The complex visual ecology of Katherine Hattam centres on a deeply felt symbiosis between the autobiographic, symbolic and historic. Mapping the world through her home, the Melbourne artist chisels links between self and other by presenting landscapes, objects, people and histories of profound personal resonance.
Featuring a new suite of oil paintings, ‘Forgetting English’ continues Hattam’s ongoing exploration of the Australian coast, representing Sydney’s Parsley Bay area as well as the Victorian foreshore around Point Lonsdale. The thematic cornerstone of the exhibition is the history of William Buckley, an escaped convict who lived among the Wathaurong people on the Bellarine Peninsula for thirty-two years, during which time he forgot the English language. For Hattam, this is a fascinating reversal of colonial convention: the expectation that First Peoples should abandon their culture and learn English. Over the past five years the artist has been ruminating on Buckley’s story, visualising it for the first time in this series. She reflects, ‘It connected with me. I just kept thinking about it’. Hattam is interested in the women who have fallen out of the narrative, as depicted by several male artists. In the titular work, He forgot how to speak English, she recalibrates the masculinised story by including Buckley’s daughter and two Aboriginal wives (about whom nothing is known, their speculative existence reinforced in Hattam’s work Perhaps). The figures congregate at the painting’s edge, diminished by the sea of fish – a motif of abundance permeating several paintings. Rendered with her characteristic flattened, stylised aesthetic and first-person perspective, this work signals a shift in palette for Hattam as she captures the warm ambers of the coastal landscape and the golden glow of the elusive past.
Through the recurring gridded trope of the window, Hattam acknowledges her spectatorship and subjectivity – signposting her distance from, yet fascination with, history. ‘The view from the window is fictional’, reflects the artist, ‘I’m looking back from a position of now – reflecting on and empathising with history rather than pretending to be there’. Peering through this same graphic portal, audience and artist are onlookers alike. In a similar way, Hattam’s private inventory of objects sprawled on the kitchen table announces her embodied presence. Flowers, vases, mugs and books conjure an air of domesticity while laptops, chargers and phones symptomise the contemporary lens through which the artist views the world. These personal objects meld with a web of art historical allusions – Sidney Nolan’s Boy and the Moon and Louise Bourgeois’ The Feeding lingers to the left of There were fish, while Rose Wylie’s faces peer through the curtain in Plenty. Here the dialectics of inside and outside mingle with memory and history, private and public. In many of her works, the artist sands back the surfaces or partially obscures the compositions with white curtains, furthering this dialogue between revelation and concealment.
Hattam constructs her complex visual lexicon from an ever-expanding stockpile of stories, objects, drawings and photographs that inspire her – from Japanese ceramics and a bouquet of roses to coastal landscapes and distant histories. She employs repetition as a tool for revelation, excavating the edifice of history to uncover elusive truths buried beneath the minutiae of the everyday.
Hattam is a well-respected Australian artist who has exhibited widely throughout Australia. Her work is included in numerous major public collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bendigo Art Gallery, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art and Artbank.