ROBERTA THORNLEY: I Will Meet You There, 1-5 August 2012
Stand # C41
Royal Exhibition Building: Melbourne, Australia
Wed 1 Aug: Vernissage 7 - 10.30pm
Thu 2 Aug: 11am - 7pm
Fri 3 Aug: 11am - 8pm
Sat 4 Aug: 11am - 7pm
Sun 5 Aug: 11am - 5pm

by Kriselle Baker
July 2012

'only when I began to think of losing you did I recognize you when you were already part memory part distance' (Youth, W.S. Merwin)

The cool, self-assured beauty of Roberta Thornley's portraits places her in the company of those visual artists whose aim has been to capture the essence of the sitter beyond their flawless youth. I have often thought of Thornley's images as being like those of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer or the French Neoclassical portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; artworks where a glimpse of the sitter's internal world is balanced by the aesthetic beauty of the image itself. Rather than the sumptuous textures of the Dutch Golden Age of painting or of Neoclassical images, however, Thornley's portraits dwell on the sensuous beauty of adolescence: a delicate play of light across pale skin, long, silken swathes of hair, the fullness of features that are not yet drawn with age.

Although there is a sense of expectancy and promise in her images, Thornley's most recent series I Will Meet You There includes works such as Alex, Josh and Fence where the austerity of the backgrounds and the closeness of the surrounding bush lends an element of unease. Her subjects are teenagers from a small rural town, and in their final years of high school. They are at a transitional point in their lives, shifting from adolescence to adulthood and, while full of potential, they are also vulnerable. It is a theme that has occupied the artist in two previous series of works.

During castings Thornley imagined the home lives of the students she met: what they did in their own time, and from whom they would be asking permission to participate in the photography sessions. In the small town where they live there is a river which winds its way though the suburbs.

I asked the kids to take me to places they like to hang out or can imagine would be good for a photo and we ended up at the river so often. I like that my choice in my casting has led me to people that live by the water or have a close connection to it ... it is becoming an underlying theme in what I am thinking and feeling. Not that rivers are or will necessarily be visible in the pictures, but the sense of them being around has become really strong ... you can hear the water even if you cannot see it. The riverbanks have beautiful dappled light and often between where they live and the river is a fence they have to climb.

The river became the location for much of the photography and its flow and turbulence became a dark presence within the work. The juxtaposition of Thornley's portraits with an environment that connects deeply with the subject means that together they modify each other so the concentration on the internal life of the sitter is underscored by the sweep and rhythm of Nature.

So much of Thornley's work here and in previous series is also about the changing quality of the light and the shadows it casts at different times of the day. These photographs were primarily shot at twilight; a brief period when daytime crosses over into night:

... we see everything so clearly at twilight ... shadows are soft and we can penetrate the blacks ... I am shooting at times of the day when I think this is heightened. My locations are almost becoming literal stages for me now. I turn up and allow the narrative to unfold as the light changes around us and the sitter becomes attached to the environment by being in it. This does actually happen. Their skin changes and the way their clothes sit on them. It is remarkable ... but it takes time and patience.

There is a genre of contemporary photography, within which Thornley's work can be located, that is more concerned with the flow of life rather than its conclusions. One of its best-known exponents is the American photographer Paul Graham and, in particular, his series A Shimmer of Possibility where 'nothing much happens, but nothing is foreclosed either'. Graham's works were inspired by the seemingly unfinished nature of Anton Chekhov's short stories. Virginia Woolf, writing on Chekhov, made the following comments that have been quoted in reference to Graham but apply equally to Thornley.

But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say ... We have to read a great many stories before we feel, and the feeling is essential to our satisfaction, that we hold the parts together, and that Tchekov was not merely rambling disconnectedly, but struck now this note, now that with intention, in order to complete his meaning. (Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader)

If we view this body of work as a whole then we can see, as in Chekhov's short stories, that Thornley is ... not merely rambling disconnectedly, but [strikes] now this note, now that with intention'. Each of the images in her series I Will Meet You There touches part of a chord which, when heard together, completes her meaning.