Review, portrait of Cathy Freeman. Title: We Share a Dream
CATHERINE ~ 'IN FULL FLIGHT'
Des Rolph's 2009 Archibald Prize entry of the magnificent Olympic sprinter,
Catherine Freeman, succeeds by boldly going where others may have feared to tread.
Over the last decade only several photographic pieces have come close to
depicting the medallist in 2D; previous painted portraits of this subject have, in my experience, brought viewer disappointment and, no doubt, artist remorse.
Rolph lays before us the essence of the private person as opposed to the
media portrayed personality; contributing to the success of the work is
Rolph's ability to know her subject through an insightful approach and
accelerated working pace, as she combined so ably in the intensive time
spent with Freeman over three days of Melbourneʼs last winter. The bond of trust between artist and sitter is immediately apparent and something Rolph speaks to with energy and enthusiasm, ever-mindful in her intercultural usage of the loaded term of 'spirituality' when referring to her subject.
The light-filled ambience of the work is informed by Rolph's lead-up Min Min
series which, for the artist, converged with the knowledge that Freeman's
Stepfather's ʻterm of endearmentʼ for the runner was 'Little Min Min'.
Rolph's focus on this light, within and without Catherine, forms the central
balance - from Catherine's hands and stomach, giving to and taking from,
the sun of the Aboriginal Flag and landscape. Somehow evocative of that most beautiful work by John William Waterhouse, entitled Circe Invidiosa and housed in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Freeman presents as an urban goddess, near-borne of mythology, evocative of Homer's Odyssey,
She comes to you with a glow within A form of grace and beauty rarer
a singing nymph with sunbright hair....
watch closely and you shall see
how her eyes shall mirror these
the seas, the storms, the noon sky so bright
the iris and the new dawn's light...
Early in their meeting, artist and sitter established a mutual, conceptual
experience of personal dream sequences akin to astral travelling - in a sense this allowed them to embark on a shared journey without cultural borders.
Rolphʼs sometimes arresting ability to avoid the shackles of geographic,
cultural and art history parameters, the realms of time and ownership, have given her that enviable free passage between people and places; the result, a fluidity and freshness which avoids naivety but taps a connectivity between ʻheaven and earthʼ through ʻland and soulsʼ.
As such, Catherine (as her Family always refer to her and who is surprisingly diminutive in-the-flesh), is portrayed as if levitating from this earthly existence despite her two running feet intimated as being firmly planted on the ground.
Rolphʼs symbolism through incorporating our iconic national flightless bird, the emu, is potent; as artist, she has license to take the impossible and free it, essentially setting before us, for the first time, Catherine in full, unencumbered flight.
Painter and Sitter, perfectly matched, sans frontier - a shared, distinct
absence of fear, maps the road to reconciliation. Freeman has always been
true to her name as we well might remember her victory lap, self-cocooned in the Aboriginal Flag, bringing both criticism and praise. While we are told, art, sport and politics do not mix, Rolph and Freeman have unapologetically and joyfully tapestried all three; as such, Rolph sets before us a new pulse in Australian art, furnishing both the power of the portrait and beyond - an historical reference point for hope and opportunity -
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream….
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country….
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning, 1993
Certainly, if not the Art Gallery of New South Wales through the Archibald
Prize, the National Portrait Gallery would be a fitting home for this historymaking portrait.
Sandra Conte, Critic ~ January 2009