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Review: The quality of mercy in close up

Visual Art: Melissa Anderson Scott’s latest series of portraits is of hospice workers and painted on a monumental scale, writes Gail Bailey

Painting the face is something artist Melissa Anderson Scott never tires of. And those who are a part of Scott’s world often find they are her subjects – like people who come to her place for dinner, whom she later turned into a show called The Dinner Party Series (1997).

This time, it is the women who work at St Joseph’s Mercy Hospice in living colour display at Oedipus Rex – a fact that makes Ingi, Eleanoa and Mele, originally from Tonga and Niue, chuckle.

For the past four years, Scott has been working with an arts therapist at the hospice to give patients a chance to express themselves through art.

As a result of her relationship with the women at St Joseph’s – Scott says they are “comfortable with things that would make most people uncomfortable” – an idea for A Different Kind of Blue emerged.

Scott took a series of photographs of the women and the 18-month process began.

“They are all kind of self-portraits. Some of the different moods come from me, about my thoughts about people leaving a small community and making the best with what life gives them.”

The portraits – a multifaceted array of colour, texture, light and shadow and emotion – are blown out of proportion, where the face becomes akin to a beautiful rock formation.

The gigantic scale of some of the portraits is highlighted even more through Scott’s use of cropping, as if indicating there is a danger of the portrait spilling out of the frame.

Scott’s attraction to painting faces is clearly evident in the close attention to colour. There are layers of dusty brown, warm oranges, pale yellows – even purple and blue illuminate these paintings, drawing in the viewer, close enough to spot a small dash of red, for instance, on a cheekbone.

Painting skin, an exercise close to the miraculous, says Scott, is something that had her return to the Dutch and Flemish masters. “How did they get that skin?”

In an attempt to answer her question, Scott incorporated old painting techniques to create transparent glazes, and used grisaille underpainting.

Although the size of these paintings makes you want to step away to consider them fully, there is also a strong compulsion to step into the painting, for instance, to stroke a cheek.

This would be all right with Scott, since she goes through a similar process when painting. “If you just paint your perception of a surface, it is boring. When you are painting a face, you go inside, you carve the person out.

“I had to work from the inside out with each of the portraits. You want there to be a lot going on in a face.”

Scott acknowledges her portraits are not necessarily totally about the subject, but a reflection of her interpretation of the person.

In line with her philosophy that painting is a shared experience, the portrait entitled Rose is a combination of all three women, a reflection, she says, of “their inner vibrancy”.

An attempt to ground the women in their world is reflected in Scott’s use of tapa cloth in the background of some of the portraits.

And the gloves which appear are not only symbols of hospice work but have been a recurring theme in Scott’s paintings.

Gloves play on her fascination of what it means to slip in and out of a role, as well as a common symbol of her Catholic upbringing.

Thus A Different Kind of Blue works on many different levels. An interpretation of relationships, combined with experimentation with colour and technique, make it an engaging experience.

Gail Bailey
NZ Herald, Dec 1, 2004: The Quality of Mercy in Close Up
Scan of original review: The quality of mercy in close up (264kb)