At Wellington’s New Zealand Portrait Gallery for one last week is Jacqueline Fahey’s Suburbanites, a survey show showcasing 60 years of the Auckland artist’s riotous oil paintings. Megan Dunn writes a fan letter, in lieu of a review.
I wanted to make time to review Suburbanites but a four-year-old daughter, my own half-written book, and numerous other irritations keep bewitching my days. You’ll know what I’m saying.
My Skirt’s In Your Fucking Room! sets the stage. It’s 1979. Two teenage daughters at each other over a flaming tamarillo skirt held up like a matador’s cape. A fight in the kitchen lit up in oils. This is a protest painting over more than a skirt. Wise up and read the small print: on the table in the foreground next to the book Women Artists is a letter from the Arts Council requesting three new paintings from you. The catch: they need to be made over Christmas.
“How thoughtful.” Your voice, smarting and vivid as your signature red lipstick, sums up the irony of that ill-timed letter. And that voice is everywhere in Suburbanites. A lesser artist with less to say would struggle to fill Shed 11, but you’ve decked it out like a hall of mirrors. Your life and life’s work reads like a book. Apt, because you’re an author too: two novels, two autobiographies. No wonder your survey is full of narrative hooks.
Your art-historical story is second-wave feminism scraped straight from the palette. Born in Timaru in 1929, you’re a pioneer – one of our first artists to make the women’s lives the subject of art. But that sounds dutiful, as though doing the dishes turned into painting the dishes, when really your riotous oils are full of sex, love, and Georgie Pie – yes, all that jazz.
From the start, you had panache. In a slap-dash self-portrait from 1959, you’re in sunglasses, matching hat, and scarf. What a broad, captured in broad brushstrokes. “That’s the statement here, that paint could gift me with a voice, a way to state my case. Painting could adapt to my needs. The brush could be my weapon”, reads the wall text.
Next come classic hits from the sixties and seventies. Early experiments in style that nod to Picasso and Margaret Keane are quickly eclipsed by rich, unforgettable paintings chronicling your house and contents, your family. In 1955, you married psychiatrist Fraser McDonald and had three daughters: Augusta, Alex, Emily. The phrase “suburban neurosis” has been attributed to him – in his work he encountered many depressed, isolated housewives – but I know you coined it first.
And in the suburbs, psychology is teeming. You lived on hospital grounds, painting from a trolley wheeled around the house. Perhaps that’s why tabletops loom from your frames, books scattered across them like clues. In Georgie Pies for Lunch (1977), the girls are teens. One plants a strawberry in her smacker. Meanwhile, out the window, in the garden, Fraser, specs on, smoke in mouth, is busy with his yellow hose. Everything ripe for interpretation. In the foreground, on the table, Jack Nicholson grins from the cover of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Did Nurse Ratchet chime with you?
Your compositions prompt analysis, but you poke fun at it too; Fraser with his huge eyeball peers through a magnifying glass in Fraser Sees Me I See Myself (1975). Your titles – Drinking Couple: Fraser Analysing My Words (1977) – suggest case studies. Why do people love these works so much? Is it nostalgia for Georgie Pies? Impasto? Or for those Axminster carpets? Perhaps it’s simply that they are set at home, the domestic isn’t tame! The girls became the first punks in Auckland and you’re an artist and an intellectual to boot. You put the kick inside the patriarchy. These paintings gobble up life and dispense it back, like that bottle of Tanqueray cannily collaged onto Mother and Daughter Quarrelling (1977). Gin – your mother’s favourite drink.
And let’s not forget the sensuality! It can be fun to be a raging heterosexual. The Tennis Player (1971) is parked near the show’s entrance. I can see why you squeezed him in. That chest rug – what a racket! He’s also the nude dude up close and personal in Luncheon on the Grass (1981–82), your gender reversal of Manet. I digress, but isn’t that what men are for?
As I browsed Suburbanites, I was also smitten by those first candidates for our hearts – toys. Homemade or store-bought, they cluster on the edges of your compositions like a Greek chorus. In The Birthday Party (1974), a teddy in a blue romper sits on a table festooned with marbles, balloons, and a big fat cake – another leftover, like the weary grandmother. She’s received more art-historical attention, but it’s the teddy that gets me.
