Painting, Victorian College of the Arts

By Camille Hassan

17 December 2023
  • Shaaron Pateman, Isabel Trufas

Pearls, ribbons and bows. Entering the third-year painting department at this year’s VCA grad show, I was immediately struck by several works fixated on hyper-feminine tropes, suggesting a shift toward embracing motifs that have long been treated with contempt.

It’s hard to miss the prominence of hyper-femininity in recent contemporary culture. According to a CNN story headed ‘It’s a Barbie world’, sales of pink clothing, shoes and cookware have all surged in recent months. Whether it’s strategic marketing from Mattel and the Barbie “revolution”, or a subjective reclamation of an aesthetic that has long been discredited for lacking emotional or intellectual depth, the question arises: does the resurgence of such gendered coding within the next generation of artists offer valuable insight?

Shaaron Pateman, Two Teddies, 2023, graphite, acrylic paint, office partitions. VCA, Melbourne. Photo: courtesy of the University of Melbourne.

Shaaron Pateman’s Two Teddies approaches these themes tenderly. Standing starkly within the space, the work demands that you stop and look. Constructed with graphite and acrylic paint, Pateman’s technical precision gives the work a Chuck Close-like delicacy. While the scale nods to the formalist abstraction and Pop Art of the 60s, the bears themselves have the appearance of a well-loved presence in someone’s childhood, not yet abandoned to a dark cupboard. The pale pink borders act as a frame of innocence and nostalgia within a familiar narrative of consumerist girlhood, which, nevertheless, does not dispense with critique and self-awareness. Immediately allured by their pleasant dominance, I stuck around to ponder how girlhood, nostalgia and love are packaged for consumption within these giant boxes.

Up really close, the canvases are revealed as cheap office partitions, an association that suggests the look of objects pressed onto the glass of a photocopier that freezes them in time. The cliche of large-scale paintings that we likely associate with corporate decoration is broken by cheap, temporary material. Innocence and fragility have intruded into the sterile space of moneymaking.

Isabel Trufas, (left to right:) Furever and always, God I am not your strongest magical girl, Play piercing II, 2023, oil on canvas. VCA, Melbourne. Photo: courtesy of the University of Melbourne.

On a neighboring wall we find Isabel Trufas’s trio of canvases, which take a different approach to similar themes. Here we see girlish delicacy exaggerated to an unsettling point. Drawing from alternative culture and anime imagery, Trufas’s work is very Melbourne, but in a way that has only become recognisable in recent years. She maintains a simultaneous overwhelmingness and ironic self-awareness. The animated figures combine with lifelike depictions to suggest an overwhelming reality as disturbing as it is cute. Upon first impression, the triptych reminded me of club event posters: italic lettering, hyper-cutesy graphics, suggestively explicit imagery. This is not to denigrate her work, rather the opposite: it’s a finger on the pulse of a lively youth culture characterised by corsets and bows.

Whether it’s escapism or reclamation, for artists like Pateman and Trufas, feminine prettiness does not equate to a lack of substance. Maybe it’s the opposite: perhaps we see here the inklings of narratives and perspectives that have long been ignored in the arts or dismissed as trivial and without substance but have something new (or old) to tell us about patriarchy, domination and femininity.

Camille Hassan is a Naarm based writer and curator. She has recently completed a Bachelor of Art History and Curating at Monash University.

Memo Magazine, No. 1