Joanna Lamb approaches the representation of place as a process of distillation. Within her paintings, components of a view are streamlined and rearranged, colour minimised and distorted. Ubiquitous structures of the everyday–houses, apartment blocks, shops, sporting fields–are canonised. While primarily portraying the artist’s local environment–the suburbs of Perth–representations are deindividualised, so as to appear as symbols of an Australian vernacular. ‘I want the images to be generic enough so that people can respond to them on their own personal level’, Lamb explains.
A cloudless azure sky hugs a searing seventies chocolate-tiled roof. The curves of a street-parked early-eighties Falcon glow in dusky light. Shadows dance upon the surface of a glossy cerulean swimming pool.
In the traditions of artists such as David Hockney, Ed Ruscha and Howard Arkley, Lamb immortalises the ordinary, manmade environment. Depicted as devoid of people, the places remain inherently shaped by human intention and presence. Small details–an air-conditioner protruding from a wall, a carefully-stenciled house-number on a curb–gesture to absent inhabitants.
Influenced by hard-edged abstraction and pop art, Lamb’s stylised sensibility centres on a formal interrogation of colour, shape and line. Colour is investigated to extreme saturations, contrasted and inverted; crisp segments convey gradients and tones. The methodology of printmaking is also a central influence. ‘I’m interested in simplifying images as much as possible, to just before they become completely flattened. I break the view down into shapes and colours and arrange it. It is not necessarily connecting the image back to the original place, it is often quite removed.’
Winding across architectural periods and function, Lamb’s works reflect back to us the composite forms of our contemporary built world. Existing as extracts of place–as not-quite-real figments–they tap into a shared experience and collective understanding and memory. For Lamb, the choice is foremostly visual, selecting scenes that resonate for their form–including those that she remembers from childhood for their aesthetic provenance.
Vegetation and foliage as components within the architectural landscape appear across Lamb’s oeuvre. Shaggy palms tower over a house; a Morton Bay Fig casts looping shadows across a wall; neatly mown lawns form sharp lime blocks. Her recent body of work however features a shift to representing vegetation in its own right. ‘I’ve always wanted to paint some gardens’, she explains. Producing the paintings during a period of Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 provided the impetus to explore this long-held interest. ‘Being stuck inside, the importance of nature, and in surrounding ourselves with it, was at the forefront of my thinking.’
The works are also larger and more detailed than Lamb’s regular practice, again marking a shift during the confined period. ‘I reacted to the feeling of slowing down and having less time pressure by adding more detail.’
Some of the works are based on photographs taken during a trip to Adelaide. Botanic Gardens, 2021, a large painting measuring 152 x 200cm of the Adelaide Botanical Gardens is a vista of cascading lush, manicured vegetation. A dense bed of buttery gladiolas forms a foreground; a sliver of water segments the composition. Mounds of foliage are intersected by converging European trees. Rust-coloured soil and a muted blue sky frame the stippled assemblage; darts of light striking petals and leaves to form soft patches, conveying the movement of the landscape.
Glass House, 2020, depicts the Garden’s iconic Victorian-era Palm House. The building is shown from the side from a low viewpoint, with its surrounding vegetation of equal stature–arching cacti framing the structure, foliage viewed through the glass windows, partitioned by the iron frames.
Crested Pigeon, 2021, also focuses in on the natural within the urban. A resplendent bird is poised, nonplussed, upon a bed of organic and human detritus–bitumen, crisscrossing couch grass, a cigarette butt and pine needles; leaves overhead casting deep shadows.
Lamb’s work calls attention to methods of perception through exploring the idea of a conscious action of looking. Elements selected by the artist, to retain within a scene, are bestowed with a symbolic intensity. Repeat motifs of reflection and transparency–within bodies of water, through glass–point to the mechanisms of visual processes.
In Airport 012020, 2020, a small airplane rests at the Adelaide commercial airport–photographed quickly by Lamb from a taxi on the way past. The work explores the forms of the industrial, adding to the discourse provoked by the work of Australian modernist Jefferey Smart. A clear blue sky dominates the perspective–an opaque, solo, high-up cloud. Buildings and shrubbery structurally contain the view; behind lacy barbed wire, the shape of the craft cuts a relief against the blue; orange-tipped propeller, and red-painted traffic sign reflecting the swatches of industry.
The Adelaide paintings specifically evoke the intensity of the visitor’s gaze, and the acumen of this perspective. ‘I get a lot of inspiration from the experience of being an outsider in an environment–I notice that I’m noticing. When you are walking around your normal environment you are switched off to what you are seeing–it’s there but you are not really looking. When it’s all about seeing, there’s not an emotional connection, so it is largely a viewing experience.’
Processes of responding to place through actions of viewing is further deconstructed in Art Gallery 012021, 2021. The painting represents an interior view of a room within the South Australian Art Gallery. A representation of representations. The painting features renderings of artworks including Marjorie Fletcher’s bronze sculpture Kathleen, 1933, and paintings by modernists Ralph Balson and Grace Crowley. The tall Victorian-era archway and skirtings, the modern plinths, slice the composition into segments of form and colour.
Since her first solo show in the late 1990s, Lamb has exhibited regularly, primarily with painting, but also printmaking, collage and sculpture. Her painting process is structured and methodical, an approach that borrows from the mechanics of printmaking, and which she has slowly refined over time. Working from photographs, planning and drawing for the painting is undertaken using a drawing-based computer program. The image is then transposed to the canvas or board with a meticulous application of acrylic paint, using stencils and rollers. The result intentionally removes all signs of the artist’s hand.
Her approach reflects her early introduction to printmaking, growing up spending time at her dad’s off-set printing business, Lamb Print, a cornerstone of the Perth publishing sector. ‘I am interested in the way colours are reduced for economy for print media. The way I paint and lay down colour is like that manufacturing process in miniature. I feel it links back to my dad’s printing business, which I like, so I keep doing it, and try to refine it.’