Monique Aganovic talks to UON PhD student Vanessa Lewis about “A Brush with Eggs”, her new Wattspace exhibition that combines the traditional art form of tempera painting with homages to some of Australia’s greatest artists.
Vanessa Lewis’ exhibition “A Brush with Eggs” explores the rare medium of tempera, a method of painting with egg yolk and natural pigments. She explores, through her homages to famed Australian artists, the complexity and beauty of the ancient art form. Her collection of work seems from afar like an eclectic mix of varying artists, but up close the unique pieces tie together so perfectly, and represent so many fantastic aspects of well-known Australian work.
The exhibition is a part of Vanessa’s current PhD studies, titled ’40 Artists and the Use of Tempera’. This particular collection focuses on the works of Frank Hinder, Shay Docking, Napier Waller and Margaret Preston. Her works are striking, perfectly encapsulating each individual aspect of the artists, whilst still making the works her own and in her own style.
Vanessa’s passion for her art comes through in her words about tempera and how she’s learning about the art form. Her experiments with tempera came after she realised she has an allergy to oil based paints. She describes being met with resistance in the art community when first looking into tempera, as it is widely believed to be an out-dated art medium. Enter her PhD, a work that, in Vanessa’s own words, “provides a body of knowledge that connects the dots for art curators and artists”. Whilst it’s true that tempera was popularised during the 15th century, many famous and modern artists throughout Australia have used it in their pieces, albeit rarely.
Vanessa’s work aims to showcase those pieces whilst also exploring her own connection to the art form. Her affinity to the medium and the artists she is honouring is obvious in her explanation of her studies. “I felt like I was in a conversation with all of them. By reading their stories I found a connection. I couldn’t copy their styles but I took a little bit from each one and I’m developing my own recipe.”
It’s evident through her works that Vanessa has a strong connection to the environment and the natural resources she uses for her art. She describes her art form as a response to the environment. Tempera is a key piece throughout her collection but each piece is so unique. Vanessa uses brush work, charcoal, gold leaf and stencil work to encapsulate the works of the varying artists. Each work is visually stunning but, perhaps, the most striking is her homage to Margaret Preston. The stencil work and gold leaf over the pigmented tempera is vivid and beautiful. Vanessa describes Margaret as an “incredible artist” who shifted the roles of women in art, in a time when they were only confined to so much in the art community. “Her body of work is so vast, so beautiful.” When I asked Vanessa why she loves stencil work she replied that it has a “real loss of control” which she’s drawn to.
Ultimately Vanessa views her PhD work as a ‘mini-project’, that aims to help other artists better understand tempera and all its capabilities. “A Brush with Eggs” is a small peek into her full body of work, but if it’s anything to go by her entire collection is absolutely dazzling.
Vanessa Lewis’ exhibition runs from Thursday 6th of April – Sunday 23rd of April at the Watt Space Gallery at Northumberland House in Newcastle CBD.