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Norrie, Susan - 1995.52

Susan Norrie

Shudder (Pathology) 1994
oil on canvas
304.8 x 152.4 cm
Purchased 1995

Susan Norrie has been practising art for more than four decades. Since studying in Melbourne in the 1970s, she has explored many mediums, from painting to installation to photography and even film. Known for critiquing realities using surrealistic, wry and often dark motifs, Norrie has carved out a niche all of her own that has steadily progressed since her initial interest in painting.

Shudder (Pathology) is a large-scale painting – almost twice the size of an average human. On approach, it envelops you, almost seduces you, with its oil-slick on canvas. It is uncertain whether the patterns made themselves or whether the artist intends the micro-symbology evident within them. At points you see an eye, a flower petal, a man on a boat pulling in a fishing net. Or is this what you see? Is it just that the human eye seeks to understand and formulate meaning from these patterns?

The work was made at a time when both environmentalism (the abolition of nuclear testing, the signing of the Kyoto Protocol) and war (largely in the Persian Gulf) were concerns the world over. In Australian art, women dealing with these issues head-on; Norrie’s contemporaries – Julie Rrap, Rosemary Laing, Janine Burke, Bonita Ely, and Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley – had all been dealing not only with feminist issues but with these broader global concerns.

Shudder (Pathology) reclaims the medium of painting from the minimalists and the historically patriarchal art world. Not simply a comment on ornamentalism and femininity (and, therefore, feminism), the work evades classification. It is slippery. The motifs are barely evident, except when viewed close up, and the painting allows you to dream your own interpretation. It is not simply a work by a feminist artist; it is a work by an artist who is avoiding concrete meaning.

Norrie produced Shudder, the series from which this work comes, to investigate power relationships in art itself, as well as to acknowledge emotion within form. In Shudder (Pathology) this is evident in the uncertainty of what you are seeing – the slippery oil, the unwitting multiplicity of possible interpretations. It is also dark – dank almost – as though you are in a fever dream.You don’t know whether you are in a microcosm or macrocosm; it squeezes you in and pushes you out at the same time.

The series title is a homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura, set among desolate islands that evoke a sense of time passing, solitariness, isolation. In a scene between two main characters, Giulia and Goffredo, Guila asks: ‘What do you feel when you’re painting?’. Goffredo replies: ‘A shudder …’ Shudder (Pathology) speaks to the cacophony that exists in both the self and the outside world, allowing that chaos to intrigue rather than create fear. That may be its (feminist) achievement. It creates its own pathology, an achievement for which Norrie is celebrated.

Sarah Werkmeister is a freelance writer, curator and researcher based in Brisbane.