Melissa Anderson Scott
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Review: A journey into the blue

Blue: The colour of constancy; of sorrow or anguish; of plagues and things hurtful.

Melissa Anderson Scott moved from her hometown, Chicago, USA to Auckland, New Zealand in 1975, a journey into the blue. A journey taken, as it turns out, at the same time as the three Pacific Island women in these paintings who came from Tonga and Nuie. Searching for something better, perhaps something happier or maybe just a different kind of blue, they moved across the ocean, just as Melissa’s ancestors had in the 19th century, emigrating to the United States from Sweden, Ireland and England.

Melissa herself continues the quest with paint, worrying at the big questions. In ‘A Different Kind of Blue’ the works are larger, less playful than previous shows, but still she reworks the familiar motifs: the lure, the thread, things that join; the gloves, the adornments, the wrappings, things that conceal; but mainly the faces. As though Longfellow’s dictum ‘things are not what they seem’ permeates her existence, and as though if she just paints, something will reveal itself. Australian author Tim Winton says, ‘I don’t write a book to tell the reader what I think, I write to find out what I think.’ Melissa echoes, ‘I paint to make sense of the world. The world is a mystery to me. While I paint I am feeling my way through a bewildering world.’

The search requires a sharp eye. An outsider’s recognition of similarities disguised as differences, and vice versa. The threads in these paintings are indeed ‘not what they seem’ but different kinds of threads, not woven, a distinctly colonial kind of cloth, a new fabric for a new world; a cloth with the same function but different construction. One of a raft of ambiguities tossed up by the meeting of old and new worlds, a fertile terrain for search, and Melissa’s stamping ground. The women in these paintings, who work at St Joseph’s Mercy Hospice, swap their old threads for blue uniforms. The threads remain as tapa, tying them to their background. In the end though the threads are, like all fabric, nothing more than ‘code cracking’ trappings, frail connections.

It’s the faces that concentrate Melissa’s search, concealing the past, known or unknown, and it’s the faces that illuminate these paintings and entice us. ‘We can walk past a landscape and not see it. I see myself and you see an echo of yourself whenever you look at a portrait. That’s why painting faces is so important to me. With abstract painting, the viewer can choose to engage or disengage with the work. But with a portrait we are immediately drawn in, even against our will.’ It’s not a likeness Melissa is after. She’s trying to slip inside the mask of the face, insinuate herself under the carapace, stroke upon stroke, layering up the paint, blowing a portrait up, or cutting it down, out of proportion, compelling us to look.

‘It’s a search for the unknowable, a search through the paint and through the face for the mystery that is another person. Feeling the skin, the bones, placing the stroke to describe the muscle, driving inside the face while trying to feel your way out. It’s a fast, active engagement with the brush, the paint, the face, the person. It’s bold, like diving into cold water.’

As she paints, Melissa looks for the unexpected. She’s watchful, waiting to find what will slip out of the blue into the painting. But there is a risk in such bold behaviour, in ‘lifting the veil,’ and delving beneath ‘the colour idly spread’. The unknown may be a chasm, as Shelley claims. It may be nothing or it may conceal monsters. And what if the carapace is all there is? What if the unexpected is a “blankness that makes its way inwards as well as outward.’ (Colm Toibin on that master of subtle character revelation, Henry James.) It’s a risky business, this searching, but she persists.

And she finds another kind of blue: the haze of loss and grief behind which elusive memory hides. Whether or not there’s a vacuum at the heart of the search Melissa finds memory lining the passage.

Penny Hansen
November 2004: A Journey Into the Blue
Scan of original review: A journey into the blue (324kb)