I’ve known Sue Michael for maybe 20 years, and seen her work evolve from handmade pinhole camera prints to vivid big canvases. Until 17 March, she’s sharing West Gallery Thebarton with Mark Thomson in a joint show called Settled areas. One of Sue’s earlier pieces I remember was a black and white print of some plants in her garden. It was a gently wonky picture, with an unevenness that was part of its charm, and she called it something whimsical like ‘struggle’ or ‘optimism’. Her attention in this show is still on the importance of home, of location, of place, but her canvases are bigger and her territory much wider.
The paintings and sketches here are of South Australia’s mid-north, traversing towns like Eudunda, Maree, Lochiel. There are plenty of dusty front yards and cheery blue cloudless skies, but also lots of main streets, kitchens, tennis courts and ovals. The wonkiness I remember from her early work is still there, and now it’s suffused with colour and the liveliness of hand-drawn lines. There’s a feeling of comfort and familiarity in these spaces, with elements like an old lounge chair out in the yard by the embers of a bonfire, or spectacles on a kitchen bench by some upside-down glasses that are drying on a tea-towel. Only a few of the pictures have people in them, but their presence is embedded in the pictures.
A note in one of her sketchbooks talks about eschewing rigorous perspective in favour of being poetic. That lovely wonkiness again. And it makes these spaces both dreamy and familiar, humming with life.
Mark Thomson’s photographs are poetic too, but without the same sense of comfort. The colours are less saturated, the subject matter with more hard edges: an abandoned house that’s distorted and looking like the wind is about to push it over, the dark hulk of a car on a trailer. His pictures are of towns beyond the Goyder line, a 19th-century demarcation in South Australia north of which regular rainfall couldn’t be expected. People settled there anyway, and for a while the towns flourished. Then Goyder’s predictions took hold, and communities began to wither.
There’s certainly a harder view here, a ‘glimpse’, as Mark Thomson writes in his statement, ‘into a climate-changed future’. But there’s still community—a corner deli whose evening glow is the gathering point for a trio of teens—and poetry—an abandoned car that looks like it’s bobbing in a sea of brown grass. There’s sky in a lot of these pictures, and mostly they’re dark or clouded over, like a shadowy vignette round the edge of the print, pushing the gaze towards the ground, the paddock, the street.
I’m not suggesting that the two different views of the mid-North are determined by their form—the soft and colourful paintings versus the harder photographs with straighter lines. But they do offer us alternative views of the same location. These are both strong accounts and solid bodies of work on their own, but together they remind us not to foreclose the possibility of other nuances and facets and narratives.
Settled areas, Sue Michael and Mark Thomson, West Gallery Thebarton, Adelaide, 14 February to 17 March 2019