Colour and Transparency by Irena Zdanowicz

Catalogue Essay – National Gallery of Victoria

Like a kaleidoscope moved slowly Lesley Dumbrell’s art has undergone a variety of transformations which have been surprising yet utterly consistent.  Having discovered early her preference for abstraction, despite a rigorously figurative training, she has explored it with a resoluteness which has been firm but not rigid.  Cezanne, the great exemplar of her RMIT studies, provided to be a misunderstood model for tonal cubistic pastiches based on reproductions rather than the real thing.  However, despite the constant misuse of his example in teaching, Cezanne’s art provided the unseen bit solid foundation for the work of Dumbrell and her contemporaries.  Kandinsky’s theoretical writings, the art of Malevitch and Mondrian were intrinsically interesting to her and they also reinforced the serious nature of abstract painting.

The need to give form to her desire to be an abstract painter was a problem and Dumbrell gave up steady work on her painting for a short period after her studies, biding her time with teaching in secondary schools.  Her first real break came in 1966 when she accepted an appointment in the Art Department of the Prahran College of Advanced Education.  The stimulus provided by her colleagues and students redirected her more positively to her work.  She began using Liquitex which enabled her to create the seamless flat surfaces favoured by the then current abstraction and renewed her innate concern with detail and meticulously rendered surface.  Dumbrell’s paintings of 1967-68 were cubistic abstractions of the forms of urban landscape patterned asymmetrically or systematically repeated within carefully constructed codas of colour.  Their outward form owed much to Vasarely but their inner movement was more akin to the flute and ambiguous optical sensations of Bridget Riley’s works.  The optical play depended on a tension between the effects of surface pattern and the illusionistic rendering of relief.  The need to structure colour led her first to explore the possibilities of solid forms before eventually moving to grid-like compensations.  In 1968 she left teaching to take up painting full-time.

In the early 70s her work moved from a patterned fragmentation of solid shapes and became increasingly minimal and linear in its emphasis.  Broad strips of colour were arranged horizontally or vertically and the grid construction occasionally surfaced when the two coincided.  As the strips decreased in width the vertical format became firmly established and allowed her to concentrate on exploring the full possibilities of colour. At this point – around 1972 – Dumbrell’s style took on its distinctive form whilst, paradoxically, it seemed most closely indebted to the work of Bridget Riley both in appearance and manner of construction.  The preparatory drawings for these works were very precise studies often done on graph paper.  Yet even here, on a mechanical grid, the required configuration was sketched free-hand as well as being measured and marked out precisely.  Tonal values were explored through the use of pencil strokes applied with varied pressure.  For Dumbrell, even then, an instructive approach had to exist alongside the disciplined.  Final colour studies were, however, executed in Liquitex on paper.  They were exacting exercises for the paintings and particularly precise rehearsals of colour.  It was the surface tension which she has likened to the skill of a drum, that interested her then.  The strips which contained the meandering surface of colour became increasingly thinner, began to tilt, bend and eventually curve.  By the mid-70’s the linear optical play became so animated that the lines started to splinter in kaleidoscopic fashion, moving from the initial tight control and breaking up into desecrate fragmented patterns.  The major paintings of this period, such as Chinook (1975) (collection National Australia Bank) and Harmattan (1976), take their titles from the names given to certain winds and are their visual evocation.  With the composition of her systemically repeated structures – the works which consolidated Dumbrell’s reputation in the 70s – other important sensory concerns emerged: the notational sprightliness of paintings such as Spangle 1977 were, like Modrian’s Boogie Woogie, audibly suggestive.  The discreet units of which these works were composed gradually grew larger, taking on what one critic has described as a pick-up-sticks configuration.

