Australia born 1955
Walking in tall grass, Shelby 2
Collection Title: Walking in tall grass
Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on linen Support: linen
In an interview for the exhibition In the flesh, Jan Nelson described the title of her series Walking in tall grass as an analogy for the vulnerability and defiance of adolescence: ‘you can’t go back, you can only go forward, but you can’t see where you’re going’. These two recent works from Nelson’s ongoing study of young people have joined the NGA’s earlier examples from the series, Carter 2001 and Tim 2003.
Nelson’s portraits capture the way teens use fashion to express individuality. But the averted attention of her models, as they retreat from the gaze of the viewer into a private world, is suggestive of deeper self-contemplation, desire and doubt. These are moments of ambiguity and introversion. The photorealistic portrayal of Shelby and Marion contrasts with the brightly coloured backdrops, heightening the sense of disengagement of the youths from their surroundings. This disjuncture of inner and outer experience is further amplified by the girls’ mirrored sunglasses, which add an additional barrier to their interior life as well as revealing an ambiguous view of the external world from their perspective.
The psychedelic and consumer-cultural elements reference recent digital aesthetics, but the paintings provide more than a simple snapshot of trends captivating youth today. The retro-revival fashions that Marion and Shelby wear—which are perhaps akin to what Nelson herself would have worn while growing up in the 1960s and 1970s—particularly evoke nostalgia for bygone youth and resonate with the timeless personal challenges that are experienced so intensely through the teen years, such as grappling with one’s own identity and the tension of trying to fit in while asserting individuality.
Alice Desmond, Curatorial Assistant, Australian Art
in artonview, issue 84, Summer 2015