You could say that graffiti and pastel art are uncommon bedfellows. Graffiti is the domain of underground counter culture, its anonymous authors often operating outside of the law as they to scrawl their unintelligible language through public and private spaces. In contrast pastels, which have been used by fine artists since the Renaissance, have much more genteel connotations. This is derived partly from their popularity in 18th century French portraiture, the province of ‘high’ social classes. So a marriage between these forms of creative expression is an unexpected but successful union in the work of Amber-rose Hulme.

In this new exhibition, Hulme takes to the laneways of Melbourne for source material. Once deplored, graffiti and street art have become synonymous with Melbourne’s laneways, and celebrated as a unique cultural byproduct of the city.  While in this context graffiti may have lost some of its illicit nature, it has reached new levels of visual sophistication and design. And the qualities that have always drawn Hulme to it remain unchanged. Namely, the evolving nature of a graffiti ‘gallery’ or wall mural where constant additions and deletions are built up in layers as different practitioners make their unique contributions.

In some ways a graffiti mural represents a conversation between artists across space and time. Such tableaus speak of individualism, and the human urge to quite literally leave our mark on the world. The culmination of different voices result in a work that is outside of the control of any of the many hands involved – taking on a life and character of its own.

Hulme’s choice of the dry pigmented medium of pastel is well suited to capture the surface qualities of the brick walls and eroded textures she describes. As pastels are made from pure pigments they effectively represent the vivid colour of the aerosol paints used in graffiti. There is less chance of muddying the colours as can occur with wet oil or acrylic paints, and pastels allow the artist greater control when describing the intricacies of surface and mark, which in this exhibition take a leading role.

Hulme has created a series of works that centre on close-up views of sections of wall, isolated from the context of a larger mural. In these works that appear semi-abstracted, the artist emphasises the patina of grit and decay that has gradually built up. Layers of paper paste-ups peel off in chucks, their frayed edges intricately defined through the artist’s precise technique. Bold, colourful interruptions of recent graffiti on these frayed and faded surfaces set up a sense of temporal awareness, where past and present cohabitate and inform the reading of each other.

Other drawings feature entire laneway scenes such as her major work Backdrop. Here Hulme contrasts sections of brightly coloured graffiti with monochrome areas to amplify the volume of the coloured graff. This strategy of heightening the visual intensity of certain sections through colour is employed throughout the artist’s work. Whereas without the distraction of colour in the monochrome areas, focus is brought to the qualities of line and tone that Hulme skillfully uses to render the scene.

Overall Hulmes’ work speaks in a language of contrasts. Colour and monochrome, past and present, up close and stepped back, urban grunge and fine art – all are combined in the picture plane and brought to a point of balance. In doing so she draws harmony from dissonance, and finds an order present within chaos.

Exhibition essay by Marguerite Brown, MAArtCur 2019