Cover image of the review
Rosslynd Piggott, Ten Rimbauds Holding One Rimbaud, 1986, Port Phillip City Collection, Naarm/Melbourne, purchased through St Kilda Festival Acquisitive Exhibition, City of St Kilda, 1986.

Thin Skin

9 Sep 2023
Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) 20 Jul - 23 Sep 2023

What can we make of Thin Skin? Guest-curated by Jennifer Higgie, an Australian-English writer, editor, and painter, the group exhibition consists of paintings—mostly figurative—and aims to “explore the liminal space between figuration and abstraction.” To my mind, what Higgie describes as a “joyfully ambiguous” rationale diverges from the political didacticism that has often characterised the exhibition programme of the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) in recent years.

Contrary to MUMA’s house style—what art historian Rosalind Krauss describes as an eagerness to immediately identify meaning or the “rush to the signified”—this exhibition revels in a dreamlike style and indeterminate subject matter. It offers a personal view of its curator, born of conversation, feeling, chance, and experience. It differs from the critical research underpinning previous conceptually themed exhibitions at MUMA, which typically focus on artists known for their highbrow “critical clout” (Isa Genzken, Henrik Olesen, Gerard Byrne) rather than commercial palatability and popular accessibility (Tracey Emin, Tom Polo, Mitch Cairns). It is an exhibition that foregrounds how painting today, and even contemporary art at large, can still be a site of middlebrow “it reminds one of” Rorschach exercises. Situated within a curatorial programme aimed at critiquing the university from the inside, Thin Skin offers a chance to reconsider how we engage with contemporary art.

Installation view of Thin Skin, Monash University Museum of Art, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro

The exhibition itself comprises thirty-six paintings by thirty-six artists dispersed across the gallery’s walls. Eight are commissions, five are from the university’s collection, and others loaned from private collections and national institutions. Five are historical works, the oldest being Sidney Nolan’s Kelly at the Mine (1946–47), but the majority of the works date from the past two decades. There is no obvious pattern based on nationality, age, or gender among the selected artists. The paintings vary in size from chest-length pieces to those extending up to two metres.

Stylistically, the curated works seem to occupy the intersection between Surrealism and Expressionism—a fitting context for a Rorschach exercise, not least because our understanding of these movements continues to evolve. The paintings traverse a spectrum from organic abstraction to realism, often within the same work. But for the most part, this is an exhibition of figurative paintings. The subject matter tends to be surreal with figures inside otherworldly and ambiguous narratives that appeal to the irrational spirit of our interior lives. The selection of works is pleasing, affirmative, and even humorous, offering ample room for our imagination to roam as expressionistic brushstrokes transform into bodies and fields of colour become stages for narrative action. This attitude even extends to Higgie’s curation of Gordon Bennett’s Wound (1990). It shifts the tone of his work as a literal post-colonial wound of our blood-soaked nation into a Barnett Newman-esque zip implying something divine and life-affirming behind morbid appearances.

The connection between art, particularly painting, and the Rorschach inkblot is not a novel concept. For Krauss, Andy Warhol’s 1984 Rorschach paintings serve as a reminder that no form is so “innocent” that it escapes subjective projections. Painter Gerhard Richter echoes this sentiment, arguing that a line only gains interest if it evokes thought-provoking associations. This approach to viewing art—as a stage for the audience to project personal associations—is not limited to painting. Sculptor Isa Genzken exemplifies it by using the indeterminateness of forms to reintroduce content into Minimalism with her Ellipsoids series (1977–1982). She aimed for the viewer to project associations that once would have been considered out of place in the context of Minimalist art.

Over the past decade, Contemporary Art Writing Daily has extended this analysis, likening contemporary art to inkblots, tarot cards, or tea leaves. According to them, the essence of art today lies in creating a dynamic system for semi-random combinations of meaning. Artists thereby become engineers of machines designed for endless interpretation, as so evident in this exhibition.

Installation view of Thin Skin, Monash University Museum of Art, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro

This desire for art audiences to be presented with ambiguous subject matter and an “unfinished” style functions as an illusionistic space for the viewer to project meaning. As Thin Skin suggests, this is symptomatic of the supposed “freedom” underlying the realisation of abstract painting in the early decades of the 1900s. In some ways, it is what makes art a social medium today, a means of conversation, enabling a shared experience that can overcome the echo chamber of our interiority. This is especially relevant for Higgie here, whose most recent book recounts the ur-event of her discovery of abstraction’s associational possibilities through her painting:

however hard I tried to embrace the transcendent intentions of (Wassily Kandinsky’s) Composition V objects came crashing in: amid its cyclonic composition, I saw red-tipped paintbrushes and frothing clouds, a white horse and smudges of flowers; the profiles of thin men, a dust storm, a vicious wound, a blue satin hat. I couldn’t imagine looking at something and not seeing something else.