Having perfected the manner based on the closed form of the grid, Dumbrell moved away from systemic repetition of the drawing structure and its application over a single background colour.  A freeing-up was needed and this was achieved at the turn of the 80s through drawing with pastels.  Dumbrell returned to drawing with vigour.  Pastels were a quick, good way to work: they were made independently of her paintings whist informing them with a newly acquired freedom.  Pastel lends is elf to as easy exploration of colour as well as line: and it is the pastels, rather than the earlier works on paper, which are the true precursors of the recent watercolours.  The drawings which emerged in 1980 were the ‘Harlequin’ series composed of colourful art-deco-like fan shapes arranged with an artful randomness.  These drawings were prompted by a conscious desire to break from the disciplined work with line, and they became a means for rediscovering the aesthetic possibilities of the unpainted paper surface.  Where her work earlier had been composed with opaque colour it now prepared the way for an exploration of the use and possibilities of transparent washes.  In the early 70s when her work was at its most controlled and optically oriented she had tried watercolour, but son abandoned it.  Now she was free to discover its potentials.  Dumbrell was attracted to the purity of watercolour, its intensity, transparency and textural effects.  Being pure pigment with some binder, its brilliance approaches that of stained glass, and both depend on light to activate transparent hue.  Like Victor Majzner, she has commented on the difficulty of controlling the wash, but enjoyed meeting the challenge of this ‘irrational’ aspect of the technique.  Exploring the effects of transparent overlays of colour and recognising and exploiting the characteristic tidal marks of separately applied washes reinforced the gestural qualities of her painting, so recently discovered through pastels.  In this Dumbrell can be seen as responding to an inner need which in turn reflected the general trend towards gestural painting on the late 1970s.  Her experimentation with transparent washes has directly influenced her painting technique, resulting in an incorporation of surface texture into canvases that were previously taut.  It has also established a mode of working in which the watercolours precede the paintings.  Here Dumbrell first works out the problems which she sets herself; it is here that she does her thinking.  Of course, not all the watercolours become paintings and those which do are never exact copies of the works on paper.  Certain colours are simply not available in acrylic and the change from small to large scale may call for significant adjustments in composition.

Considering that many of her works have been concerned with the manifestations of a variety of natural phenomena and the sensations produced, it is perhaps not so surprising that the earliest of her current watercolours are based on sketches done en plain air during a field trip with her Prahran students and fellow teachers, who included Victor Majzner.  Although works such as Mootwingee (cat. 2) may bear a general resemblance to, say, a pattern of twiggy branches or the mottled nature of the Australian bush, these are not depictions of actual landscape but rather evocations of her responses to it.  Dominant tonalities, be they brown or grey, are modulated by pools of colour which vary from light and shallow to dark and dense.  The painted surface is no longer uniformly flat but modulates whilst remaining animated by sharp linear inflections.  There is an ambiguous balance between the paintings’ patterned decorativeness and their evocative nature, an ambiguity that lies at the heart of Dumbrell’s art.  Once she found her way into watercolours through a direct experience of the natural world she returned to the forms first described in the free pastels of 1980.  The jagged fan-shapes became more elongated and their forms more distinct.  She experimented with loosely overlaid washes – as seen in certain areas of Untitled (cat 4.) where transparent red is applied over yellow – composing the pictures tonally, or working with brilliantly contrasting colours Untitled (cat 5.).  The sensuous possibilities of the medium were quickly learned and are utilised to full effect in Study for Taffetas 2 (cat 7).  Here, the rustle, sheen and stiffness of the material is masterfully rendered through the jagged shapes and the contrast between areas of dense colour and modulated transparent washes.

In the watercolours fro 1983 the surface continued to be enlivened by a mesh of strokes and zig-zags, but the principal units seemed to grow in size and eventually came to dominate the picture plane entirely like locked segments of a jigsaw. A concern with shapes rather than lines was slowly emerging.  This initially appeared in muted form in such velvety works as Study for Tramontana (cat 9.), but became increasingly more explicit as the units received definite outline.  In Study for Astra 3 (cat 14) this appears as a distinct, bright yellow contour which holds the pattern of shapes in place.  This device was, however, soon set aside as Dumbrell confronted the question of working with shapes alone.  In a series of transitional watercolours done over some months from late 1984 the discrete units became larger, apparently more independent.  The brush marks grew increasingly broad and painterly while use was also made of patterning with dots and dashes, an effect reminiscent of Aboriginal Papunya Tula painting.  The formal problem of how to deal with what, in effect, was a mode closely allied to collage was resolved only after a trip to Italy and France in the early part of 1985.  Her work suddenly became infused with a sense of monumentality as well as, occasionally, a distinct feeling of space.  In Untitled (cat 18), shapes criss-cross the surface diagonally but in a measured way.  The presence almost of moving objects is hinted at and a sense of hierarchy has supplanted, as least for the time being, the effects of a uniform pattern.

This new emphasis is made explicit in the final watercolour, Still life (cat 20).  Dumbrell did not set out to paint a still life but uncovered it as she worked.  the references to cubism are unmistakable, but as elsewhere in her work, there remains a fine balance between the question of the subject of the painting and the resolution of certain form problems.

Irena Zdanowicz