As a young mother, Deborah Rhee had never produced artwork until, almost on a whim, she took part in a short adult education class on drawing. That weekend class changed her life and ignited an obsession that is still burning strong some fourteen years later. The weekend was quickly followed by a much longer course on all aspects of art making. It was a heady time – Deborah recalls dropping her young daughter at school, racing to art school, learning about art all day and then painting literally all night while her daughter slept. Before she knew it, her house was overrun with paintings and Deborah realized she had found her raison d’etre. Painting has since become much more than an interest or a passion, it is, in her words “my meditation … I need to do it daily … it centers me”.
I came across Deborah through the Dallas Art News website – we contacted each other when we realized we were both Australians living here in Dallas. As luck would have it, we actually share not only the same home town (Melbourne) but both lived quite close to each other before we individually relocated to the Big D. Quite a coincidence.
I met Deborah in person yesterday for the first time when I went to check out a group of her recent works entitled Through Thick and Thin currently showing at the Live Group salon at 3609 Greenville Ave.
Deborah has had a number of group and solo shows in Melbourne and was building a solid reputation there before her relocation to Dallas around 18 months ago. Arriving with 1/3 of her shipping container filled with art supplies (her family had to make do with one small Ikea couch for a long time!) Deborah left behind her reputation, her contacts in Melbourne’s competitive art scene and all the goodwill she had built over ten years of painting and showing. Deborah laughingly recalls not even knowing where to buy paint – really having to start from scratch. Like many Australians, she jumped at the opportunity to see more of the world and to experience new challenges. I believe the “have a go” mentality of Australians is very similar to that of Texans and particularly Dallasites – we are all good at seizing opportunities and making the most of situations – finding advantage and blessings where others might not.
Deborah’s practice has been guided through the years by a fascination with revealing and concealing, with layers of texture, glaze and paint; layers of meaning and experience that are alternately shown and hidden only to be revealed in part again. She works in stages, layering glaze, and or paints on top of each other to create veiled effects and (in her words) “flat sculpture” before then removing parts of the top layers to reveal that which is beneath
She describes her process as an intuitive one, often working on up to 10 canvases at once, layering and revealing, returning to each work over and over again until it feels resolved. She says an essential requirement is to be brave – brave enough to decide a work is finished, brave enough to remove some of the layers to reveal those beneath, brave enough to “destroy” what you have laid down to reveal something possibly greater.
Deborah brought many unresolved canvases with her from Melbourne, and (as she laughingly recounts – because paint is so much cheaper here than in Australia), she began experimenting with thick layers of paint. She recalls losing herself in the sculptural qualities of the medium and playing with texture in a new way. “It was a luscious journey into flat sculpture” she writes “Palate knives and brush ends became new tools and white pigment became my continuity. I played back and forth layering colour and white…always revealing and concealing”. She goes on to say “In the honour of revealing, I left little windows in the paintings: glimpses of what originally lay beneath” Her final Australian paintings were thus transformed into her first American ones.
“I was learning a new language in my painting and exploring life in a new country”
The show can be divided into “Thick” – the impasto layered works with their windows revealing the glazed canvases below, and “Thin” the more ethereal thinly layered glazed works.
The “Thick” works are generally smaller in scale, and white is used extensively, layered with colour to create pieces which are filled with light, but reveal a depth beneath. These are the canvases that were brought unresolved from Australia and then painted over. I was taken with the idea of the Australian paintings sitting underneath the thickly applied American paint, and Deborah revealing little windows of her former life through the layers of oil.
Of particular note to me were some “Thin” works where Deborah has applied countless layers of translucent glaze in beautiful strong hues of blue, turquoise, magenta and purple, and then (using a bunched up pair of her daughters socks) removed patches and layers to create beautiful, lyrical pieces reminiscent of exotic fabric. In another work she returns to an earlier interest in the evocative properties of drips and dribbles which work with the layered glazes to great visual effect.
Thinking about Deborah’s concept of revealing and concealing, I can draw parallels to the experience of establishing life in a new country – the concealing and revealing of one’s self without the constraints of family friends and established social identity. There is the freedom to reinvent ourselves to some degree, but the old self, and “stuff” is always there – poking through the windows to add depth and dimension. In this way, Deborah’s works crystallize the relocation experience which so many of us (particularly here in transient Dallas) have experienced to some degree.
The collection of works on display was never intended to be shown, and thus were not painted with the idea of the complete series in mind – rather they are an exploration of techniques and effects, and document the evolution from Australia to Dallas, from thinly veiled and layered glazes to thick sculptural applications and the process of building a new life while holding onto something of the past. Thus the show’s title, Through Thick and Thin, is supremely apt on so many levels.
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