Judith Van Heeren’s stunningly lush paintings of forest scenes and their furred and feathered inhabitants flaunt all the technical acumen of the colonialist landscape and natural history paintings they so clearly reference. But there’s far more to this new series of oil-on-linen works showing at CBD gallery Murray White Room than immediately meets the eye.
Indeed, there’s a lurking, tacit sense of criticality that takes the Dutch-born artist’s work to a very different place. Here painterly smarts and methodical processes work almost as a foil; her perfect scenes don't quite stack up. These new images, which follow an exhibition of a similar scale in 2011, feature many of Van Heeren’s trademarks: the twisting, entwining forest – peppered with wild animals of every ilk – opening out into a wider, more spacious vista or landscape. Like the strategies of the romantic landscape tradition, Van Heeren has long used perfectly attractive, nonetheless displaced geographical signposts, animal and plant species to sidle an imposed and mythological idea of the land and its inhabitants.
But there’s a shift here. Van Heeren’s palette is a tad darker and more pensive, her landscapes less spectacular. The animals, too, have changed. While previous works appeared to gesture towards the politics of the domesticity and display – with a menagerie of beautiful, exiled wildlife dotted about each scene – these paintings see a variety of exotic and not-so-exotic creatures courting each other in pairs. Another significant shift is in the gaze, with many of the animals staring back at the viewer with an almost human air. It’s unsettling and endearing in the same breath.
What Van Heeren seems to be getting at is that of the wildly contradictory proximity we share – be it emotional, behavioural or biological – with such beasts. While we hunt, farm and slaughter, we also domesticate, love and take them as our own. We are really not so different, but only when it suits.
Judith Van Heeren shows at Murray White Room until April 27.
Murray White Room
Sargood Lane (off Exhibition Street, between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane), Melbourne
(03) 9663 3204