Soft City: An Exhibition by Penelope Metcalf
Sometimes escaping doesn’t actually entail emancipating yourself from your surrounds. Sometimes, escape can be found right in the midst of where you are. In the same way certain photo sharing social media platforms have taught us to “notice” things – a certain slant of light, a sunset, a pretty juxtaposition, a jaunty shadow, rendering everyday moments more beautiful – so does the artwork of Australian artist, Penelope Metcalf. Whilst the subjects featured in her paintings are immediately familiar, there’s a certain romance and impressionism of colour and light that takes the viewer to another place.
Penelope’s proposal for the 2016 Woollahra artist in residency program was to depict the suburbs that comprise Woollahra Council region- intentionally focusing on her immediate surroundings. Though she admits to cheating a little by including Randwick, Waverley, Queens Park and Bondi, her paintings primarily depict vistas of Paddington, Vaucluse, Double Bay, Woollahra and Centennial Park, as these are the suburbs she traverses on a regular basis. Her works do not seek out grand landmarks – but rather things that we might otherwise pass by in our travels from A to B.
I’m struck by how domestic architecture, gardens and streetscapes reflect the influences and aspirations of the inhabitants,” explains Penelope. “The choice of style in building, the pitch of a roof, the selection of trees can be so evocative.”
As Penelope sees it, the very character of any given suburb is made up of elements that are at once unique yet often oddly familiar. The dark red brick apartments in Rose Bay could equally be in Belfast or Manchester; the mansions around Centennial Park could conceivably be in Westchester County or rural Massachusetts. Penelope will also tell you that there are parts of North Bondi where the houses seem close to Tel Aviv.
When she first moved to Sydney from Melbourne, Penelope couldn’t seem to paint the landscape at all. “It felt far too picturesque to require another painting…it took some time for me to find the motifs that I thought captured the experience of living here,” she admits. “Things like the flickering light, the steep hills, the curves, the native vegetation, the sandstone, the steeply pitched rooflines, the hard bright light, the cloudy build-ups on muggy days”.
Foliage features heavily in this body of works, with Penelope exploring the ways trees and greenery relate to architecture. “I love how buildings nestle into their surroundings,” she says. “I love how trees and shrubs can almost be the jewellery for a building.”
As with Impressionism, and the importance of capturing and conveying a sense of light, Penelope also refers to how light interacting with the local Sydney greenscape informs her work. “As the seasons pass, I’d notice different scenes as the foliage fell or light shifted. Some scenes worked best in summer, with a fringe of leaves and the flickering shadows would lend drama and grace. Other possible subjects appeared as the leaves fell and the tree became bare and the shadows tattooed the facades of the buildings and the streets. As the seasons turned I would notice different things coming into bloom – such as the crazy lime green of the robinias and plane trees,” she recalls.
Native or exotic I’m not picky – I just love the theatre that buildings and plants create together.”
There’s certainly a mood that Penelope acutely captures in her work – it’s at once light and joyful yet at the same time melancholic. Penelope explains that this is a response to the powerful tug that even the simplest of situations – such as a house on a lawn – can have. “Where there’s sunlight there’ll be shadows; where there is a seductive or inviting exterior facade, there is also an interior that is unseen and unknowable. Both sunlight and the seasons are beautiful, yet they’re also an indication of time passing and moments lost.”