The press release and Higgie’s essay further emphasise this Rorschach test–like quality of art: the act of looking at one thing and seeing something entirely different. Her catalogue essay presents sixty-four interpretations of the term “thin skin,” arranged in a format reminiscent of Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. This arrangement utilises poetic words with infinite meanings surrounded by ample negative space, so we can freely impose our projections upon the page.

For Higgie, the term “thin skin” extends beyond mere representations of skin. While it can describe the body’s largest organ or even paint skeins, it serves rather as a floating signifier that alludes to a spectrum of experiences and states. This is evident in various works showcased in the exhibition. For instance, Brent Harris’s The Fall (2015–16) portrays comic characters on a stage reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, while Tala Madani’s Lights in the Living Room (2017) features a couple facing off on a couch. These works explore heightened emotional states and awareness. Similarly, John Spiteri’s Dis-solution (2006) and Vivienne Shark LeWitt’s A Penny For Your Thoughts (2017) (with the figure’s worried expression rendered in a few passes of her brush) delve into the “membrane” that separates body and mind. The tension between past and present also show up in Helen Maudsley’s psychosexual reconfiguration of Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait and Sidney Nolan’s depiction of a shifty-eyed Ned Kelly. Or there is the line between the mundane and the mystical in Peter Graham’s stained-glass memory piece, where figures communicate through movement.


Grab a copy of Memo’s first glossy annual magazine issue, featuring an extended artist focus on Archie Moore, the 2024 Venice Biennale Australian Representative, with essays by Rex Butler, Tara Heffernan, Tristen Harwood, and Hilary Thurlow.

Issue 1 features articles by Audrey Schmidt, Philip Brophy, Helen Hughes, The Manhattan Art Review’s Sean Tatol, Cameron Hurst, Chelsea Hopper, among your favourite regular Memo contributors. There are reviews and articles, including on Melbourne design art, French literature’s ageing enfant terrible, Michel Houellebecq, Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), the celebrated Spike magazine cultural critic, Dean Kissick, the local cult-favourite Jas H. Duke, and much, much more.

Memo Magazine, 256 pages, 16 x 25 cm

Michelle Ussher’s Sunset in a Black Hole—Lightbulb in a Plughole (2012) repeats Higgie’s event of the association. The work is a medium-sized, portrait-oriented canvas painted in cadmium yellow, of radially clustered biomorphic shapes. The opaque outer edges direct the viewer’s focus to the central void. Here, the challenge is to discern recognisable subjects from these coloured shapes. Do we see a sunset in a black hole or a lightbulb in a plughole? All I see is a figure in a kimono reading.

Michelle Ussher, Sunset in a Blackhole—Lightbulb in a Plughole, 2012, Monash University Collection, Naarm/Melbourne, purchased 2014.

Jelena Telecki’s Mirroring (2019) operates similarly, transforming figurative Surrealism into a narrative platform for Rorschach-like projections. The painting features a large-scale depiction of a mime dressed in red who encounters their double, over a ground of grey and pink, with a green outer edge. The mime’s clothing, gloves and shoes are painted descriptively, while its body is in profile and its head tilted toward the mirrored self. The double’s realistically rendered face is contrasted with a body that exists as a mere grey contour line that converges beneath the figure’s right white shoe, much like a rope. The gloved hand of the mime reaches out to touch the invisible mirror.

Jelena Telecki, Mirroring, 2019, Burley Family private collection, Eora Country, in Sydney.

I project this face-and-mask dichotomy, this uncanny experience of confronting one’s reflection in the mirror. I hate living with mirrors, facing myself, eternally disassociating, getting fatter or thinner—wondering if it is me. This isn’t how I feel inside. Why can’t people see how I truly feel? After all these years of making art, learning about its history has merely taught me the failure of appearances. I rushed to check my projective pareidolia against the artist’s intention as described in the catalogue essay. I got it “right”! Telecki intended to illustrate the anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s concept of Personne (the mirror) and Moi (the true self). I wonder though if the rush to the signified and the Rorschach are two sides of the same coin, two paths that lead to the same place. The art that stays with me always alludes to any sort of meaning, as the thing seems to instantly negate any words enunciated. Isn’t that where the difficult pleasure of art lies?

