Poised on the brink of toppling from a great height, a grey tabby cat balances on a slender tree branch, optimistically extending its paws towards a passing winged fish. Joanna Braithwaite’s paintings often capture such precarious moments. Will the fish be caught or will the cat fall? In another, a budgerigar teetering on stilts of spindly twigs balances a flock of its own species preparing to take flight as their rickety scaffolding clatters to the ground. A similar tension is found in ‘Tall Tales’ in which two white mice cling to wobbly stilts in a giddy dance which is sure to end in disaster.
Braithwaite’s animals are put through their paces in circus-like acts. Two terriers tremble high on a tightrope and sweetly clasp paws as if preparing to execute an old fashioned dance. Chickens compete in egg and spoon races and two rats perform a slapstick comedy act involving a tug-o-war using their own tails. The works invite consideration of the power humans possess over animals, the history of keeping pets, menageries, zoos and circuses. Increasingly though, Braithwaite’s creatures, lovingly described in her virtuoso brushstrokes, invite us also to consider ourselves.
Although the works are infused with humour, the animals exude a quiet dignity as they gravely approach the challenges put to them. Braithwaite accentuates their human qualities through costume, motive and gesture. But are we likened to them or they to us?
Hybrids and animals transformed in extraordinary ways, like the flying fish in Out on a Limb, have have long fascinated the artist. The merged species of bird and fish is surely the ultimate treat for a cat. Again human intervention is considered in her fascination with the potential of breeding to alter nature. These feelings of possibility and transformation continue in Egg Laying Evidence in which a platypus perched high on a slim branch grips an egg in its shiny claws alongside a watchful canary. We wonder what kind of creature the egg contains and whether it will survive its journey. It is a poignant image of the fragility of life.
The inspiration for some of these works has come from the artist’s reading about early explorers and naturalists. After returning from exploratory travels, naturalists had trouble convincing people that a creature that looked like a cross between a duck and an otter and laid eggs actually existed. In Egg Laying Evidence the canary seems to also ponder the curious nature of the platypus and how, like a bird, it can lay eggs.
Animalia was displayed at La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre in Bendigo in September this year. Braithwaite’s work was the subject of a major survey exhibition entitled Wonderland originating at Dunedin Public Art Gallery and traveling to Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand in 2005. She shows regularly both here and in New Zealand.
An illustrated catalogue will be available during the exhibition. $5.50 plus postage.
For more information please contact Darren Knight Gallery:
Phone: 02 9699 5353