Friday August 5
Runs to August 30
"Strauss’s animals are both companions and guardians, but also
fearsome, nightmarish creatures that evoke our deepest anxieties"
Professor Federico Freschi, 2022
Marie Strauss | Sympathetic Magic
“In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” – Jenny Holzer
Marie Strauss works proficiently across multiple media, from painting to ceramics to printmaking, her work united by a common iconography of wild animals, both real and imaginary, rendered in boldly expressive form. Extending and complicating the themes and imagery previous bodies of work – Gatekeeper (RDS Gallery, Dunedin, 2020) and Before and Thereafter (The National, Christchurch, 2021) –Sympathetic Magic brings together a series of paintings and ceramics in an intense and complex dialogue of form and subject. The richly textured surfaces of the paintings resonate materially with the sculptural forms of the ceramics while a common repertoire of animal forms – at once recognizable and fantastical – hold a fine tension between figuration and abstraction.
As with the previous bodies of work, the ever-changing repertoire of atavistic creatures at once recalls memories of the artist’s African childhood while at the same referencing the important symbolic role that animals play in our collective imagination. Compelling and enigmatic, Strauss’s animals are both companions and guardians, but also fearsome, nightmarish creatures that evoke our deepest anxieties. Sometimes they are shadowy shamanistic characters, half-animal, half-human, that recall the Paleolithic cave paintings and Southern San rock art that are an important source of inspiration for the artist. At other times they are whimsical and playfully charming anthropomorphic characters that would not be out of place in a children’s story book. The saturated, extroverted colour in some paintings flow from and hold in tension those paintings that are darkly monochromatic. In turn, these form a compelling dialogue with equally monochromatic pots, some of whose dark brown firing makes them look as if they were carved from wood. If the paintings are shamanistic dreamscapes, the pots are like ritual vessels that are the containers of these dreams.
Whether disturbing or joyous, the figurative elements move across and through canvas and clay as if in a dreamscape in which the infinite expanse of the universe is magically revealedin ways that are both terrifying and affirming. For the Strauss they are “about a dance, a trance, a dream”; an imaginative realm that is darkly anxious, but also infused with a kind of a redemptive lightness. The shadowy, dancing figures suggest the cathartic moment of transfiguration when the shaman’s dance connects to the potency of the creature being channeled. In their discussion of the relationship between San rock art and shamanistic ritual, David Lewis Williams and Sam Challis describes the experience thus:
When a San shaman enters trance, he trembles violently and falls to the ground, sometimes cataleptic. His !gi: [magic power] is said to ‘boil’ up his spine; climactically, his spirit is believed to leave his body via a ‘hole’ in the top of his head and go on out-of-body travel. … [he becomes] able to contact the gods and ancestors….
In this altered state of consciousness, the shaman can perform acts of healing, divination and prognostication for the community. Tracing the link between ritual and rock painting, Lewis-Williams and Challis argue that “The paintings were not merely pictures. Rather, many werepotency-filled things that played a role in subsequent rituals.”
For Strauss, the creative act is similarly imbued with significance that is both personal and universal. Her ongoing exploration of the dynamic play between form, texture and iconography enable her “to make sense of things I wonder about. You make art because it explains the world to you.” At the same time, she is quick to assert that “there are no answers in the work, but rather many questions.” Made against the backdrop both of dealing both with the chronic illness of a close member of her family and against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, these questions include meditations on being and wellness: How do people heal? Why do some get well and others not? What is sickness? What is health? How does one protect oneself?
Against this backdrop, the animals and anthropomorphic elements of Strauss’s dreamscapes and dream vessels are an illusory evocation of a lost Eden, suggesting a yearning for certainties that no longer exists in a time characterized by conflict, plague, floods and fires. But they are also guides and gatekeepers whose atavistic connection to the earth enables a kind of sympathetic magic that, dreamlike, offers us a way to survive.
Professor Federico Freschi
Head of College Te Maru Pūmanawa | Creative Practice & Enterprise, Otago Polytechnic