Art review: Wendy Sharpe's Wanderlust at Aarwun Gallery is vibrant and fresh
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Art review: Wendy Sharpe's Wanderlust at Aarwun Gallery is vibrant and fresh

Wanderlust. By Wendy Sharpe. Aarwun Gallery, Federation Square, Gold Creek, Nicholls, Canberra. Until April 15.

Wendy Sharpe, Self-portrait – Piazza Farnese, in Wanderlust at Aarwun Gallery.

Wendy Sharpe, Self-portrait – Piazza Farnese, in Wanderlust at Aarwun Gallery.

Wendy Sharpe has been a presence in the Australian art scene for about three decades with her expressionist canvases that ooze sensuousness and voluptuousness. She has scooped many of the prestigious art prizes in her native Sydney, including the Archibald, the Sulman and the Portia Geach, and has served as an Australian official war artist with peacekeepers in East Timor.

As an artist, she developed an early passion for travel and in this exhibition there are works from France, Italy, Antarctica, Cambodia, Mexico, Laos, India and rural Australia. However, unlike the traveller who from exotic climes creates scenic postcards, Sharpe inhabits the spaces she visits as a strategy for understanding what is new and foreign.

Wendy Sharpe – Paris, Past, Present, Imagined.

Wendy Sharpe – Paris, Past, Present, Imagined.

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It is a huge exhibition, about 110 items, the majority consisting of quite small gouaches on paper, frequently executed in situ overseas. There are also 27 oil paintings, some of quite large proportions, an impressive monumental painted screen and concertina artists books. While I did not conduct a headcount, it seemed the majority of the works contain self-portraits of the artist in various guises, but generally as part of the local scene partaking of the passing parade.

In many of the paintings, including Paris,Past, Present, Imagined, and Self-portrait in Florence with Bernard Ollis, the artist is depicted at work as if through her actions she creates meaning and identity. In an exhibition note she observes: "Whenever I arrive for the first time in a foreign environment, the best way I can begin to get an understanding of what it looks like, how things are connected, and how people move in and out of it, is to sit and draw it. After a while what was incomprehensible starts to make sense."

This autobiographical element in Sharpe's art appears as disarmingly honest, down to earth and unglamorous. Sharpe is a gifted and very experienced draughtsman and an artist with an intuitive colour sense. There is spontaneity and freshness in the paint application with an expressive vibrancy, so the viewer is swept up with the feeling of "being there" and sharing in the excitement of the experience.

Sharpe's eye is attracted to the raunchy side of life and to the coarseness of the urban experience, but she is devoid of judgmental or moral overtones. However, she does not present an image of sweetness, innocence and pure hedonistic joy. Her work is frequently tinged with fear and a touch of the sinister lurks beneath the surface. Her concertina artists book Day of the Dead is one of the gems in this exhibition.

One of my favourites at the exhibition is quite a small gouache, Self portrait, Piazza Farnese, where, employing a Bonnard-inspired device of presenting the figure in the foreground, lit from behind and hence silhouetted against the scene, there is an effective contrast in moods between the introspective and distressed figure of the artist and the sun-bathed piazza caught within a festive atmosphere.

Wanderlust is an interesting exhibition by an artist who through travel seeks not only to encounter what is new and unknown to her, but also seeks to discover her own identity and place in the world.