There is something ill-defined and unsettling about the women who feature throughout Heidi Yardley’s oeuvre. Begun as collages which then act as source material for larger paintings and drawings, each figure is a multilayered hybrid of iconic 20th century imagery, antediluvian mythology, cultural taboos and subconscious emotion, fragmented and rearranged to find confluences between seemingly disparate subjects. Elusive and otherworldly, their faceless beauty simultaneously evokes fear and intrigue in the viewer.

Inherent to the success of Yardley’s esoteric compositions is the way narrative and art historical approaches blend together. Dadaist pastiche, Modernist photography, and Symbolist chiaroscuro merge with subjects both political and prosaic, including abstract psychological states, Paganism and the ongoing subjugation of women. Rendered almost photorealistic in oil paint and charcoal, she makes credible her implausible scenarios with a masterful command of traditional techniques and intuitive thought. Vaguely neo-Gothic, but with a vulnerability at odds with the horror of true Goth, the artist’s works biographise the female experience both personal and collective. As powerful depictions of sensuality and empowerment, they confound as they flit between naive sensuality and dangerous eroticism. It’s David Lynch does Succubus, with a nostalgic nod to 1970s soft porn.

Yet where Lynchian depictions of sexually precocious women exaggerate the grotesque, Yardley’s vamps are a patchwork of tender private moments and blatant public performance. Channelling the languorous sexuality of Australian New Wave cinema, they’re coquettish rather than transgressive, feigning modesty with turned torsos and delicately draped fabrics. Now, in a new suite of works ‘The Sinking Belle’, Yardley lets that naivety give way to darker realities.

The women of ‘The Sinking Belle’ offer a view of femaleness that is detached from external scrutiny. For the artist, these women are ‘private warriors, survivors of an interior jungle’, each one having worn a heavy path through their emotions and experiences. Where earlier contemplations might have manifested as inexperienced ‘Lolitas’, here Yardley presents female figures hardened to the male gaze.

Embellished with animal motifs and body markings, they are less femme fatale than they are stately, a resemblance that is heightened by the inclusion of seemingly tamed native Australian reptiles as regalia. A jarring addition, the snakes and lizards slither across the women undaunted by the sensation of scales on skin. Their presence brings a threatening tone to Yardley’s dreamy aesthetic.

Earlier works expected us to decipher her ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock-esque’ imagery, but now Yardley makes explicit her intent. Women, in order to balance what is respectable and decent with what their desires might suggest, develop dermal armour every bit as tough and thorny as their reptilian companions.

There is an air of disillusionment to Yardley’s coterie of females. Having outgrown the ingénue role, they dangle their sexuality like a carrot, observing the attention it garners with amusement and scorn. Oscillating between wary cynicism and patronising delight, The Sinking Belles face the world with the scepticism of an ageing madam. And yet still they beguile. Self-assured and unsentimental, their newfound emotional distance brings a potent eroticism to the fore.

Arthouse Gallery
17 August to 2 September, 2017
Sydney