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Ussher, Michelle - 2014.16a

Michelle Ussher

Sunset in a Blackhole – Lightbulb in a Plughole, 2012
oil on linen
75.2 x 60 cm
Purchased 2014

Sunset in a Blackhole – Lightbulb in a Plughole represents a turning point for Michelle Ussher. Previously, her paintings were notable for their figuration, but this was her first abstract artwork, exploring perception and meaning. It was influenced by her research into the ‘black hole’, the ‘green ray’ and feminist rethinking of Josef Albers’ ‘colour squares’.

At the time Ussher painted this work she was writing short stories and researching the scientific phenomenon of the black hole. Both expanded her perception of the painted surface. Ussher’s understanding of the black hole is informed by the concept that it consists of dispersed matter, which creates the surface edge perceived as a ‘hole’; for example, if a book fell into a black hole, the story and the paper would be dispersed, creating the surface membrane of the hole. In this way the black hole is analogous to the surface of a painting, comprising the interrelation between form and content, and between interior and exterior; it is a ‘skin that forms a frontier between an interior unknown and an exterior we think we know’. Ussher relates this correlation of matter, meaning and surface to Sigmund Freud’s proposition of the ego as ‘… not merely a surface entity, but … the projection of a surface’.[1]

These ideas express the symbiotic relationship between phenomena and the meaning we invest in them. The scientific phenomenon of the ‘green ray’ is the green flash seen as the last sunray, as the sun sinks into the sea at sunset. It is very rare to see the green ray, but if one experiences it with their lover, it is said that this person is your true love. Ussher explores, in this work, the notion that colour expresses meaning beyond its formal qualities. She herself identifies with the colour yellow, which stems from her belief that yellow has the capacity to represent a range of emotions, from great happiness to deep sadness and fear. This belief grew from her fondness, as a teenager, for nineteenth-century European paintings, such as Odilon Redon’s Yellow Tree (1901), František Kupka’s The Yellow Scale (1907) and Paul Gauguin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892).

In Sunset in a Blackhole, Ussher’s use of colour is philosophical, scientific and political.  She builds upon Alber’s explorations into colour’s governance by an internal and deceptive logic. This illusory sublimate quality of colour is seen most clearly in Alber’s ‘colour square’ paintings, which Ussher uses to create her colour palettes. She explains:

I thought if I focussed on the perception of women, and the logic these perceptions are based upon, I could show how illusionary they are. I could take them back and reposition them in the world, building a ‘female gaze’ and ‘female language’ for colour, like Judy Chicago or Miriam Shapiro did to expand the perception and logic of women in art. To do this I had to start with myself.[2]

In this and subsequent works, Ussher takes the (male) Bauhaus modernist, formalist theory of colour, as if it were a black hole, and embeds her own discourse of feminism, which disperses across its surface.

This black hole painting and others are title pages, or ‘dust jackets’, for each of Ussher’s exhibitions, acting like an eye peering out from inside each new body of work. This work was the eye for the series Two Eyeballs on the Run – Looking for a New Head to House. The black hole paintings are emblematic of the experimentation and meaning contained in each exhibition. They are made in parallel to a new body of work, accumulating meaning that is reflected in the same way a black hole is, comprised of the meaning absorbed and dispersed by its internal gravitational pull.

Emily Cormack is a curator and writer. Currently Cormack is Artistic Director of The Melbourne Art Fair, and recent curatorial projects include From Will to Form: The 2018 Tarrawarra Biennial and Primavera:2016, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. She is currently completing her PhD at Monash University.


[1] See Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, Basil Blackwell, Oxford and New York, 1989, p.49.

[2] Michelle Ussher, in correspondence with the author, 19 October 2018.