THE WATERCOLOUR NEWS
Sydney-based painter Margaret Ackland describes her new body of work as ‘accidental history’. Departing from her traditional oils, The Watercolour News is an iterative series of hundreds of watercolours, mostly A5 and smaller. The turn to watercolour, she says, came as a result of a deadline prohibitive of the time an oil painting needs to dry. It turned out to be a productive constraint, setting the artist off on a more than year-long creative obsession.
It begins at 6am every day with Ackland at a large dining room table in her wide-fronted terrace, reading the newspaper. The project began around the time Fairfax cut their photographic staff, a trend Ackland – like many – finds disturbing. She began to paint from the journalistic images in the newspapers in front of her – one piece of card per day. There is no rigid system to her choice of subjects; rather she responds to the particular topics presented to her. Some days its news, some social snaps, and some sports – bodies in motion have long been fodder for artists. The often unintentional juxtapositions that occur in news media ultimately become Ackland’s subject, informed by her abiding interest in politics on both a local and global scale.
It’s something of a performance, Ackland muses. She likens her daily process to word association – the free flow of ideas and intuitive selection and assemblage of her material. The Watercolour News is undoubtedly an archive, but it is inflected with Ackland’s life. The images painted from newspapers are interwoven with more personal and serendipitous encounters – people who’ve caught Ackland’s eye on the streets of Redfern; her mother and grandchild; workmen and the seemingly constant construction that pervades inner city Sydney. These images and moments make up the tapestry of a life, with no two people ever likely to compile the same litany of images.
This archival impulse is nothing new for Ackland, who has been exploring the trace and relic of human experience for more than 20 years. Whether through landscape, watercolour or her acclaimed series of painstakingly rendered images of historical garments, her practice has been one of unearthing and assembling these patchy, intimate and ephemeral histories. The largely monochromatic watercolours that compose The Watercolour News are but one history among many. They represent Ackland’s own movement through the world, inevitably a hash of the global and public events of the news and the comings and goings of her daily life, the inseparable blend of macro and micro narratives that compose our experience.
One large frame of some 30 smaller works catches my eye across the dining table. It contains Ackland’s output from April 2014. The faces of Peter Greste and Gillian Triggs look out into the distance. Images of the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram mingle with those of ANZAC Day in Australia. The search for missing Malaysian airlines flight 370 pervades the series. Among these are images of Ackland’s mother and granddaughter and the faces of her neighbourhood. The renderings are deft and lively, full of movement and faces caught in action. As an archive it is very touching; the record of a complex and often frightening world couched in the intimacies of a life lived within and sometimes in spite of this world.
Essay by Kate Britton, 2015