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A Life Long Calling

Most mornings in Leura Mall – before the inevitable visitors from Sydney and beyond arrive to fill the shops, cafes and car parking spaces of this busy tourist destination – a diminutive but determined figure can often be seen shuffling between her regular round of shops, collecting a newspaper, coffee and groceries before returning home a short distance away.

Once back indoors, the day’s work can commence.  At age 92, Ena Joyce can look back on an extraordinarily long career.  “I’m a painter” she insists, eschewing the title of artist as a pretension.  A paradoxical mix of modesty and immodesty, she also claims to be one of the “foot-solders” of Australian art: filling an important role even if she has not attained some of the celebrity status of her peers.

Despite her advanced age, this has in no way slowed or diminished Joyce’s need to express herself through painting and drawing.  For her, a day when she does not create an image on paper, is a wasted day.  At this late stage in her career, creativity is both an intellectual challenge (how to produce new images from the confines of her townhouse?) as well as an existential urge.  The work that she does produce draws on her extensive formal training, as well as the fashions in art that have flourished since the 1930s.  She will just as easily produce collage, abstract or impressionistic images, depending on her mood or subject.

When looking at Joyce’s work overall, we should see it within a wider historical context.  All art is shaped by its social and cultural milieu; equally, it exists because of social and cultural history.  Unlike much creative product – which is derivative – Joyce knew personally, or was a peer of, many of the best-known artists working in Australia during the twentieth century.  As well as their inherent charm, this is one of the reasons why her works are both notable and collectable.

Between the first and second world wars, the art scene in Sydney was dominated by modernism and social realism; the generation of artists who followed were often trained or influenced by the Sydney Moderns or more stylistically conservative Northwood group of which Lloyd Rees is the best known.  Joyce is perhaps the only surviving significant representative of this history.  She was taught, knew, or was mentored by artists and teachers such as Herbert Badham, Douglas Dundas, Jean Bellette, Grace Cossington-Smith, Roland Wakelin, Lloyd Rees and Thea Proctor; and was a student contemporary at the East Sydney Technical College, now National Art School, of Margaret Olley, David Strachan and Margaret Cilento.

Although today she is not so well known as these other artists, Joyce was one of the most talented of her generation.  In 1946 she was awarded the prestigious travelling art scholarship, the youngest to have done so.  In 1947 she went to England where she studied at the London School of Arts and Craft with, amongst others, Bernard Meninsky (figure drawing), Gertrude Hermes (wood engraving) and Ruskin Speer (painting) – all leading practitioners in their fields in mid-century English art.  Joyce recalls, after only a few weeks in London, that Meninsky said there was nothing he could teach her: a disappointment to the precocious 22-year-old who had travelled across the world to study with the famous teacher.

However, both England and the Continent were revelations to Joyce.

Recalling life in post-war London, she remembers the pea-soup smog, a city peppered with bomb sites and how ‘grey’ everything looked, including the residents.  Also challenging was the cold, lack of bathing facilities and the difficulty keeping clean in winter.  On the other hand, the art scene was vibrant and experimental with new trends arriving from a now-reconnected Europe.

Visits to France, Italy and Spain also strongly influenced her work.  These included the artistic wonders to which she had easy access – post-war Europe was not yet awash with tourists! – as well as the subject matter, light and colours which enriched the way she saw the world and painted.  These influences can still be seen in many of Joyce’s preferred subjects and style, especially the work of post-impressionists such as Bonnard and Vuillard.

Returning to Australia in 1950 she settled, for a time, in Ballarat, where she taught art at Ballarat Grammar, subsequently moving to Melbourne where she and her late husband Joseph – who she met while teaching at the grammar school – lived for a number of years.  The family moved back to Sydney in 1966 and settled in the Eastern suburbs.  Joyce remained working at her Randwick studio for the next forty years.  During this period, she regularly exhibited at Macquarie Galleries, the Painters Gallery and lastly, at Eva Breuer Art Dealer in Woollahra.