Whatever happened to Voss, the fat pink bear swallowed in Augusta’s arms in 1962? To me, he was like Alan Measles waiting to be scooped up by Grayson Perry and turned into a mascot-messiah. Instead, Voss only got one measly painting, but he owned it. I looked at Augusta and Voss and fell in love again. I was once a little girl who played with her toys too long – now my own daughter is doll crazy. Why do we love toys? I Googled it. Through playing with toys, we develop our motor and cognitive skills, helping us overcome life’s obstacles.
Life’s obstacles? Toys are mimetic devices and so are your paintings. It wasn’t always popular to be a representational artist, but you’re a great pretender. In Christine in the Pantry (1973), a blonde eighteen-year-old hippy hovers behind the pantry door. Every inch is busyness. The shape of the painting echoes that of the pantry. Christine was included in Alter/Image (1993), a survey of twenty years of feminist art at City Gallery Wellington. In the catalogue, art critic Lita Barrie wrote, “Fahey explores the paradoxes of the female impersonator in suburbia, confronting the tensions and frustrations of being a great broad in New Zealand with honesty, humour and pathos.” In 2007, your paintings Christine and Sisters Communing (1984) were in WACK!: Art and Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. A big deal, but you thought they selected your more conventional work. Feminism, like any operating system, is always upgrading: now it’s intersectional, and that Golly on the shelf of The Birthday Party is a bad scene.
Throughout, I wondered what you were reading. In the acrobatic Happy Christmas (1986), the yellow kitchen is topsy-turvy, the sink is choppy with froth, and food leaps out of the fridge. Maybe Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus? The seagulls that swoop through several paintings are like Keel and Kool from Janet Frame’s The Lagoon. You must know that one. The book spared her a lobotomy. Perhaps Ballard’s Crash, as you polished off The Car as the Erotic Machine in the Domain (1981–82)?
A note on food. You can’t cook, yet no one does a plate of hors d’oeuvres quite like you. In Sisters Communing II (1990), the self-absorbed sisters dine on pernickety seafood, while the sombre guests in Funeral Feast No. 2 (1992) are accompanied by a cheese platter. Food is such a signifier of ‘good taste’—you skewer the mores of the middle classes. It’s easy to swallow this whole show as though it was all painted at once, rather than across a lifetime.
Fraser died in 1994 and you moved into town. When your paintings go outside, the style shifts. The paint becomes thinner, the figures more like cartoons. The black frames are jarring, and the paintings are jarring too. The later paintings are harder to love because love isn’t the subject. In the ‘Williamson Avenue’ works, news, politics, and violence cross the road next to a Grey Lynn Tip Top sign. In 2015, you said you didn’t want to live beyond ninety. Auckland Art Gallery should be ashamed they haven’t got to this survey first.
I can see from your compositions you’re not afraid to go OTT, but the Shed 11 presentation is too busy. Jaenine Parkinson and Kirsty Baker’s curation is empathetic and generous, but there’s a touch of the Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book. My Skirt’s in Your Fucking Room! is hung on a fake wall covered in fake grass. The gallery contains sitting-room displays of seventies couches, decked out in crocheted throws. For some curators, this kitsch is a no-no. Well, Jacqueline, I’m only gonna say this: I prefer to have my Women’s Weekly birthday cake and eat it too.
On a recent trip to Auckland, I walked into Anna Miles Gallery to see a show of hand-woven rugs by Vita Cochran. You were there, admiring them, in pink slacks and red lips.“What happened to Voss?” I asked. “Oh Voss?”, your reply indicated he was loved to death. “He was named after a Patrick White novel.” Of course, he was. I wish I’d read your books. I know I’m missing metaphors, sightlines, connections. And the ruse of this letter – its pretence of intimacy, just something between us girls – is a risk. You don’t know me, or me you. Women’s art is often conflated with the gushing confession, as though we just uncork the gin and it all pours out. Which brings me to this quote of yours, “Paint language has to be spontaneous and at the same time, very solid, and deep.” In that spirit, I wanted to say I saw your show and I fucking loved it.
Jacqueline Fahey’s Suburbanites is showing at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington, for one more week till 1 November 2019, then moves to The Wallace Arts Trust, Auckland, 13 November-16 February 2020.