born 1972 Australia
Rebecca Dagnall Paradise 5 2009. Archival inkjet print, 91 x 166 cm. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the TomorrowFund, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2011
Since the suburb-inflected work of Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall, Dan Graham, and Eric Fischl became icons of contemporary art, the ‘burbs have been a legit source of artistic inquiry. Cast as a mid-ranking character actor in the ongoing story of Modernism’s embrace of the overlooked, they’ve subsequently been tilled over by numerous artists.
Even so, there remains something obliquely transgressive about an artistic engagement with them. As the binary between the city and suburbs continues to play itself out in the city’s favour as romantic and now totally hipsteristic overdog, they continue to play the underdog role as a looming existential void. It is this that the work of Perth based artist Rebecca Dagnall’s enters into. As she puts it ‘the apparent banality of our lives manifests itself in the brick and tiles that form the facade of our suburbs. Unless we look twice, there is nothing else to see’.
In one way or another the suburbs have been the basis for her work since she returned to Australia in 2003 after a couple of years traveling overseas. On arriving home, she says ‘I quite literally fell in love with suburbia. The amazing colours that in the harsh Australian sun are so vibrant and clear. From the beautifully manicured green to the expansive red brown driveway where the candy apple red car sits, straight up the brown gutter and into the amazing blue that is only here’.
Dagnall’s series 6018 was her first attempt at exploring this, to her, newly fascinating terrain. The shots that compose it are like outtakes from a parallel universe Neighbours as imagined by a daytime Gregory Crewdson. People mow lawns, prepare cars for spray jobs, sleep on couches, skips frame houses, and more. The vibe shifts between order and chaos and the characters that enliven the scene are not quirky, they are simply getting about their business, the jobs that define lives. The series of physical activities that connect one to a place and afford the occasion for drifting thoughts. Cleverly shot with the action either tight to the frame or from a low perspective, we are right in amongst them, living the lives, and most of us here have or still do live. We feel right at home.
Her series It’s a long way to the top feels equally familiar. Exhibited in curator Jasmin Stephens’s Bon Scott Project at the Fremantle Arts Centre, it’s a group of portraits of AC/DC fans sporting logo tees, maybe standing amongst merchandise that has cult powers. While its straight portrait format means it’s not as intimate as her prior series, they similarly come into being from a gentle photographic eye. Steering clear of irony or visual sarcasm, Dagnall plays a respectful straight bat with people’s motivating obsessions.
Dagnall’s work is not softly sentimental though. In fact, it’s her balance dark and light that makes her images so vital. Paradise in Suburbia illustrates this perfectly. The series focuses on suburban bush spaces. The vegetative backdrops are split and doubled in an overt use of the uncanny referencing southern American gothic horror within spaces that could be outtakes from Heidelberg school paintings. The not-quite-rightness in the doubling contains subliminal references to death metal logos as trees become horns and the like. Yet these motifs frame quite lyrical scenes, such as that in Paradise Five which was recently acquired for the State Art Collection at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. This large, digitally manipulated photograph recreates canoe trips in the Canning River that Dagnall took with her father while he was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. The work is complicated, therefore, by a layering of references and emotional tonalities. Indeed, the doublings and such are like magician’s hand gestures, drawing attention to themselves whilst a lighter feeling sits less visibly in place, as a kind of open secret.
She has continued to work with the form of the double in her new series There is unrest in the forest; there is troublein the trees. Though connected with previous work there is a subtle shift towards a more pointedly tense and richly brooding vision. In this work, we see suburban bushlands become densely German forest-like. This intentionally romantic move re-stages the spirit of so many early Australian cultural works, from Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock to McCubbin’s Lost, where the bush swallows (white) people whole. Yet, arguably, Dagnall casts this imminent self loss in an affectionate manner. To be lost is not to be effaced, but to re-find oneself in one’s effaced past. In an interesting way, she both summons and fills the suburban void, reaching back to pasts and forward to new associations. And, it is in this move, that she carves out her unique take on the artistic suburban melodrama.
It’s for this reason, combined with her technical confidence and resolved aesthetic, that her work is becoming increasingly sought after. This year she held solo shows at the Queensland Centre for Photography and the Monash Gallery of Art, and has recently taken part in the Lodz Fotofestival in Poland. Importantly, she was also included in curator Sally Quin’s look at Western Australian photographic practice Transient States at the Lawrence Wilson art Gallery, University of western Australia. With an increasing national and international presence, therefore, she joins the ranks of those such as Max Pam, Brad Rimmer, Mark McPherson, Graham Miller (and many more) who have been making internationally lauded photographic based work whilst staying connected with the buoyant photo scene in this Perth, a place now a kind of capital for the leading practitioners in this medium.
 From an email by Rebecca Dagnall to the author, Friday 14 October, 2011.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Photography and Design
Art Gallery of Western Australia