My Painting, at My Window essay by Maurice O’Riordan
Catalogue Esssay for Loving Memory
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!
(Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven, first published in 1845)
It’s hard to go past this final stanza of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic poem, The Raven, when approaching Karla Dickens’s latest body of work in Loving Memory. Perhaps I’m caught up in the exhibition’s initial working title, Shadows and Crows. Though Karla evidently abandoned this title for something equally poetic and more suggestive, the crow and shadow still abound in this exhibition as they do in Poe’s above stanza.
Technically, ravens and crows are different – in size, feather shape, call, and general habits; all ravens belong to the crow family but not all crows are ravens. For Poe, the Raven occupies the netherworld between sleep and consciousness, an omen of death which speaks of the loss of his beloved ‘Lenore’ and bears the shadow of his own mortality. Similarly, for Karla, the crow is a bridge between the living and the dead.
In a statement relating the genesis of this work, she confides: ‘I was awoken in tears by a dream … my father was talking to a spirit or was it a crow? That afternoon crows appeared in my painting and at my window.’ Crows belong to the very moment of Karla writing this statement: ‘As I sit and write these words, four crows talk to me as they sit in a gum tree out my back window.’ The appearance of crows is, for this artist, a reassuring sign that ancestors are nearby.
The metaphysical world of signs and totems has long been a source of creative inspiration for Karla. I think of her spare and powerful imagery after a period of time spent with the rock art at Jowalbinna in the Cape York region: dingos suckled by earth mother deities and eagles keeping watch above a rich-red bluff. For another exhibition she installed a series of painted shark jaws (souvenired from her brother’s work on commercial fishing boats) along the theme of seven deadly sins. Earlier, as resident artist at Sydney’s University of Technology, she produced an exhibition of resplendent, painterly collage works around the symbology of the cross. Amongst this work, there have been moments of lyrical abstraction and also of explicit engagement with the very physical world dealing, for instance, with sex, sexuality and pornography.
Karla is not the sort of artist to rest on her laurels. Despite the demands of motherhood (with her sprightly toddler daughter, Ginger), she is like the busy bower bird, forever sourcing materials for collage, responding to the episodes of her life, taking in the signs. I had my own moment of serendipity in preparing to write this brief essay, coming across a bird’s nest that had fallen out of a tree. There’s an immediate poignancy about a fallen bird’s nest, tugging at our maternal instinct and our own loving memories of being mothered, or perhaps our desire to be mothered. Studying the nest in my hand, I was struck by the ingenuity of its construction – its seemingly casual though careful assemblage of natural and synthetic materials. I thought of Karla’s work in this exhibition: its integral collage of natural motifs and synthetic forms; the careful, sophisticated construction through colour, collage, stitching, beading, knitting. Conceptually, this work can be seen as a kind of ‘nesting’ insomuch as art can often be a spiritual nesting for its maker, a vital way of expressing, balancing and couching one’s world. ‘In my painting, at my window’ conveys something of this reflexivity, not forgetting the important dimension of Karla’s wonderfully varied and potent spirit figures in this exhibition. As are the eyes a window to the soul, so is Karla’s painting, her artistic practice, a window to hers, and more so because her art consciously and lovingly embraces the soulful realm (and not least through the funky retro patterns of her op-shop collage fabrics).
Unlike the eyes of Poe’s Raven, with ‘all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming’, Karla’s crows are, like her human figures, without eyes – sightless but with the sense of an all-seeing internalised vision. In most of the paintings, the crow looms largest in the landscape, towering over mere mortals like a sentinel; sometimes in profile, sometimes curiously looking down, sometimes in flight or even in conversation. In
( ‘Remembrance’ ), a shiny black beaded crow seems to peck (affectionately?) at a woman’s shadow, while in ( ‘Forever in my arms’ ), where bird and human are similarly scaled, the crow seems to be invoking good advice which hovers like a pearl of wisdom above the bent head of the woman, a figure of sorrow and resilience. In
( ‘Flying with you’ ), a human figure has sprouted its own wings and prepares to take flight, perhaps the gift of mother to daughter.
In this age of slick and seamless imagery, it is more than refreshing to behold the work of an artist who revels in the texture and artifice of the painted collage; an artist who has, in fact, refined her use of this medium with considerable ingenuity and stunning effect over the years. Likewise, Karla’s experimentation with the spirit figure or doll form has adapted over time and is beautifully embodied in this exhibition with the shadows of each figure, the positive and negative spaces of existence, adding to their allure. Loving Memory is of course, an allusion to death, from the words often found on epitaphs or in obituaries. Yet Karla is, in the active sense, also loving memory, holding dear the presence of ancestors, history, memories of dreams, loved ones and lived experience. ‘The crow gives me strength to fly above my shadows’, Karla reveals, meriting a critical point of difference from Poe whose grief-stricken soul is subsumed by the shadow of his Raven. In the uplifting force of this exhibition, Karla’s soul is lifted – evermore!
Maurice O’Riordan, May 2008
 Pallas is another name for Athena, the Greek goddess who represents wisdom, arts, industries and prudent warfare.