Higgie’s sole focus on painting warrants further attention. She adheres to a conventional notion of medium specificity. There is no painting in the expanded field. None of the painting-as-collage that Melbourne is particularly fond of, as seen in ACCA’s Painting More Painting in 2016 and MUMA’s fantastic Vivienne Binns survey last year. It is this focused approach that might be one of the benefits of having an outsider curate an exhibition here. With one exception—Lisa Brice’s shimmering Parting at Dusk (2018) in framed gouache on draft film—every piece conforms to the centuries-old economy of painting: the transportable rectangular format, flat, paint or pigment and pencil marks on the material—canvas, fabric, linen—over a stretcher, sometimes painted on the primed wood, or the canvas mounted over a board.

Installation view of Thin Skin, Monash University Museum of Art, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro

Working within this economy lends itself to a mindset— the epitaph of being “dumb as a painter”—and a belief that experience is not instantaneous but rather durational. Oil paint for one takes weeks or sometimes months to dry. This material property means that many studio sessions over time indexed onto a single surface, as is evident in the two sole examples of canvas collage. The first is in the top left-hand side of the Rose Wylie in its feral, active surface of women smoking on a beach of unprimed canvas, as if folding time from one painting session upon another through the patching of a supposed “error.” Tamara Henderson’s Trataka (2023) depicts a druggy graffiti plant with eyes against a sunset gradient and framed with stapled encaustic canvas in long rectangles. Her studio sessions are thus memorialised in hardened pigment in wax through deploying this technique found in paintings from Greco-Roman antiquity.

It is evident as well that Higgie is a painter herself. There is a material sensitivity across the show. Selected works can be consumed with ease and speed, lending themselves to today’s restless viewer. There is little of the difficult pleasure that comes often with the best painting. There is no sense of the slow materialisation of building a surface out of countless touches over time. We see little of the arduous fight to make and finish a painting. For the most part, the paint handling here is flawless, assured, and confident. There is little evidence of mistakes. No hesitation. No tactility. Little underpainting peeks at the edges of the support. Signs of seriality are everywhere. In the Jenny Watson, the Tom Kreisler, the Tala Madani. They appear composed in a single session. This on-to-the-next-one process means that “failures” get thrown out and we are only shown the paintings deemed most “artful.” Where is the attitude that rejects seriality courts failure and vulgarity?

Installation view of Thin Skin, Monash University Museum of Art, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro

Art historian Isabelle Graw argues that brush marks and mistakes evoke the production process of a painting, indexing its author, enabling the viewer to project a “vitalism” onto the painting’s surface. The best paintings in the exhibition do this, making the Rorschach operate on both levels of image and treatment of paint and surface: Wylie’s revolting drips, spatters, and loose threads; Karen Black’s handiness addled with abject paint blobs and Rosslynd Piggott’s triumphant Ten Rimbauds Holding One Rimbaud (1986) in its tough surface that shows us what it is to feel the making of a painting, how an artist materialises their perception through layers of paint. These are the sole works that warrant time spent and have a lot to give to those willing.

Installation view of Thin Skin, Monash University Museum of Art, Naarm/Melbourne, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro

In a landscape where contemporary art is mired in pedagogical verbosity, Higgie places her faith in the paintings themselves. She refuses the reductive wall texts found at today’s contemporary art galleries. In Thin Skin, we are instead invited to meander through MUMA’s spaces with open-ended freedom, not a guided tour but a contemplative solitary walk. But in presenting such a “joyfully ambiguous” exhibition within an academic context, does the act of viewing art together through our own personal Rorschach test not become reduced to a group therapy session—stimulating but ultimately devoid of transformative resonance, an elegant void, a beautifully curated emptiness? Shorn of all guiding narratives, art also risks reducing itself to a mere echo chamber of our own projections. This is the price of our freedom: we are left yearning for the weight of context, the gravitas of the artist’s hand, the tactile richness of the medium.

Artists: Sidney Nolan, Tracey Emin, Tom Polo, Mitch Cairns, Isa Genzken, Henrik Olesen, Gerard Byrne, Gordon Bennett, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Wassily Kandinsky, Brent Harris, Tala Madani, John Spiteri, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, Helen Maudsley, Jan Van Eyck, Peter Graham, Tom Kreisler, Rose Wylie, Michelle Ussher, Jelena Telecki, Lisa Brice, Tamara Henderson, Jenny Watson, Karen Black, Rosslynd Piggott