Arts / Culture

Artist Madeleine Pfull navigates ageing and invisibility in her upcoming show at Chalk Horse Gallery

At first glance, it's easy to get lost in the outlandish hair and accoutrements of the 80s, but once you sink deeper into the paintings of artist Madeleine Pfull, you'll start to recognise that many things are at play. The first and most obvious is that the women depicted all share the same face. Well, not exactly the same. While the figures deliberately resemble Pfull, what sets each 'character' apart is the minutiae of body language and expressions; a raised eyebrow, pursed lips and clasped hands. All of which are a reaction — a performance — to something or someone just outside the frame.

Era-defining office garb ⁠— silk blouses, shoulder pads and knitted jumpers — anchor you to time and place, but also act as a reminder of the way women have approached clothing not just as an outlet for expression, but as armour. As a result an undeniable sense of "self-preservation", as Madeleine describes, permeates the paintings in her show at Chalk Horse Gallery. The women, all middle-aged or older, are restrained, cautious almost, as if they know they're being watched. Only relaxing when attention is elsewhere.

Ahead of the opening of her solo exhibition at Chalk Horse Gallery, Sydney, we caught up with Madeleine Pfull. Below, she shares the motivation behind her latest paintings and what has been inspiring her in 2021.

In your own words can you describe your solo show to us?

This is a show of paintings of seven new characters. These characters are caught between private and public spaces. The dual or triple painting allows a view of the shift between off and on. I think these women are a little more guarded, and more aware there is an audience. There is a sense of self-preservation within the works. I like the ordinariness of small human gestures and interactions and have continued to explore that in this show.


What draws you to the 1980’s suburban housewife? Why do they feature so heavily in your work?

I have begun to move away from the housewife character, and begun looking at the working woman. I think it is easier to see human character traits when we take a step back from present time and view ourselves one jump away. I believe it is why sci fi and fantasy work so well in helping us realise how the bigger picture looks. These women have usually been relegated to a more background role. Which allows them to let the poker face slip because they feel no one is watching them. Instead they can get on with it.

Your paintings feel subversive in the way they broach femininity, was this intentional?

To me the femininity of them doesn’t feel subversive. A lot of these characters would consider themselves very feminine. They certainly seem like they would try to keep up appearances. But I have been told that these are ugly or ghastly women by some and it breaks my heart.

When I eventually turn into one of these women I hope the broad spectrum of what femininity is will be more widely acknowledged.


As an artist practicing in 2021, what has been inspiring you, your work and your world?

Other artists are definitely a huge inspiration. People who are great storytellers are a big inspiration as well. Storytelling is a fascinating art and one that makes me go googly eyed. I’ve been reading a fantastic book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Learning about how people perform and also how people evaluate each other’s performances. I really love exploring this in my characters, especially as these characters are older women. They were once looked at in over-saturation. But once the switch happened as they became older and they became invisible women, it’s interesting to see how they walk the tightrope of being seen/not being seen.

When I’m not painting you’ll most likely find me...

Travelling to or from the studio. It has been long long hours at the studio this past year.


My words to live by are...

It might embarrassingly be my high school motto, 'facta non verba’ (deeds not words). I went to a funny shit-kicking all girls public school and definitely some fighting spirit came out of it.

What’s next for you in 2022?

I’ll be doing a residency in London with the Fores Project, then moving back to LA for a while to work towards my next show.

Madeleine Pfull's solo exhibition opens at Chalk Horse on November 18 for one month. Find more information on the Chalk Horse website.

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