There is something primal and life-affirming, yet hauntingly nostalgic and bygone, about trees. They are one of the first worldly objects that children learn to put down in pictorial form; drawings which, constructed by wobbly hands, are images of magical thinking, of bony lines with curves akin to clouds.
In his deceivingly simple way, John Berger wrote that “A drawing of a tree shows not a tree but a tree being looked at.” How relevant to Emily Ferretti. She didn’t walk through landscapes finding the seven, large-scale paintings of Bent Elbow. These images first came from others’ images on the internet, whether trees or landscapes or abstract images; Ferretti first looked at other people looking, turning this view onto us.
More significantly, Ferretti isn’t seeing barky flesh or tussled leaves—not really. Despite their externality, these paintings are inward. Ferretti sees them as psychological spaces, like portraits of varying states of mind, their intimacy set alongside the exuberant vitality of her marks. Some trees are on high on life, bathing in photosynthesis; others are shedding in the faux death of Autumn; some are in the midst of toppling, the wind threatening a mortal split. The moon and sun are continual onlookers, and in generating a kind of Freudian, existential weather system, Ferretti hangs her paintings between calmness and agitation, anxiety and beauty, with no linear progression between the states. Beauty alone does not convey enough, isn’t nourishing enough, which might be the natural state of things anyway—isn’t beauty a very anxious thing?
Ferretti’s own anxieties and moods infiltrate these works, but I can imagine other formative moments; growing up on a country hobby farm; becoming a parent in recent years; the time spent in nature; the private upheavals we’ve all recently endured. People themselves are never in Ferretti’s paintings; emotions and thoughts are worked out through objects. Yet, at the same time, these aren’t messages to decode but rather images to respond to. Ferretti invites us in with warm hospitality, her bright palette of yellow, blue, green and amber glows like a forcefield. She conveys the seasons not only through colour, but the careful shifting of light; it speaks of moods, memories and feelings, but also measures of time.
Among it all Ferretti walks the tightrope between abstraction and figuration—of which she is a master balancer—but here there is more space among Ferretti’s finely tuned layering. Every line is meticulously accounted for, but a yellow background is left free to centre two trees; two square swathes of blue focus a composition. The real busyness takes place in the treetops, constructed like thought bubbles. It’s as if small minds are working away, shown through careful marks, blotches and oozes of paint.
In the early stages of these paintings, Ferretti takes her hundreds of saved images from the internet, prints them in colour, cuts them out, and then draws, draws, draws in her large Northcote studio. Each day she sits at the table, listening to podcasts, borrowing fragments of colour or atmospheres or scenes from her printed images, and creates hundreds of drawings, with remarkably strong lines, nascently beginning the painterly puzzles that eventually have their end game on the canvas. The fun part is the beginning, then there’s the mission of making the painting work. One day she paints a curve and notices the angle of her elbow, the relation of forearm to shoulder that engineers mark making, giving this show its title. Such attention to physicality shouldn’t be surprising—Ferretti’s first love was sport, especially running and basketball.
The tree motif, lurking historically in Ferretti’s paintings, became centralised in 2018 with six weeks of printmaking at Melbourne’s Negative Press, where writer Emily Kiddell sensed a “restless meditation” in the works. The seeming contradiction is so true; Ferretti’s paintings are compelling in their meditative qualities precisely because they never settle. It’s not necessarily surprising to learn Ferretti takes influence from early American modernist painters like Arthur Dove, Helen Torr, Milton Avery and Charles Burchfield, who came to the fore between the 1920s-1940s. Acclaimed for their formal abilities, today many of these artists are being reclaimed under the loose banner of spiritual modernism; instead of celebrating the masculine marks of abstraction, now there is almost a collapse between spiritual belief—a sense of being in touch with the world—and artistic practice. As in a Ferretti painting, ones feels the world in something as simple as a firm line, or well-tended layers of colours.
Ferretti gives us an image and the psychology of that image, which of course is also our own psychology. Trees; so vital and yet already nostalgic, bittersweet and magical. From my apartment windows I cannot see a single one, and here Ferretti has created a forest.