Arts / Culture

Marion Abraham’s dark and dreamlike paintings hero a greater-than-human perspective

Walking into the opening night of Marion Abraham's My Candle Burns at Both Ends exhibition last night was like walking into a kind of dreamscape. Rich oil paints were brushed across great canvases that hung on each wall; colours melting into forms that felt at once strange and familiar – like trying to reach for a long-forgotten memory, only to find its details hazy and ephemeral.

Abraham manages to imbue a certain energy in her art; a life force that emanates from the caravanserai of characters that inhabit her canvases, each carefully painted cloud, each ripening piece of fruit that hangs enticingly from a branch. There is more here than meets the eye, but she won't tell you exactly what.

This is the Tasmanian-based artist's debut solo show in Sydney, held at Sullivan+Strumpf on a quiet side street in Zetland. My Candle Burns at Both Ends is an authentic and introspective journey for Marion Abraham, a series of images she let unfold, unpiloted, over the course of the last 10 months.

To mark the opening of My Candle Burns at Both Ends, we spoke with Abraham about her exhibition, the evolution of her practice, her most unorthodox inspirations, and sharing perspectives that transcend what meets the eye.


Can you tell me about your childhood and how it all started—your awakening as an artist?

Growing up, my dad fixed broken, fancy old lead-light windows for people, and I remember when I was about eight years old he said I could draw a picture and he would make the image up in glass and lead. I very carefully drew this tulip with a delicate grid of colours behind it. When he showed me the little finished window, he had copied it exactly from my drawing. I was devastated. The grid lines were all wonky, the tulip finished with childish inaccuracy. It was my exact picture, to be precise. Something clicked for me that day about representation and the power of solidifying images in different mediums. That what you think of in your mind can become permanent in a tangible way, a real thing in the world forever more. And you have a choice about how loose or tight, free or exact you want that image to be; your mark-making has power. I think that’s where the addiction started.


What were some of your earliest artworks about? What did they look like?

I used to copy comics diligently in my teens. Pretending to myself that they were my own work and laughing at the jokes. I’d copy anything that stayed still long enough. I guess I was hoping to receive art messages and technique by osmosis. Eventually that ended up being a deep study of classical human and animal anatomy, and at the same time I started making ceramics too. My early years in art closed-in around form; muscles and proportions in drawing, and abstract shapes in clay.


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Left: Great Mistakes (2023), oil on linen, 106 x 97cm. Photo by Aaron Anderson, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf. Right: Photo by Grace Chia, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf.


How has your practice evolved over time, and what encouraged this?

I was so scared of releasing my ideas for art right up until my late twenties, until I decided that I couldn’t wait any longer and felt compelled to paint. What I had been ‘waiting’ for, I can’t say. But I knew I had to paint or a part of me would die. I was shy when it came to self-expression in art and I knew I had to be braver. I was encouraged by discovering artists like Cecily Brown, Tracey Emin, Phyllida Barlow, Alice Neel, Paula Rego and Zaha Hadid. Their work lit a flame in me, I saw a world that could be created by living authentically in my work. I realised that letting my life revolve around art would be a kind of liberation from all the expectations that I felt from the society I lived in. I started to paint like I used to sculpt with clay – I used my hands to blend and move pigment around on the canvas, and that brought me closer to each subject I painted. It is intimate, physical, brutal and caring working like this with paint.


Was there a particular moment or idea that drew you to exploring the interplay between the body and ‘soul’ in your practice?

When I read about the idea of ‘animism’, something solidified in my work. Animism is a way of seeing inanimate objects, plants, animals and any other natural phenomena as having a living soul of its own. I think art can be brilliant at revealing to us the layers of things. I like to try and create pictures that let you into a world you know or recognise superficially, but then give you glimpses of that same world that transcends your presuppositions. My compositions often pull focus in unlikely ways to let you share perspectives of the greater-than-human world. I remind myself constantly that I’m of the same atomic stuff as my surroundings, not more, not less.


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Photo by Simon Hewson, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf.


What ties together your upcoming exhibition My Candle Burns at Both Ends? Is there an underlying theme or idea?

It’s an unstable and unlikely collection of images, they are flailing about and desperate to connect to each other – which is how I have felt most of the year while painting them. They move dramatically around the room from a self-portrait in total quiet (Distil), to a woman at twilight, wielding an axe and laughing maniacally (Great Mistakes). After the death of my father in January, I have felt that holding myself together through the new waves of emotions was an almost impossible feat. I let myself paint whatever I felt needed to come out, and then I have worked all these paintings slowly into a formal installation that moves from nightfall to daybreak, and back to darkness again. In the same way that I can’t escape the regularity and progression of time, nor can the subjects caught in my work.


What or who has been an unexpected source of inspiration in your practice?

20th Century propaganda and scenic cowboy clichés!


marion abraham


Left: Photo by Grace Chia, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf. Right: I Had To Be (2023), oil on linen, 106 x 97cm. Photo by Aaron Anderson, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf.


What was the last great book you read or film that you watched?

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, it’s a poetic thriller set in a remote Polish village about a defiant, reclusive woman and her anarchic ways that threaten the deeply conservative and apathetic community she lives in. Loved every word. Gripped by every murder.


What’s coming up that you’re really excited about? What’s next for you?

I intend to start next year buried in feminist war and resistance history. I’m excited to see what work will come of a deep immersion in this topic.


Marion Abraham's debut solo exhibition, My Candle Burns At Both Ends, is available to view at Sullivan+Strumpf's Sydney gallery until 16 December 2023.

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Cover photo by Grace Chia, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf