Stratum installation
Artspace Gallery, Adelaide Festival Centre

2012, Charcoal on paper and 8-channel video projection, 320 x 2400 cm

Catalogue essay:

Yvonne East: Transcendence

Jane Hylton
Curator and Collections consultant

The figures in Yvonne East’s work are protagonists in a universal story. Her giant, superbly executed naked figure ascending into nothingness, her gently curled nudes and upright, naked figures struggling under the weight of seen and unseen burdens, are all journeymen in search of fundamental truth. As we, the audience, witness their travels we understand that these grand-scaled, overlaid works are about pain and revelation, about knowledge and power, strength and weakness and about the existential nature of being. These are the persistent challenges faced by all of us no matter what our circumstances.

The title for this exhibition is encapsulated in a single word – Stratum. It is an ideally appropriate word for the layered nature of what Yvonne East is exploring. For all of us out first layer – or stratum – is our superficial appearance such as our choice of clothing, the colour of our hair, our skin, and our eyes. While there is a lot of information that is conveyed to others by our appearance, like our age, gender and even cultural origins, there is so much more that remains hidden beneath that initial layer. For this reason, East strips her figures bare, both figuratively and metaphorically, and in her works on paper, even removes all grounding influences. Without any means of support these figures become buoyant, liberates and elevated as if weightless. They are then overlaid by the artist with visual strata that provide keys to understanding origins, country, passions, creativity, imaginations and language.

In 2011 Yvonne East took part in a spoken and visual performance piece developed by south coast writer Michelle Murray. Titled The Black Wedding Dress, the exhibition included works by other South Australian artists Nyorie Bungey, Michael Bryant, Barbary O’Brien and Annabelle Collett. For her part East drew, in charcoal, a larger-than-life naked figure lightly suspended from bound wrists. Over the surface of this drawing , itself suspended at the end of the room in which the performance took place, images were projected that seemed to relate to the figure but paradoxically also apparently came from a different time and place. Some, like tribal symbols or bolts of lightening, appeared threatening, while others were more soothing and comforting. The whole effect however was deeply unsettling and evoked disquiet in the viewer.

It is from this first foray into the projected, overlay image that many of the works from this exhibition come. East selected friends and acquaintances as models (both male and female) for her huge charcoal drawings. Stripped of the layers of clothing behind which we all hide, these individuals had to come to terms with how vulnerable they felt under the gaze of an artists who has not cosseted them in anonymity and who is bent on understanding the very nature of being. East has drawn every lump and bump without enhancement, and at the same time has cleverly distorted the figures. The slightly arched backs, the hands spread in an expression of unbalanced surprise, and the subtle twists of these models bodies, convey lightness and ascendancy. They have been lifted out of their daily lives to something higher and infinitely mysterious.

Similarly in her paintings, East presents her figures (this time all female) naked and vulnerable, but in some takes this conveyed sense of susceptibility a step further and confronts her audience with the primeval. While a couple of figures float dreamily, uncurling from foetus-like position, others are grounded and challenging. These people dwell in a world of dark cave-like recesses, filmy, nebulous beginnings and hot, lifeless deserts. They are also real and un idealised, existing in a strange half-way world between consciousness and sleep, conflicted by the contrasting nature of freedom and obligation, as if at the portal of profound knowledge.

One of the paradoxes embedded within East’s work (and there are many) is the unsettling relationship between her craftmanship and her deliberate attempts to deflect her audience’s attention away from it.

Her subjects could easily be cloyingly pretty and viewers instantly gratifies by admiration of technical skill. Instead, the artist asks us to immerse ourselves in the multiplicity of layers she offers, and through the guides us to understand what it is that she wishes to convey. As a consequence Yvonne East does not deliberately seek beauty in her work (which is, nevertheless, beautiful) but instead hides these starkly exposed figures beneath snaking lines that have their origins in the constantly repetitive patterns of life the contours of a landscape, the microscopic DNA of a blowfly, the beautiful circles of a fingerprint or the circular nature of a piece of weaving.

Yvonne East’s figures are ordinary individuals with ordinary lives, unique just like all of us. They are joined, like all of us, the quirks and glitches that make us the centre of our universe and al the same time infinitesimally small and unimportant in the great scheme of things. At the entrance to this exhibition appropriate warnings concerning full frontal nudity have been provided for the public. Another waring could also be suitably: be prepared to confront a fundamental truth – we are all vulnerable, we are all so much more than we superficially appear to be, we are all capable of transcendence.