Mary MacQueen

18 February - 13 March 2010

Read Exhibition Essay

MARY MACQUEEN

She studied, briefly, at Swinburne, then with William Dargie, and later with George Bell - arguably the most influential teacher in Australia in the mid 20th century. His method, grounded on formal principles, was alien to her central direction which, she soon discovered, was towards spontaneity and the expressive mark. This also accounts for her medium: pencil predominates (easily, at least in numbers; landscapes, animals and domesticity) with watercolour and charcoal following - aside from an extensive body of lithographs.

She lived, to outward appearances, a quiet life in one of Melbourne's more comfortable suburbs. Married in 1930, at eighteen, to an accountant markedly older than herself, her life centred around her family. East Kew is not Bohemia, and it was a life where church on Sundays took precedence over parties on Saturdays. She had four children who, as happens, absorbed much of her time, so it is no coincidence that the bulk of her work dates from her later years. It also accounts for two decades of tension between the competing demands of art and family: she describes herself as, at the time, “difficult to live with” and “[longing] for solitude and time away” 1 ; and, in general, as “a loner” 1 and how “my nervousness with people was a handicap”2. By 1971, she was finally alone in the house and a new life emerged. “I was fifty-nine and free” 1

Her subject matter remained focused from the outset: beginning, in the late 1940s, with inner suburban streets and parks, she quickly gravitated to the coast and the country - the Western District with its undulating hills, the Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island, with their beaches, boats and harbours. Then, as ever, there was a practical issue: she did not drive, so relied on public transport, or friends; either way, she had to travel light, so a sketchbook and her “favourite 4B” 2 were both minimal and sufficient. From 1971 she starts to travel - visiting Queensland, drawing the Glasshouse Mountains; Sydney, where the yachts on the harbour are the source of some her most spectacular watercolours; Perth, with more yachts on the Swan River and the awe inspiring emptiness of the Nullabor; England, to visit her son in Norfolk, with its peaceful cows that appear in both prints and drawings; North America, from San Francisco to Calgary; and Kenya, to see the wildlife and draw the elegant grazing animals, and their equally elegant feline predators.

These Mary MacQueen had known for years. She spent hours at the Melbourne Zoo and tirelessly sketched its inhabitants - as she did in London, Singapore and Sydney. Sketchbooks were filled with acutely sensitive drawings of lions, giraffes, monkeys and birds - there are domestic animals also, cats and dogs, chooks and cows - all in a relentless search for the perfect line. The spontaneity she practiced had its downside: the failure rate was high with many (often good) drawings crossed out. And their seeming effortless is misleading: “ … drawing perhaps for two hours at the zoo but producing nothing of consequence. Suddenly there is the feeling that line takes over, then maybe I have a good drawing, sometimes even several”. 1 But overall, they succeed. She repeatedly captures their underlying but essential quality: not just the cat, but its suppleness; the watchful tranquility of gorillas; the perkiness of bantams; the spindliness of giraffes; the energy of gazelles.

Whilst still being part of the Western tradition which extols a deep respect for nature, there is also an east wind blowing through her work. Her eagles and pigeons are as far away from John Gould as it's possible to get, so from this angle, her work relates more easily to the oriental tradition with its effort to extract a visual (quasi Platonic) essence. Such systems are reductive and achieve their ends not by recording each and every detail but by stripping off all the unessential. Alternatively, they don't depict, they evoke. What's drawn is not what we see but it is (paradoxically) what's there, what's real. Similarly with her landscapes: the British watercolour tradition (I'm thinking Cozens) valued speed and spontaneity rather than depictive precision; here again she seeks an essential quality - the windiness of the harbour; the emptiness of the desert.

In the 1980s she took to collage. These were usually made from hand made papers (mostly Nepalese) often acquired on her travels – “… beautiful, extremely organic, grainy stuff”. 1 They are an exception in her oeuvre since they are clearly not spontaneous, they were about carefully ordered forms and placement. At one level they require just the sort of approach she had rejected at George Bell's. However in this case their origin can be tentatively found in two, quite disparate sources. Visiting Norfolk, she had been fascinated by the way the cows placed themselves across the fields: a subtle order seemed to emanate from an apparent randomness. Then there's Antoni Tapies, whose work she admired, and whose collages also exploit a paradox. We know he thinks long and deep about what goes where, but it often looks as though the collaged elements found their own way to their final place - as if by themselves. Mary MacQueen's collages sometimes maintain a figurative base and thus require a more formal presentation, and at other times are more loosely articulated and hence less structured. Yet either way she seems to bridge that gap between the randomness of spontaneity and an unanalysable sense of necessity.

To finish - two outside opinions. First, Alan McCulloch, whose critical eye for drawing was hard to please: "Her open line drawings of birds and animals spontaneously observed and recorded have won her a place in this genre second to none in contemporary Australian drawing". 3 And Mike Brown (whose pornography-based collages she had seen in 1986 – “I don’t like his subject matter” she sniffed, “but … he’s a marvelous collagist”) briskly homing in on the forthrightness of her work, its utter lack of fuss or dither: "The good thing about Mary is… she just does it”.




1 Patricia Grimshaw and Lynne Strachan, eds. The Half-Open Door, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1982, pp 84, 85, 86, 90.

