About six years ago, my mother and I were lunching in a restaurant in London’s Primrose Hill when an unbelievably beautiful funeral procession came past. Two dappled grey horses with black feathery plumes on their heads pulled a shiny black carriage with glass windows, through which we could see a white coffin covered in flowers. The attendants atop the carriage were in full mourning attire, with top hats and grey striped cravats, the effect like something out of a Dickens novel. It was an odd sight in the middle of 21st century London, and had mum not been there too I’d have wondered if I’d imagined it. Of course, I immediately began planning my own funeral, such is my love of the Victorian Gothic period.
Victorian customs surrounding love and death, Memento Mori and the rituals and mysteries of the world’s cultures hold endless fascination for me. In an era where dying was as much a part of life as living, the Victorians had a surprisingly romantic view of the world. Disease, poverty and crime meant that premature death was not just possible but likely, and in order to cope they made mourning an art form. Death was sad, but it had a peculiar glamour to it. Grief became a spectacle.
Modern culture owes a lot to this time. Steampunk, Neo-Victorian aesthetics, taxidermy (whether classical, anthropomorphic or rogue), grotesque decor, eccentricity, nostalgia, spiritual connectivity and all forms of social critique owe their existence to the era that gave us Darwinism, existentialism, Arthur Conan Doyle, steam power, x-rays, Dracula, electricity, telephones, Frankenstein and the concept of the museum. It was a time where exploration, discovery and experimental thinking became worthy pursuits, and it continues to inform contemporary art, design and literature around the world. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Brisbane at the moment, you can still catch a really great example of this influence at one of the local galleries before it closes this weekend.
Two of Australia’s most recognizable young artists, Julia deVille and Leslie Rice sit well alongside each other in a gallery space. Rice’s ghostlike paintings of bizarre still lifes and grotesque portraits, the result of acrylic on velvet, are the perfect backdrop to Deville’s lavishly ornate taxidermy. Having both chosen slightly obscure old art forms, the combined effect of their work is one of eccentric opulence, like entering a mad nobleman’s estate. It is a wonderful balance between pathos and humour, respect for the history of their respective art practice, and gentle humour at how we view it today. Both artists combine the quirks of the past with the quirks of the present to create work that has a place all of its own in the art world.
I don’t suppose taxidermied alpacas encrusted in black diamonds are for everyone, and I guess the same is true of barely visible paintings of deformed skulls and clown shoes. Nor does it seem likely that our current (Western) view of death will ever return to the Victorian one that saw mortality as an inevitable, but beautiful, reality – but if any artists can convince the world otherwise, Leslie Rice and Julia deVille are probably the two to do it. Me personally? I’ll take one of each, thanks!
Julia deVille and Leslie Rice
Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
Until 1 August 2015