Deborah Paauwe: Dark Fables
Innocence is a quality frequently misapplied to the young.
It is a notion projected onto children by adults. Adolescents particularly crave knowledge and experience (if not actually academic learning). Childhood games typically anticipate what it might be like to be grown up (to be an agency in the world).
A tiger cub leaping onto the back of its sibling, tumbling over and nuzzling its neck may look like cute play, but it is preparation for bringing down an axis deer or a wild boar: a rehearsal for the struggle of life. The young girl who preens and flirts with her father is rehearsing a role of adult life in a script of which she is yet not fully aware. It is part of the evolutionary programming: to try things out and see what works; to quarry meaning and effect. And we, as adults, through our responses, determine what patterns of activity are reinforced and which abandoned. In this we are complicit in the roles and narrative of play.
It is within the interstices of childhood recollection and adult complicity that the artist Deborah Paauwe situates her oeuvre. Her photographs are based upon youthful memories and feelings. They are not necessarily directly autobiographical but rather conjure recollections of how it felt to be young, growing up, with life in a state of flux. Each body of work features anonymous female players – sometimes a child, sometimes an adolescent, sometimes a young woman. In each there is an interplay between the qualities of her costume, her apparent age and the narratives suggested by her body language. That said, each series has had a quite distinct tone – sometimes vivid in colour or florid in pattern, at others soft, sugary and diffuse.
In the body of work entitled Dark Fables, each female figure wears a party frock and make-up. The painted faces are stylized – part kindergarten, part Commedia del’Arte, part cartoon menagerie. Some hint at the animalistic, some carry the chill pulchritude of a porcelain doll. The poses are deliberate and self-possessed. Knowing.
And this is where the tension in Deborah Paauwe’s work begins to tighten its grip on our imagination. How does this apparent self-awareness sit with our expectations of innocence, of some naturally unaffected disposition? The painted face of a girl in a fussy mauve dress (above) – enlarged black lips, black stripes curling down her ashen cheeks – suggests alternately a zebra and a mannequin; perhaps the type that comes to malevolent life in a horror movie. Her hands are loosely linked over the pubis in an almost calculated way. The image is titled: Midnight Gift.
In another, entitled Autumn Dusk, a girl crosses her arms over her heart in the traditional pose of the dead. There is a scab on her elbow. Even in the promise of youth, the image suggests, lies the inevitability of demise.
Strong taboos around childhood sexuality are embedded in our culture for the necessary protection of the young, but they have been sanctioned by the constructed mythologies of innocence. It can be disturbing when recognition of the underlying nature of play flickers into consciousness. Deborah Paauwe’s talent is to create images in which we sense that recognition as something becoming real even as we look.
A fable is a fiction, often played out by anthropomorphous animals, which has at its heart a moral. By displacing the narrative from human to animal actors, the lesson can be more easily digested. In this case, the darkness of Deborah Paauwe’s fables stems from the twilight of our adult double standards rather than the eclipsing of youthful innocence.
This essay was first published in the catalogue to the 2004 Adelaide Biennale (staged by the Art Gallery of South Australia).
© Deborah Paauwe Midnight Gift 2004 (upper)
© Deborah Paauwe Autumn Dusk 2004 (lower)