Graham Greene said of “human nature (that it) is not black and white but black and grey.” Something similar might be said of Jenny Topfer’s white paintings which, like those of Robert Ryman, pretend to be white but are in fact substantiated by a complex morphology of other pigments and structures, of gestures and body.
As tempting as it might be to see their relative whiteness as evidence of distillation, even a cleansing of the burdens of visual fatigue, Topfer’s white, like Ryman’s, allows the painting to be something ‘other’ and though Ryman’s architectonic intent differs significantly from Topfer’s gestural adventure, both choose to operate on a chromatic margin so that as viewers we too might approach seeing, or more particularly perceiving with a heightened sense of nuance and judgement.
The landscape around Jenny’s studio is hardy. Situated high on the Southern Midlands hills the tussock grasses and fence-lines are shaped by wind, the sky has a turbulence and portent that diminishes the tonal bandwidth of the view. Much like its middle eastern namesake Bagdad, the chromatic field of the environment feels narrow, though in Tasmania the palette is less “desert storm” and more closely approximates the moodier green?/grey camouflage of northern Europe.
The notion of a reduced tonal range feels significant for a painter whose work is almost entirely white. Other pigments might well be used initially in the roving, orienteering phase of mark making, but they are essentially obscured by a snowy camouflage, a blanket that mutes the more voluble ferment below. One senses that Jenny prefers whisper over clamour and that the contingencies of communication only stand a chance without the pressure of amplification.
Having said that she seems drawn to the energy and starch required to face into Tasmania’s boisterous elements. Perhaps the adversity sets the climate for painting, primes you for the predicaments of creativity.
Such romanticism could and often does lead to an arranged marriage between gesture and meteorological theatre, as if the brush itself were buffeted by spiritual and blustery forces that the wrist simply couldn’t defy. This is not the case in Topfer’s work however. Her paintings absorb the visceral charge that the climate delivers but alters the current so that the work is infused with a latent vigour, a suppressed fierceness.
Increasingly traces of the preparatory layers remain. At the edges we see shards of colour – bright blues, ochre and black on the raw linen. Evidence of a looping rhythmical gesture implies a more compliant relationship between the oil stick and the surface. However the linen Jenny chooses has tooth and filament to it. It sits up to meet the oil stick, implicating itself in her gesture, asserting its weave and character and demanding real pressure from her touch. This engagement between material and process, labour and time invests her painting with an elegiac burden that as viewers we can sense. There is truthfulness in this and we benefit vicariously by being party to such an exchange.
I started writing about Jenny’s paintings as if she were a landscape painter and of course she is not. Finding analogies in her immediate surrounds is tempting of course but as I have sat and talked with her in the studio, been lucky enough to live around the work for some time now, I am aware of her capacity to make work that draws less on the environment but exists assuredly in a “no-man’s land”. This uneasy nexus between language and understanding can occasionally be filled by painting…good painting – otherwise it’s just more white noise.
– Andrew Jensen