Joyce remains something of a product of the Sydney Moderns, despite showing strong evidence of the ‘charm’ of many post-war artists.  For Joyce, colour is the primary mode of expression.  Her experimentation with colour is often paired with naturalism, including disconcerting naturalism, such as unexpected cut-off points, perspective or intruding imagery. In her work, Como Park, circa 1949, oil on canvas, 107 x 89cm, Joyce’s vibrant palette brings to life a Melbourne park scene. Phthalo blues are layered over cadmium-mixed oranges, greens over candy pinks, colours bounce off colours in a lyrical play of light occasionally interrupted by the dark heat of burnt umber shadows. Contrasting this dreamy colour-scape, a large blue form intrudes upon the horizon and the trunks of three trees boldly chop up the foreground giving grounding and abstract depth to the picture, demonstrating the compositional strength and experimental qualities of Joyce’s paintings. Yet as abstract as it is illustrative, arguably the most intriguing element to Como Park is Joyce’s subtle nod to humanity. Nestled in energetic green brushstrokes, a tiny figure and dog can be spotted wandering across the scene, dwarfed by the surrounding landscape, as trees meld into fields of colour. Marrying abstract properties and formal techniques, Joyce paints far more than a colourful picture, she creates a quintessentially human narrative. There is an empathy and insight to her work, engaged with life and the human experience.

From landscape to still life, in the work Capsicums, circa 1951, gouache on paper, 24.5 x 30cm, Joyce’s bold experimentation with colour turns a classic still life arrangement into a vibrant dance of pure cadmium red, yellow, green and cobalt blue splashed across a white ground. There is an almost Fauvist quality to her use of colour, an uninhibited and unapologetic rawness, yet there exists distinct representation, the careful consideration of form and compositional placement engaging both positive and negative space. Emerging from a dark background, heavy shapes coalesce, overlapping to form geometric boundaries illuminated by the white foreground. Joyce’s use of white is an interesting device, perhaps best represented by an intriguing white triangle created by intersecting capsicums. As it draws the viewer into the central scene, the shape offers an abstracting element to the composition, it is negative space yet it is also form, as is the beauty of many of Joyce’s paintings. They are abstract and representational, both felt and observed. Two lines of artistic inquiry converge at this point - the world of forms, of shapes and colour, and the world that we prescribe to. It is a secret truth to be found in the everyday banality of domesticity, as woven throughout Joyce’s work is an undeniable curiosity and sympathy for the human condition, the objects that fill our lives, the day-to-day activities of people, and our relationship with the world around us.

Unlike other artists who have specialised in a medium or genre, Joyce cannot be described as a landscape, still life, interior artist or portraitist: she has worked extensively in each.  Similarly, she has not specialised in a single medium and has a large body of work in oils, gouache, watercolour, pastel or pencil. Joyce has been a curious and experimental artist, this is perhaps a reason why she is not so well known as some of her peers.  

However, although lacking the notoriety of her fellow artists, Joyce won the Portia Geach prize in 1977 for her painting of artist, George Lawrence, she was a long-time member of the Sydney Watercolour Institute and is represented in many major public galleries in Australia, and in private collections at home and abroad.

In 2005, with her rambling, three-story Victorian terrace becoming too much to maintain, Joyce relocated to Leura.  Relieved of these demands and the stresses of inner city living – and enjoying the temperate climate and more friendly community of the upper Blue Mountains – she has found renewed energy.  Because she lives to paint and draw, this creativity has also kept her active and engaged with life.

Joyce’s work, which is being exhibited at Rex-Livingston Art + Objects in Katoomba, 182-184 Katoomba St between the 11 and 29 January 2018, provides some insight into her long and diverse creative history.  Exhibited are student works from the mid-1940s, paintings from the 1950s through to the 1970s, along with a handful of more recent works.  The goal is to present the sweep of her output over forty years.  In this retrospective exhibition, visitors will see a great range in style, subject matter and medium.  Nevertheless, we can also see consistent themes: a strong sense of intimacy and close observation, the use of colour as expression, as well as an enduring sense of humour and a gentle intrusion of the unexpected.

Ena Joyce - A Life Long Calling - works from 1945 to 2018 - paintings, drawings and gouaches 

   11 to 29 January    

opening drinks with the artist:

Saturday 13 January 2/4pm



Please click on the image for a full view