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Marion Borgelt’s Universal Nature

By John McDonald

Marion Borgelt’s survey exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra in May 2010 was a timely recognition of the consistency of the artist’s work over the past 15 years. This has been a boom time for Borgelt, who has branched out into large-scale public art projects, installations and many forms of three-dimensional work. In the earlier part of her career Borgelt was known as an abstract painter working in a vigorous, gestural manner. Her recent works are largely optical and geometrical abstractions, but there is still the same strong personality, the same propensity for motifs to virtually leap off the wall.

Borgelt was born in 1954 in the Victorian country town of Nhill, near the South Australian border. She studied in Adelaide at the South Australian School of Art, where she was identified as one of the most promising artists of her year, being awarded the Harry P Gill Memorial Medal in 1976. Within two years she was showing with Bonython Gallery in Adelaide, and by 1982 with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney.

Borgelt left SASA with a travelling scholarship that enabled her to enrol at the New York Studio School in 1978. She would stay on in New York undertaking postgraduate studies until 1980. When she returned to Australia it was as a sophisticated and confident painter. In 1982 her work would be included in the 4th Biennale of Sydney Vision in Disbelief and in 1985 in the Australian Perspecta. The following year she represented Australia at the 6th Indian Triennale along with Jenny Watson.

Borgelt’s paintings of the 1980s, such as Athenian Netherworld and The Night Eye, were often compared to skin cells or webs. Their organic, biomorphic overtones suggested a relationship with the natural world, but her forms remained ambiguous. There were suggestions of landscape, and a ragged touch that revealed the influence of Cézanne, but it was as though she had delved beneath the surface of appearances to expose an underlying structure. These were complex paintings that sent the eye on a slow journey around the canvas, weaving in and out of roughly defined planes, or brushing across rippling, shell-like surfaces.

In 1989, after being awarded a French Government Art Fellowship, Borgelt relocated to Paris, where she would remain until 1998. Over these years her paintings became much simpler, concentrating on ellipses, spirals and similar motifs. On one hand these pictures were reminiscent of the central core imagery of 1970s feminist art. On the other they owed a debt to the Italian modernist Lucio Fontana, known for emphasising the physical nature of the canvas itself by means of slits and holes.

Yet Borgelt’s paintings were much more sensual – dare I say, more feminine – than Fontana’s. In their use of a highly restrained palette of little more than red, black and shades of grey, they presented images that might be encountered far out in space, or through the lens of an electron microscope. Such ambiguities had become Borgelt’s stock in trade.

Although her paintings were rigorously abstract, they related to a limitless range of physical and organic phenomena. The triptych Bloodlight Series: Gesture I, II, III of 1995 maybe taken as representative of her interest in conflating the macrocosm and the microcosm. Other works such as Quadrant Lore (1996), or Anima/Animus: Splitting into One No. III (1994), are more rigidly geometrical but animated by an inner light that emanates, Rothko-like, from the depths of the picture.

Over these years Borgelt continued to exhibit with the Christine Abrahams Gallery in Melbourne and from 1994 with Sherman Galleries in Sydney. In 1996 she became the first Australian artist to receive a Pollock- Krasner Foundation Award.

Borgelt’s return to Australia at the end of the 1990s saw her work expand in many new directions. The Bottled Histories series (1998-2000) paired small paintings with decorated bottles and her Personae Suite: No. 1-17 (2000) went even further, arranging a set of large wooden pestles from Rajasthan in front of an eight-panel painting. The interiors and rim of each pestle had been coated with bright red beeswax, echoing the colours of the picture, in which red arabesques danced on a black background.

This willingness to go beyond the flat canvas had already appeared in some of Borgelt’s earlier works, but from the late 1990s she becomes as much a sculptor as a painter. The new works were designed with exacting precision, often requiring industrial fabrication processes. She also began to work on large-scale public art projects, the most ambitious being 55 Ring Maze (2000) on the Mornington Peninsula. In the following year came Pulse, a stainless steel wall piece for the Australian National University in Canberra. In 2005 she would create another maze for the Outback Museum in Hay in the form of an open stock pen, 60 metres in diameter. These gigantic pieces were usually made in collaboration with specialists who could assist Borgelt with the engineering requirements, but the designs were very similar to the motifs she was exploring in her paintings at that time.

Borgelt’s exhibitions of the early 2000s were unpredictable blends of painting, sculpture and installation. One of her most startling creations was Orchestre des Promeneurs (2002), an installation of 33 leather shoes transformed by oil paint, pigment and beeswax, arranged in a circle on Victorian-era shoe stands. There was no precedent for the whimsical nature of this work, which may have been a tongue-in-cheek comment on the fascination with design that had seen her work grow increasingly stylised. On a tiny label inside the shoes, one could read the artist’s name printed in a cursive script like a high-class fashion house.

From this point, Borgelt becomes preoccupied with light, creating paintings and installations that deceive the eye, apparently changing form as one walks past. Her Strobe series (2008-9) featured blurred horizontal lines of colour, with sudden hiccups that might be the beat of a human pulse or the movements of a seismograph. The Liquid Light paintings were made from carefully painted canvases that had been sliced into precise vertical strips, and gently twisted to produce the illusion of a visual pulsation for the viewer in motion. The most dynamic of the series was probably Liquid Light: Asian Sun Trilogy, which used her familiar palette of red, black and white in three interlinked ellipses that seem to throb with energy. An even larger variation, Liquid Light: 54 Degrees, allowed the elliptical shapes to double back on themselves in serpentine fashion, creating a complex array of ripple effects. This piece was shown in 2009 at Dominik Mersch Gallery, where Borgelt went following Sherman Galleries’ metamorphosis from a commercial dealership into an art foundation.

Mersch has had a good deal of recent success showing Borgelt both in Sydney and at international fairs. A large-scale version of one of the Liquid Light paintings may now be found in the hotel lobby of Macau’s City of Dreams. Her Strobe paintings feature in a major installation commissioned by Mirvac for 101 Miller Street, North Sydney

It is one of the qualities of Borgelt’s work that it can fit seamlessly into public and corporate environments without ever becoming mere decoration. These pulsating canvases never allow the viewer to settle, playing on the ever-changing nature of light itself, which Borgelt – following the physicists – recognises as both wave and particle. Neither is she indifferent to the spiritual associations of light, which have played on artists’ minds since the middle ages. She says she is looking for “a view of the cosmos”. In practice this translates into a love of ideal, harmonious forms that are never allowed to be static. She is seeking her own version of the music of the spheres – an ancient astrological concept that imagined the heavens laid out as a kind of silent music.

More than most artists, Borgelt’s works have proved peculiarly resistant to the secondary market. “It seems that people like the works and do not want to sell them,” says one of her dealers Dominik Mersch. This is a congenial thought, even if it does come from a source that could hardly be called disinterested.

In Borgelt’s exhibition with Mersch of 2009, small paintings and objects could be acquired for $2,000 to $3,000 each, while larger paintings and installations ranged between $19,000 to $34,000. These are relatively modest prices for an artist who has spent much of her career living and working overseas, and whose pieces have no distinctively Australian features. Hers is an art for all times and places, an art that concentrates on the universal qualities of nature, and the symbols with which we record our deeper understandings of the world. There are few Australian artists so versatile or so creatively ambitious; so capable of occupying an impossible middle ground between spirituality and science, between microcosm and macrocosm, the corporate foyer and the cathedral.

Marion Borgelt’s next exhibition, Heartbeat, will be staged at Dominik Mersch Gallery in Sydney from 28 April to 28 May 2011. She is also working on an exhibition for Jan Manton Art in Brisbane, scheduled to take place in October 2011.

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