time. Large scale paintings have always made Tsoulis-Reay uncomfortable: She likes to think of her tiny works as monumental paintings which have been shrunken-down. Like cordial crystals eaten straight from the packet, they are concentrated—reduced until they are on the cusp of being unrecognisable.
Click here for the link to the catalogue of available works.
Photos courtesy of Christo Crocker.
Kristina Tsoulis-Reay grew-up in Aotearoa New Zealand and currently lives and works in Naarm Melbourne. She completed a Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours) at RMIT University in 2004 and a Master of Fine Arts at Monash University in 2009. She has held solo exhibitions at Gallery 9; Sutton Gallery Projects; Caves; St Heliers St Gallery; Light Projects; Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts and West Space. Her work was included in Painting, More Painting at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2016. Group exhibitions include shows at The Honeymoon Suite, Melbourne; Federation University, Gippsland; Monash Faculty Gallery, Melbourne; Milani Gallery, Brisbane; Utopian Slumps, Melbourne; Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne; One Minutes Foundation, The Netherlands. She is a current PhD candidate at Monash University and is a recipient of an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. kristinatsoulis-reay.com.