Lesley Dumbrell has for three decades maintained a dedicated exploration of the possibilities of abstract form. Trained as a painter in Melbourne from 1959 to 1962, her trajectory as an artist from the late 1960’s has embraced the rise of the women’s art movement in Australia, the exploration of international artistic styles, and the development of a distinctive vocabulary based on colour, light and non-representational form.
In 1990 Dumbrell took up residence in Thailand, her works of the past decade revealing an added visual complexity in response to the new environment in which they have been produced. Her return to Melbourne in late 1999 coincides with the current exhibition, which presents a selection of keys works by the artist of the 1970s-80s and recent works produced in Bangkok. The exhibition signals a coming together of the currents which have shaped Dumbrell’s work over the past thirty years, while pointing to new directions in her artistic evolution.
Dumbrell is not an artist who invites easy categorisation, Shunning the figurative tradition often associated with representations of Australian national identity, she embraced an international abstract mode with her first one-woman exhibition at Bonython Gallery, Sydney in 1969. Subsequent exhibitions in both Melbourne and Sydney saw the development of a characteristic style based around abstract geometric form. As a teacher of art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Prahran College of Advanced Education in 1966-1968, Dumbrell taught alongside artists such as peter Booth, James Doolin and Alun Leech-Jones, who had also embraced an abstract painterly aesthetic. Both Doolin and Leach-Jones participated in the major survey exhibition of Australian colour field painting and hard edge abstraction, The Field (1968), at the new National Gallery of Victoria site on St Kilda Road. Dumbrell’s marriage to Lenton Parr, whose formalist steel sculptures likewise reflected the move away from figuration, provided further encouragement to explore the possibilities of abstract form.
At the same time, Dumbrell’s growing association with the women’s art movement in Australia reflected the politicisation of women’s art practice during the 1970s, both locally and abroad. American art critic Lucy Lippard’s visit to Australia in 1975 and her strong advocacy of women’s art reflected this new awareness, while exhibitions such as Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years: 1840 to 1940 (1975) at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries, The University of Melbourne, drew attention to the largely unacknowledged contribution of women to Australian art history. In 1975 Dumbrell co-founded the Women’s Art Register with Erica McGilchrist, Kiffy Rubbo and Meredith Rogers of the Ewing and George Paton Galleries. Established the following year and operating out of the gallery premises, feminist art journal The Lip represented another vehicle through which Australian women artists could enter into political dialogue. Dumbrell’s inclusion in exhibitions such as A Room of One’s Own at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries in 1975 and her membership of The Lip Collective between 1979 and 1980, both as an artist and writer, reflect her active engagement with the women’s art movement in Australia.
Dumbrell’s pursuit of an international abstract style set her apart from many of her female peers, for whom figuration and traditional women’s stitching techniques offered a more direct means of political expression. The reconciliation of feminism and the new abstract art – considered a largely male domain – was for Dumbrell a vexed issue. Patterning and decoration, which were traditionally associated with women’s art forms, nonetheless found a voice in abstraction. The incorporation of dense, interlocking structures and repeated decorative motifs in Dumbrell’s art reflected both an intuitive exploration of decorative aesthetics, as well as a longstanding fascination with mathematical progressions. Writing on the new abstraction in relation to feminist art practice, Janine Burke noted ‘Feminist art criticism has … emphasised the personal and the autobiographical and, concomitantly, it has revealed the neglected cultural activities of women, such as sewing, embroidery and quilt-making: these have been given an honoured place in art forms, particularly in Abstract painting. Many artists have used these modes as a stimulating way of reviving cool, impersonal forms of Abstraction and of reintroducing the decorative as a positive element.
Dumbrell’s drawings, watercolours and paintings of the 1970s – 80s combine colour and line to create a unique personal vision of the world. In these works. colour provides a backdrop against which short, sharp strokes criss-cross the canvas at regular intervals and elongated lines zig-zag from left to right, and right to left. In some works a profusion of verticals and horizontals creates a dazzling optical effect whist in others, hagged lines in irregular formation break up the pictorial surface like bolts of lightning. An exploration of natural forces – wind, rain, a bright summer haze, the setting sun – is coupled with a subtle evocation of intuitive or emotional states. Seasons, months, day and night are conveyed visually, and sometimes articulated in the titles of individual works. Paintings such as Savannah (1974) thus evoke the shimmering yellows of the desert landscape while Night Painting (1981), through cool bluish-mauve hues, captures the fading light of the evening sky. Irregular strokes of bright colour cut across the surface of the work, perhaps alluding to an electrical storm as it illuminates portions of sky with brilliant flashes.