In June this year, the Canberra-based artist eX de Medici held a spectacularly successful survey exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery I Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
Privately, she confided at the time that she needed a new direction in her art and her exquisite, detailed watercolours that combine objects of desire with that which is socially abject – that had made her into an art market darling – has to come to an end.
This significant exhibition, Guns & Flowers, may mark the start of the reorientation of her art. As in much of de Medici’s work, the concepts behind it are multi-tiered. On a fundamental level, there is the collision of seemingly contradictory items – guns and flowers – the contradiction between destruction and killing, and beautiful growth and life. These two elements have co-existed in her art for several years.
Then, drawing what at first appears to be a rather long bow, the connection was made with the artist Sidney Nolan, who was also prone to juxtapose guns and flowers in his iconic Kelly series. For example, floral wallpaper that accompanied scenes of violence or the flowering bush in which the first-class marksman stands with his rifle.
Also, while painting the Kelly series at Heide, Nolan drew little vases of flowers that he observed on the mantlepiece in his workroom. Nolan and de Medici met on many occasions so the show could also be considered a collaboration – or at least a conversation – between the two artists.
The most poignant and moving part of this exhibition is de Medici’s installation at the Lanyon Homestead in Louisa’s bedroom. As with so much of her art, you are initially seduced by eye candy – bright colours, floral wallpaper, Nolan’s little drawing of flowers on the mantlepiece and a reproduction of a 1910 photograph of the original occupant of the room, Louisa Leeman, and her husband, some 30 years her senior, standing with the family outside this very room.
Then there is the cringe factor, a grand four-poster double bed covered with menstrual red-pink silk satin that is crudely bound with ropes. On the wall behind the bed is a large watercolour by de Medici titled Pink for Boys, completed this year. We are told that we are looking at the artist’s own replica gun, a Browning .222, now made functionless and bound in red-pink satin, the barrel melting into the background ornament with only the peep sights visible. The spreading background contains a pattern that is a mix of the female hormone molecules and Australian flannel flowers.
There is something about violence and violation, like a suppressed scream, that is also hinted at in the artist’s inscription in pencil on her drawing: “The inexhaustible imperfection of the human.”
In the Civic building of CMAG, within the ‘white cube’ of the gallery space, there is a mixture of the Nolan paintings, particularly memorably his Shooting of Rimbaud by Verlaine, 1982, with its simple confrontation between a gun and the poet’s head, and de Medici’s work. A highlight is de Medici’s recent painting Blue for Boys, where there is a mixture of guns, including Verlaine’s and Kelly’s pistols and a background with male hormone molecules, various drugs and a floral bouquet ornament.
Watercolour drawings with complex multi-tiered narratives with hidden plus fairly obvious symbols that can be deciphered on a number of levels are evergreen features of de Medici’s art. The eye is seduced and attracted by the mesmerising detail and the sea of colour, the mind may engage with a host of possible historic and artistic connections, while the ethical stance adopted by the artist becomes clear once you contemplate the work. However, while gazing at the incredible detail in Blue for Boys, the observant viewer will discover that the artist has painted blowflies crawling over her work, leaving their trail of fly droppings. A scatological commentary on the presented allegory.
There is no radical break in de Medici’s most recent work with her past practice, but perhaps something of a gentle reorientation is slowly asserting itself. As always, de Medici places a subversive mirror on society and lets us examine what is happening through a complex prism of cerebral interrogation and visual enchantment.
eX de Medici and Sidney Nolan: Guns & Flowers is at the Canberra Museum + Gallery, London Circuit, until 31 March 2024. CMAG is open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 4 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 4 pm (free admission), and Lanyon Homestead, Tharwa Drive, until 17 December, Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm (admission charge).