Sonia Payes was in her forties when she had her first solo exhibition, Body of Work in 2003 at the John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne, where she exhibited some strikingly dramatic Robert Mapplethorpe-inspired photographs of an Afro-American bodybuilder called Phil.
By 2014 she had reinvented herself several times over, and was exhibiting as a sculptor at the biennale McClelland Sculpture Survey & Awards. Here she was awarded the $30,000 McClelland Achievement Prize designed to enable mid-career artists to develop a new body of work that would be shown at a solo exhibition at McClelland. This is the exhibition that is now under review.
Sonia Payes is a strange and unconventional artist – obsessive, brooding and technically provocative – with a huge capacity to opt for an idea and taking it through to its logical, and at times, illogical, conclusion. When you are informed that the main subject in this exhibition is her adult daughter Ilana (born 1982), then possibly alarm bells will sound. However, the model is not fetishized, the mother and daughter link remains privileged information, rather than self-evident in the content of the show and a Freudian-minded viewer would leave with slim pickings.
The sculpture that so impressed the judges in the McClelland Sculpture Survey is an imposing five-metre high white fibreglass head shown as if sprouting like a mushroom from the ground, with a couple of smaller heads emerging from the surrounding bush clearing. Titled Re-Generation, the head is more accurately described as containing four faces, each morphed into the next and looking in different directions and each based on the features of Ilana. It is an imposing, perplexing and somewhat enigmatic installation, where the artist stated that the work was homage to her two daughters and their children who would populate the earth in the future. Indeed, that year, both of the artist’s daughters had babies and this autobiographic aspect appears credible.
Another source for this work was the idea of the four-faced god, such as the image of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, or the Slav deity Svetovid. Implicit in all of thesebelief systems is that the god faces in four directions and is the source of fertility and abundance. In 2012, Payes undertook a residency in China, in a rural area of Huairou on the outskirts of Beijing, where she was amazed by the scale of building and destruction, with mountains reduced to rubble to create the building materials for the multi-storey apartment blocks. Her China experience encouraged her to think on a monumental scale and to think globally. It also suggested to her that nothing was permanent and that the shape of time was fluid and that this in itself could become a subject or at least a metaphor for her art.
Payes’ exhibition is not a survey, but presents a cross-section of some of her thinking as an artist in the mediums of photography, computer animation, three-dimensional objects, projections and installations, all created between 2007 and 2016. Ilana’s face, in its numerous disguises and manipulations, is the leitmotif that runs throughout the exhibition. Ilana’s face, painted white, was morphed with a computer-generated avatar head and this becomes the prevailing icon image in the exhibition. It invades many of the series of photographs, still and kinetic images, as well as the sculptural constructions.
In this exhibition, Payes has shuffled off her earlier influences and apprenticeship and has established a clear and distinctive artistic voice, which is definably her own. She is in love with the dramatic flourish, what Andy Warhol termed the ‘wow factor’, and wants to stop the viewer in their tracks with startling visual effects. Frozen wastes, icy caves and endless sands that erase and reveal images, are all part of her artistic mode of operation. She is not afraid to adopt megalomania in her scale and one could argue that many of her projects can easily be scaled up to far greater proportions.
Much of the work is intense, loud and dramatic, but there also seems to be a quiet choking sob behind some of the pieces – a contemplative melancholy that borders on fear and uncertainty about the bold new world that she is articulating.
One of the most arresting series of images in the exhibition is Minerva, which is shown in alternatively in gold, silver or copper. The photographs are printed on metallic paper, where the young woman stares out at the beholder, while the face appears to be smudged by the moving sands of time or glacial ice and quivers in the light. She is dominant and omnipresent but, at the same time, a slightly ambiguous presence that seems to hover in space. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom was equated with the Greek goddess Athena and possessed not only wisdom, but knowledge and prophecy, at times warning people of impending doom. Payes with her Minerva is inviting us into a realm of silence, where we can hear an angel weep or glimpse the flight of the owl of Minerva at dusk, heralding an imminent disaster.
Although the art of Sonia Payes may be interpreted as a celebration of regeneration and the coming of the new to replace the old, there is also an underlying note of alarm and uncertainty over whether the forces being unleashed on our fragile physical and spiritual environment will in fact usher in a stable new world with a stable new order. Her art is as much an affirmation of change as a plea for us not to be seduced by the illusion of progress and to preserve our environment before it is completely lost.
Sonia Payes: Parallel Futures
McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery
390 McClelland Drive, Langwarrin, Victoria
July 3 – November 6