It was after experiencing the intricate patterning and the intangible “presence” in two of Michele Theunissen’s paintings at the Melbourne Art Fair last year (both of which were acquired by major collections) that I decided I’d like to interview the renowned artist to learn more about her work.
Michele Theunissen works from her home studio in Darlington and I arrive there on a rainy autumn day to meet her. Following her instructions I enter along a welcoming flame-tree lined driveway and pull up in front of Theunissen’s house. It is immediately recognisable as the work of architect Lynthorne Matthews who is well known in Perth’s hills for his unconventional geometric designs in jarrah and granite – perfect for an artist.
Theunissen greets me from the deck above and at the front door begins filling me in about the unique elements of the house she and her husband built after arriving in Perth nearly thirty years ago from South Africa.
The expansive walls are the perfect setting for paintings from Theunissen’s twenty year career. As we navigate the multi-levelled route through to the kitchen I experience a sense memory of early summer jacarandas while passing blue and orange on the stairs. This painting is from her Sensation series which exhibited at Goddard de Fiddes in 2011 and is based on her minute explorations of colour and pattern. This has been reflected in a repetitive pattern of strokes like pixels that emit subtle vibrations of colour. [The patterns in her work can be difficult to identify from a photograph – you may need to zoom in or, better yet, experience her work in person until 7th June at the Holmes a Court Gallery in Margaret River.]
This is a style which she developed after completing her Masters studies in fine art which, she says, were laden with conceptual and cerebral approaches to art. “So I wanted to find a style where I wasn’t thinking so much – something that contains the body and is the body, in a style that suited my rhythm.”
Theunissen’s rhythm is a fundamental component of her work, “It’s about colour, rhythm and pattern,” she says, adding that she didn’t set out to paint abstract works.
“I actually began by painting what I saw,” she explains of her finely detailed figurative works, before she gradually narrowed her gaze with paintings like Mookaite to the smallest of details, like the patterns of skin.
“This took me into thinking about the patterns of things like water and sand,” she says, noting that they are linked by a type of “organic geometry” a term she uses to describe “patterns which shift constantly”.
We climb the stairs to Theunissen’s top floor studio and I am boosted by the sunshine radiating from one of the pieces she is currently working on. This is from the same series as the works I saw in Melbourne; ways to nothing #4 and red lines. She is comfortable in this space so I ask her to talk more about her influences and she explains that she is also interested in the ideas of eastern philosophy. “I’ve found that connection to the state of being described as ‘nothingness’ through my painting,” she says. I ask her to describe how her process allows her to reach that point.
“I think about the base colour a lot, and then I usually do a pour to see what happens,” she begins. “Then I mark a pattern down, very carefully, and paint it with ink and once I have the pattern I work out how to disrupt it. Marks, lines are built slowly, numbing the controlling mind. The final stage is finding a resolution between the making and the breaking.”
“What’s important is that a presence emerges – the presence of the painting.”
I comment that the slow progress and repetitive nature of her style must mean she possesses infinite patience. “Each stage takes concentration,” she says, “but disrupting the pattern takes absolute presence and attention. What’s important is that a presence emerges – the presence of the painting.”
“painting and writing are different languages”
As a writer I’d like to pin this presence down in words but this, Theunissen believes, is difficult because, “painting and writing are different languages, which can make words illusive. What is important is how the viewer responds in terms of sensation.”
Theunissen understands words – she is often writing for film installations she creates; the most recent being ‘you are the robber come and shake hands’ which was shown at Pica as part of the Perth International Arts Festival in 2013.
She also pushed alphabets and hieroglyphics around for a public art project and has now moved, she explains, “from that exact place of forming letters (in my visual diary at least) to exploring marks moving, to see what they can become”.
In exploring what things can become Theunissen is doing more writing (perhaps another film installation?) and working on another large scale piece for a new body of work.
It has become her new pattern, she says – “Adding, subtracting and writing”. As I return to my car, senses alive and refreshed, I wonder; is this the pattern of creation?