Brenda Walsh’s complex, multi-layered paintings stand firmly and unashamedly within the tradition of Art History. Iconographically, they teem with references to and direct quotations from Medieval and Flemish masters (Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch), the Italian Renaissance (Michelangelo and Masaccio) and Nineteenth Century Romanticism (Caspar David Friedrich), amongst others. Stylistically and formally, Walsh is strongly influenced by Medieval and Renaissance art, some of the works here echoing the format of the Christian triptych.
In each of the paintings in this exhibition a single domestic animal – a sheep or lamb or, in some cases, a cow – struggles desperately to hold its head above the surface of a mass of water – perhaps a sea or floodwaters. Upon this water-mass are numerous quotations from Art History and images of water-based catastrophes, from the Biblical Flood to the sinking of the Titanic and more contemporary disasters – suggesting issues such as rising sea-levels due to global warming and the tragedy of refugees lost at sea.
The artist sees the works as allegorical, strongly influenced by Christian doom paintings – images of the Last Judgement. The struggling animals may refer to live animal export, but they can also be interpreted as symbolic of humankind. While Walsh no longer holds a strong religious belief, the works are rich in Christian iconography. She sees the religious imagery upon which she draws as our cultural iconography, our visual mythology. Medieval and Renaissance art was most often produced for the Church or for wealthy patrons wishing to have visual expression of their piety. While strongly attracted to this religious art, Walsh has, in fact, described her own recent work as a response to her childhood exposure to Bible Stories in Sunday School. These works are, in part, an expression of the awe and fear of ‘the wrath of God’ she experienced as a child. Closely connected to this, the paintings are also critical of the cruelty inflicted by mankind upon the animals of the world, justified by the concept of the superiority of Man, which is a central tenet of the Christian belief system.
Walsh’s paintings are, however, never as bleak as these ideas might suggest. Rather she works with a light touch of sardonic humour. In a recent body of work, The Fall, a range of anthropomorphised Australian animals were cast as the superior beings clad in ecclesiastic robes, watching the fall of humanity with pious indifference. And so here, while we feel compassion for the animals rising above the encroaching waters, we are intrigued by and must admire the multitude of iconographic detail.
Dr Penny Peckham