Rex Butler
'Paints like a dream': Louise Hearman at Tarrawarra, by Rex Butler

Louise Hearman, Untitled #727, 1999, oil on Masonite, collection of the artist, image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph: Mark Ashkanasy

Paints like a dream Louise Hearman, curated by Anna Davis, Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Healesville, 18 February – 14 May 2017

Louise Hearman complains about the way that in every review of her work she is compared to her partner Bill Henson, while in reviews of Henson’s work she is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

Of course, she is absolutely right: the male Henson is held up as the standard against which she is measured, whereas the female Hearman does not reciprocally set the standard for Henson. We can read all sorts of gender politics into this, compounded by the fact that the comparison between the two bodies of work is so counter-intuitive. One is light, the other heavy; one is modest in scale, the other increasingly Baroque; one is intuitive, mercurial, devoid of any psychology, the other calculated, indeed over-calculated, and burdened with meaning.

In fact, if anything, we might even say that it is Henson who works like a painter and Hearman who is more like a photographer. One arduously constructs what we see, the other simply takes what is given her. One’s work lingers in a perpetual twilight of ominous implication, the other’s looms up suddenly out of the darkness and passes us by just as quickly, like the metal reflective markers on the side of the road.

But then we have just done it ourselves: made the very comparison we said we would not. We can only hope that ours is redeemed by its reversal of the usual hierarchy. For us, it is Hearman’s work that sets the standard by which we should judge Henson. It is Hearman’s paintings that are better photographs – and better paintings – than Henson’s. In Henson’s work we are lugubriously shown things, while Hearman trusts us simply to see.

How so? Hearman is probably the last Australian artist we might put in the long lineage of figurative painting coming out of Manet. It’s all to do with her use of white.

The typical Hearman painting features some seeming vision – oneiric, dream-like, hard to look at – arising out of a dark field. There are lots of them in this exhibition: the little boy standing in tall grass (Untitled #739, 1999), the horse’s head emerging from the rockface (Untitled #980, 2002), the legless spirit floating above the footpath (Untitled #816, 2000), the cat’s head at the end of the airplane wing (Untitled #1280, 2009), Henson’s receding crown seen from behind (Bill #1385, 2014) and even simply the gleam of light itself at the end of a long avenue of trees (Untitled #727, 1999).

Hearman’s art appears at first an art of parts: elements – in psychoanalese, part objects – coming at you from out of deep space, as though to pierce you in the eye, almost like Scottie’s head in the dream sequence in Vertigo.

But it’s more complicated than that because most of these objects are flecked with white, as frequently also is the background out of which they come – an example of this is the little girl’s smiling head floating above what looks like a snowbound landscape in Untitled #729 (1999) – or, even when there is no white in the background, there is a flattening of the object itself because those flecks of white somehow make it part of the background – an example of this is the white on the surface of the golfball-like comet of Untitled #792 (1999), which, all things considered, seems as flat and intangible as the dark space through which it moves. (We have the same thing in the portrait of Henson, where the reflective shine bouncing off the top of his head strangely joins him to the blackness surrounding him.)

Louise Hearman, Bill #1385, 2014, oil on Masonite, collection of the artist, image courtesy and © the artist, photograph: Mark Ashkanasy

The miraculous effect of this is a kind of “all-overness”, a too-big flash that overwhelms us and forces us to close our eyes, or put another way a rapidity or instantaneousness that crosses the picture, connecting all of its different parts. This is the often remarked-upon “visionary” aspect of Hearman’s canvases, as though something appears and just as quickly disappears before us. The image stands entirely, dramatically, theatrically before us – held up as it were for us to see – but in its excessive presence there is also a withdrawal, something we can’t quite put our finger on and that does not seem intended for us. The very sharpness of the illusion carved out by the white seems enigmatically equivalent to the black that is at the same time swallowing it up.

The long-distant antecedent to this effect in Hearman is to be found in the wraith-like white tights of Manet’s Dead Toreador (1863), the thick swirls of white in his Branch of White Peonies with Secateurs (1864) and even in the white expressionless face of Olympia (1863), which at once is so absolutely present there before us and yet looking right through us. But perhaps the contemporary painter who is closest to Hearman is the Belgian Luc Tuymans, another “visionary” artist who seems not entirely in control of his images.

Of course, the well-known thing about Tuymans – who admittedly works in a far less virtuosic and polished manner than Hearman in unfocused soft oils – is that he paints quickly. He is said to give himself no more than a day to finish his pictures, which are also small like Hearman’s, as though capturing a fugitive apparition. And this desire for rapidity also directs Hearman’s practice, who in a video accompanying the show can be heard saying that the painter should not be afraid of recording their first impressions and equally not afraid of throwing away those paintings that do not work.

But Tuymans says something else about his work that is also much like Hearman: that the effect he wants to create is a kind of memory of the image. He considers intently beforehand what he is going to paint, after it is done he can remember doing it, but while he is doing it (and therefore while we are looking at it) there is a kind of blank: in his words, “a seeing that there is nothing to see”. It is suggestive of the striking effect of Hearman’s work, which is often spoken about as eidetic, hallucinogenic, séance-like, but without anything like the psychological weight of Surrealism. It is an all-absorbing vision in which the artist forgets herself, not an unconscious dream that reveals anything about her. As we say, there is a kind of “lightness” about Hearmans’s work, which is not just a matter of how many of her subjects appear to float in the air.

Louise Hearman, installation view, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 18 February – 14 May 2017. Exhibition organised and toured by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Her canvases strike us like an instantaneous flash that has hardly taken place before it is over: the white paint blinds us as the black paint plunges us into the darkness, with the individualised touch of the hairs of the white paint–loaded brush the equivalent of the brown masonite background that is revealed when the paint is scraped back or when the support is not entirely covered over.

The strange effect, for all of its insistent subject matter – haunted smiling children, cars driving at night, rotten teeth, hovering spheres, animals standing before dark landscapes – is that Hearman’s work is not finally about its “content”. It is not something to be held fast and interpreted but something that passes briefly before our eyes: a painterly effect of “strikingness” that entirely envelopes us and into which we plunge headlong even though there is nothing to see.

It is an epiphany, a vision, an exaltation, into which we enter, forgetting everything else, before returning to the everyday world panting and invigorated. But when it is over there is almost nothing to remember the paintings by. They are curiously de-individualised, which is undoubtedly why Hearman does not title them but merely nominates them by number and year. (Which is also why there has been little specific discussion of them here.)

Unlike Henson, whose humanist depth is ultimately banal, revealing itself as some platitude about the as-yet unexpressed potential of youth, Hearman’s work is exhilaratingly shallow, a pure surface with nothing behind it (even its background is only another kind of “flash”). Her work takes us out of ourselves rather than forcing us to be self-conscious. It is exactly the kind of experience we want from art: not someone showing us something, but someone allowing us to see for ourselves.

Rex Butler teaches Art History in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University.