On a crisp autumn morning Wendy Sharpe is sparkly, like her paintings. On a fleeting visit to Perth, the Sydney figurative artist, a previous winner of the Archibald, Sulman and Portia Geach Memorial prizes, and a finalist in the 2012 Archibald, is here for her much-anticipated first solo exhibition in WA.
The Artist and Model at Buratti Fine Art celebrates one of Australia's most awarded female painters with an evocative mix of dramatic theatrical lighting, costumes and props, boldly expressive colours and mark making, drawing in her female friends as models.
It's Sharpe's dress-up girlie heaven. The magic of red net petticoats, lacy underwear, plumes and burlesque costumes, a beaded belly-dancing bra, crazy hats and oversized jewellery is juxtaposed with the ordinary - a milk crate, or a model clutching a can of VB, giving the impression the viewer has caught an unguarded moment of frilly female camaraderie.
"All women enjoy it," Sharpe says. "There's a great sense of fun and theatre in dressing up."
To create an intimate atmosphere for the works, Sharpe blacked out her studio window, added red and green-coloured lights and had a mirror made to add an assortment of interesting angles behind the models.
"It's the kind of mirror you find in a large department store, the type where you see a million bums going into infinity," she says. "I had just a little desk light on my palette so I could see what colour I was mixing, and one on my painting so I could see what I was doing. I couldn't have bright lights otherwise I'd lose the model's light."
In contrast is her recent invitation from the Mawson's Huts Foundation to visit Antarctica to mark the centenary of Mawson's expedition. Leaving Hobart on the five-week voyage, an icebreaker hugged the Antarctic coast before arriving in Fremantle a few weeks ago.
"From a dark room with artificial lights as opposed to endless ice is about as opposite as you could go," she says.
"I expected it would be a moving experience and it was. There's two little huts joined together on the edge of Antarctica. They're not near anywhere, not even near Australian bases, really on the edge of nowhere. When you enter the huts there's lots of fascinating debris. They left old kitchen bottles of sauces for instance. There are bunk beds with people's names written on them, little paperback novels, with used candles in empty tins next to them. It made it very real, and poignant, being in a very personal small space."
The resulting works will be sold to raise money for the preservation of the huts, but in the meantime, her painting Self-Portrait in Antarctica with Penguin and Mawson's Huts is a finalist in this year's $75,000 Archibald, to be announced on March 30. "People are joking I should have put a feather boa on the penguin," she says.
Though the scene may be different, there's no disputing Sharpe's distinctive flourish, her sensuous and confident strokes impressive in their pure economy, not only attractive to buyers, but admired by artists. "I never want my works to feel laboured. Even when I've had to repaint something many times, I scrape it off and do it again, as opposed to mucking around with it and messing it up," she says.
"The nice thing about oil paint is you can continuously wipe it off and try the colour or stroke again. I want it to feel like very certain, convincing marks. If you think of it in terms of writing, you can sometimes restate things in another way, other times you can edit things out."
Surprisingly, her works are not represented in major collections in WA yet, but private sales were steady even before the exhibition was fully hung, with prices ranging from $26,000 to several hundred dollars for a limited-edition etching.
"Private buyers seem to make a decision straight away," art dealer Robert Buratti says. "But for institutions whose decision-making process is longer, I can assure you she will be back here next year."
It's a sentiment echoed by Sharpe.
"I'd like to be exhibiting regularly here. It's interesting for people in WA besides seeing WA artists, to see people from the east as well - just like we in the east need people from the west. We not only want to see works from our own city, but from all of Australia as well.
"Perth is not that far, not these days. It's not a big deal in terms of distance to come here. What we really do need is more of an exchange of ideas."
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