2 Mary Holyoake, foreword, The Drawings of Mary MacQueen, Pioneer Design Studio, Melbourne, 1986 (unpaginated)

3 Alan McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art, all editions post 1984.

artwork (Self portrait) 28.1.78 by MACQUEEN, Mary

1.  Mary MacQueen
(Self portrait) 28.1.78 1978
Pencil on paper
Initialled & dated l.r.
24 x 24  cm

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artwork (Parrots)  by MACQUEEN, Mary

2.  Mary MacQueen
(Parrots) 1970s
Pencil and watercolour
Estate stamp l.r
31 x 24  cm

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artwork Chilean Eagle, Regents Park by MACQUEEN, Mary

3.  Mary MacQueen
Chilean Eagle, Regents Park 1971
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r., titled verso
29 x 20.5  cm

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artwork Rhino by MACQUEEN, Mary

4.  Mary MacQueen
Rhino 1970s
Pencil on paper
Titled l.l., Estate stamp l.r.
23 x 31  cm

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artwork Northern Lynx by MACQUEEN, Mary

5.  Mary MacQueen
Northern Lynx 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r., and titled l.l.
24 x 31  cm

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artwork Cheetah by MACQUEEN, Mary

6.  Mary MacQueen
Cheetah 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r., titled l.c.
35.5 x 26  cm

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artwork Gorilla by MACQUEEN, Mary

7.  Mary MacQueen
Gorilla 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp and titled l.r.
26 x 26  cm

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artwork (Reindeer) by MACQUEEN, Mary

8.  Mary MacQueen
(Reindeer) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
36 x 26  cm

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artwork (Giraffe) by MACQUEEN, Mary

9.  Mary MacQueen
(Giraffe) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
37 x 24.5  cm

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artwork (Sleeping Cat) by MACQUEEN, Mary

10.  Mary MacQueen
(Sleeping Cat) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
26 x 36  cm

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artwork (Crane) by MACQUEEN, Mary

11.  Mary MacQueen
(Crane) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
36.5 x 26  cm

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artwork Mountain Mists by MACQUEEN, Mary

12.  Mary MacQueen
Mountain Mists 1989
Watercolour and pencil on paper
Signed and dated l.r., titled l.c.
40 x 54  cm

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artwork Pants and polythene bags at 61 Owen St. by MACQUEEN, Mary

13.  Mary MacQueen
Pants and polythene bags at 61 Owen St. c.1980
Pencil on paper
Titled and initialled l.l.
35.5 x 25  cm

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artwork (Circus) by MACQUEEN, Mary

14.  Mary MacQueen
(Circus) 1960s
Ink on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
26 x 36.5  cm

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artwork Geelong by MACQUEEN, Mary

15.  Mary MacQueen
Geelong 28 Aug 1966
Pencil on paper
Titled, dated and Estate stamp l.r.
26 x 36.5  cm

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artwork Sorrento by MACQUEEN, Mary

16.  Mary MacQueen
Sorrento 1970s
Pastel on Arches paper
Titled and Estate stamp l.r.
32 x 45.5  cm

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artwork Sunrise, Central Australia by MACQUEEN, Mary

17.  Mary MacQueen
Sunrise, Central Australia 22.8.84
Pastel on paper
Dated, titled and initialled l.r.
26 x 38  cm

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artwork (Boatsheds on the Yarra) by MACQUEEN, Mary

18.  Mary MacQueen
(Boatsheds on the Yarra) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
26.3 x 36.5  cm

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artwork (Estuary with boats) by MACQUEEN, Mary

19.  Mary MacQueen
(Estuary with boats) 1960s
Pastel on paper
Estate stamp l.r.
31 x 43.5  cm

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artwork Pattern in Sand Dunes by MACQUEEN, Mary

20.  Mary MacQueen
Pattern in Sand Dunes 1951
Gouache on paper on board
Signed and dated l.l., titled verso
31 x 40  cm

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artwork (Secretary Birds) by MACQUEEN, Mary

21.  Mary MacQueen
(Secretary Birds) 1970s
Watercolour with crayon
Estate stamp l.r.
50 x 60  cm

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artwork The Pinnacles by MACQUEEN, Mary

22.  Mary MacQueen
The Pinnacles 1986
Gouache and collage on Nepalese papers
Unsigned
61 x 103.5  cm

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artwork (Tiger) by MACQUEEN, Mary

23.  Mary MacQueen
(Tiger) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Signed l.r.
34 x 24  cm

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artwork Harbour I by MACQUEEN, Mary

24.  Mary MacQueen
Harbour I 1970
Watercolour with pastel and pencil
Signed and dated l.r.
43 x 56.5  cm

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artwork Nullarbor by MACQUEEN, Mary

25.  Mary MacQueen
Nullarbor 1982
Pencil and pastel on paper
Signed, dated and titled l.r.
25 x 35  cm

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artwork Silky WHite Cock III by MACQUEEN, Mary

26.  Mary MacQueen
Silky WHite Cock III 1979
Pencil and crayon on paper
initialled M and dated 79 l.r
30 x 21.5  cm

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artwork (Sleeping Lioness) by MACQUEEN, Mary

27.  Mary MacQueen
(Sleeping Lioness) 1970s
Pencil on paper
Initialled l.r.
24.5 x 34  cm

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artwork Blackwood by MACQUEEN, Mary

28.  Mary MacQueen
Blackwood c.1970s
Pastel and watercolour
Titled and inscribed l.c. 'Possible litho'
45 x 55  cm

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artwork First Prize by MACQUEEN, Mary

29.  Mary MacQueen
First Prize 1986
Lithograph
Signed and dated l.r., numbered 55/60 l.l.
17.5 x 25.5  cm

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artwork Return from Mecca, Dacca, Airport by MACQUEEN, Mary

30.  Mary MacQueen
Return from Mecca, Dacca, Airport Janurary 1976
Ink and coloured pencil on paper
Signed and annotated u.c.
41 x 50.5  cm

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