‘While she began her career as a painter, Madonna Staunton is now recognised as one of the most significant Australian artists to have worked with collage and assemblage. Her evocative constructions – made from everyday objects foraged from the woodpile, the tool-shed and the junkyard – are inflected by a restrained elegance. Playing upon colour, shape, texture and tone, Staunton draws out the tactile qualities of her media, and their nostalgic and emotional resonances. Staunton has recently returned to painting with renewed vigour, bringing her sensibilities in collage and assembly to this practice.’
– Emily Poore, Curatorial Assistant, UQ Art Museum
About the artist
Madonna Staunton was born in 1938 in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, but has spent most of her life in Brisbane. From the age of 10, she was taught colour theory by her mother, the poet Madge Staunton. Through this experience, Staunton developed a preoccupation with colour that is evident in her painted works, and in the assemblages for which she later became known.1 At the age of 21, Staunton began painting and life-drawing classes, and joined the Royal Queensland Art Society. She was taught by a number of influential Australian artists including Roy Churcher, Jon Molvig and Bronwyn Yeates.
Staunton has held almost 30 solo exhibitions since her first in 1976, and has also been included in numerous group shows in Australia. She won the National Women’s Art Award, Centre Gallery, Gold Coast in 1989 and, in 1996, was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the visual arts. Her work is held by the National Gallery of Australia and in the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra; major state, regional and tertiary galleries around Australia; Artbank, Sydney, and in the Allen, Allen and Hemsley Collection, Sydney.
As a young artist, Staunton made a series of large-scale abstract paintings. After she began suffering from arthritis, however, she turned to collage and assemblage to avoid exacerbating her condition.2 Working on a smaller scale, she experimented with aspects of Abstract Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism and the Fluxus movement and, through Aldous Huxley’s book The perennial philosophy (1945), was introduced to Buddhist thought. In 1999, Staunton returned to painting, creating artworks that reflect the formalist properties of her collages.
About the work acquired
Tell us who we are (Professor Perry Bartlett) (2014) is a portrait of the former director of the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), and was commissioned by the Institute to mark the end of Professor Bartlett’s tenure. Staunton adopted a Post-Cubist approach in painting Bartlett’s likeness, using simple shapes in complementary colours. Her technique lays bare the elements of the work’s construction, and may be read as a metaphor for the formation of identity. Lines of painted text make a further reference to Cubism, and to Staunton’s own assemblages, as well as alluding to Bartlett’s contributions to Neurology.
The phrases ‘Stranger in the attic’ and ‘Window4Refuge’ invoke the mind as a tangible space that can be both comforting and threatening. The expression ‘Poor Coral’ draws connections between the physical form of so-called ‘brain coral’, and the sometimes frustrating limitations of the brain. Through her text, Staunton invites Bartlett to ‘Tell’ and ‘Acquaint us with who we are’, imagining the professor as a seer, or sage, with the ability to reveal to us the inner workings of our minds. In this respect, Staunton alludes to the themes that Huxley espoused in The perennial philosophy, in which he explored the ways influential individuals attain ‘a more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge’.3 He wrote:
It is only by making physical experiments that we can discover the intimate nature of matter and its potentialities. And it is only by making psychological and moral experiments that we can discover the intimate nature of the mind and its possibilities.4
As Director of the QBI, Bartlett could be seen as something of a contemporary prophet who oversaw discoveries into the nature and possibilities of the brain. This investigative urge is shared by Staunton who, through her art, experiments with paint and other materials as a means to examine her own mental processes.5
Tell us who we are (Professor Perry Bartlett) has been transferred from QBI to the UQ Art Collection, joining 41 other works by Staunton in the Collection.
Adapted from text by Emily Poore, Curatorial Assistant, October 2015.
1 Bronwyn Watson, “Delving into the depths of Madonna Staunton’s anxiety,” The Australian, 4 October 2014, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/delving-into-the-depths-of-madonna-stauntons-anxiety/story-fn9n8gph-1227079064001.
2 Madonna Staunton, “Madonna Staunton interview: The James C Sourris AM Collection,” State Library of Queensland, http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/audio-video/webcasts/recent-webcasts/madonna-staunton.
3 Aldous Huxley, quoted in Chris Saines, foreword to Madonna Staunton: Out of a clear blue sky, by Peter McKay and Madonna Staunton (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, 2014), 8.
5 Chris Saines in McKay and Staunton, Madonna Staunton, 8.