The Gold and Fiery One — Kevin Murray, 1996

Louise Forthun Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Australia September 1996

Since the end of the 1980s, Louise Forthun has been rendering architecture onto canvas using a rudimentary stencil technique. Her technique is simple. The artist traces from slide onto paper which is then cut into a stencil occluding the paint that is sprayed onto canvas. With alarming ease, it is possible to trace a lineage connecting Forthun’s representations of modern architecture with the Palaeolithic hand stencils found in caves.

In her most recent exhibition at Tolarno Gallery, Forthun uses the same technique to construct ‘a building site for the eyes’. Placing strenuous demands on the optic fibres, Forthun’s paintings are optically vertigenous, although the affect must be overcome while viewing them. While they handsomely reward the ‘long look’, the power of her work draws partly from the contrast in scale of operation between the collective institutions she aims to depict and the self-sufficient means which she chooses to do so.

Of late, the primitive nature of her technique has become even more obvious with the lingering evidence of masking tape used to hold her stencils steady on the canvas. Similar uses of masking tape have become a familiar feature of contemporary photography, evident in the work of Mike and Doug Starn and ubiquitous in Bill Henson’s recent Lonsdale Street Power Station installation. In the case of photography, tabs of masking tape serve to fetishise the manual elements of processing. This they can do in Forthun’s paintings, but their main business is to frame the several different spatial perspectives present in one work. For instance, Blue and Jagged contains what seems at first an infinite array of facades until the eye can fix on the odd tab, providing a stable point of view from which to extricate the multiple perspectives.

The Gold and Fiery One is a particularly intense work that saturates what appears to be a factory scene with an almost solarised yellow. In choosing such naive titles and intense colours, Forthun seems to assert a defiant familiarity towards otherwise grand structures. In this context, the tab is a kind of thumbprint left as incidental evidence of artistic intention. While in photography, masking tape signifies darkroom processes, Forthun’s painting alludes more strongly to the digital practices that have superseded them. As a screen technique, stencilling has become ubiquitous in digital graphics: masking layers (or alpha channels) enable images to be interleaved and shadowed. Feathering these masks is a routine procedure in the manufacture of drop shadows and frosted outlines.

Ironically, the ease with which computer software achieves these specialist effects has reduced their communicative ability. By contrast, Louise Forthun takes a path which is parallel in graphic aim but paved with artistic intentions.

Dr Kevin Murray
Independent curator and writer