United States of America born 1972
From the waist down 1998 Materials & Technique: photographs, Type C colour photograph
When she was recently asked which art work of any ever made she would most like to live with, Deborah Paauwe chose the image Vale Street 1975 by the Australian photographer Carol Jerrems.1 On the face of it, an unexpected choice. With its defiantly bare–breasted female figure and her attendant satyr–like teenage boys, it has come to be regarded by many as a stridently feminist iconic image—somehow a more forthright and unromantic work than I would have expected. And yet Vale Street also has a pervading mystery, a sense of a story unfolding that remains unresolved and unknowable. It also has an intriguing atmosphere of vulnerability underneath the assertiveness: a suggestion that violence and brutality lie behind beautiful surfaces. This mixture is found in much of Paauwe’s imagery. From the waist down 1998, dating from early in her career, is particularly powerful in its subtlety, ambiguity and inscrutability.
Of Dutch and Chinese heritage, Paauwe was born in Pennsylvania in the United States of America and came to Adelaide in 1985 after an unusual childhood spent mostly travelling and living in Southeast Asia with her Bible–Presbyterian missionary parents and two older brothers. It is to her childhood in the 1970s that Paauwe most often turns for inspiration. Not a literal retelling so much, but more so her ability to access the feelings experienced at that time and to reconstruct that psychic landscape in her imagery. The body here is seen from the perspective of a child and the skirt blocks out what is behind. It is too close to the camera, crowding in on the viewer, the colour simplified and overblown. It is this ability to reconstruct memory with an emotive and dreamlike intensity that often gives her work its allure.
From the waist down is an image Paauwe recreated from looking through family photograph albums, tapping into that rich and fascinating area of photography concerned with questions of history and memory, both personal and cultural. In making the series Blue room, from which this image comes, Paauwe looked back to her own childhood and was also inspired by her mother’s adolescence in the 1950s, a time that seems to speak to Paauwe of a simpler and happier existence. Paauwe conjures up the 1950s through fashion references and by using a palette of bright, saturated colour.
Given the rupture she experienced coming to a new country at the age of 13, her desire to recreate a perfect upbringing is not surprising: she has said that she felt that her childhood had been taken away from her.2 The photographs of Deborah Paauwe are concerned with exploring identity and how it is formed, particularly at that time in a girl’s life when she makes the transition from the world of childhood to adolescence—themes that have been more overtly explored as her oeuvre has developed. Traditional feminine preoccupations are frequently explored. She revels, for instance, in the inclusion of her own collection of vintage clothes and fabrics. Her images frequently re–present rituals of play and dressing up, which are perhaps innocent to the girls themselves but not always to the eyes of others.
Paauwe may talk of the ingenuous nature of childhood play but she knows that is not how the images will necessarily be received; she knows that contemporary depictions of beautiful and sensual images of childhood are always fraught. That Paauwe, a woman, makes these images radically affects our reaction to the works, a strategy that other contemporary photo–media artists – most famously perhaps Sally Mann, Francesca Woodman, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman – have also played with to effective and, at times, controversial outcomes.
The sexual ambiguity in Paauwe’s work is calculated and subversive and one that engages with contemporary theoretical writing on the body. As writer Anne Marsh has said about her work: ‘Paauwe is teasing the gaze, underlining the voyeurism of the spectator, and thus planting trouble through the image’.3 Through isolating parts, the body is depersonalised and objectified. Much of Paauwe’s work operates in an arena of disjunction and loss: a beautiful world of nostalgia and longing in which danger and the unknown lurk beneath the surface.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra