2024 Studio 7 Residency - MELISSA CLEMENTS

Melissa Clements is a British-born, 25-year-old fine artist from Perth, Western Australia. Specialising in classical painting, Melissa’s work is informed by her experience as a migrant, using art to interpret memory and identity while making sense of being human in the contemporary world.

Melissa has been a finalist The Archibald (2023), Darling (2022) and Lester Prize (2021). At the age of 23, she was commissioned by the Supreme Court of Western Australia to paint the official portrait of the Chief Justice, Peter Quinlan.

During her residency at PS Art Space, Melissa will build on phenomenological ideas of the psychological relationship between subjects and the places they occupy, assessed in her recent solo exhibition at Koort Gallery, To Rest on Far Sands. Working with diverse subjects from a range of backgrounds, punctuated by antithetical notions of the sublime and eternal, mundane and transitory, Melissa invites audiences to step into and engage with the sensitive worlds of her subjects.

RESIDENCY BLOG - January 2024

I’ve always strongly sensed how the environment we’re in shapes the art we produce. A small studio might constitute small works, a big studio would allow for expansive paintings and sculpture. A bright an airy space might inform a desire for whimsical watercolour, and a dark, moody lit space might call for dramatic tableaus. Whatever the nature of the environment, if I can’t cultivate a sanctuary of creation, I find it difficult to fully surrender myself to the vulnerability of making art. This month, my primary goal has been to transform studio 7 into the place that I crave to come to work in. While I was sad to say goodbye to my old warehouse studio in Northbridge, I’ve taken pleasure in boxing up my things, and rearranging them in their new home; coloured pencils and cartridge paper, boxes and jars and notepads and polaroid photographs, standing easels and table easels and tiles glued together with paint. It’s tiring moving spaces, but once the paintings are hung, books shelved, jars stacked, paint arranged, fairy lights strung, it all becomes worth it, and the creation flows effortlessly.

I can’t stress enough how grateful I feel for the opportunity to make studio 7 my own over the next year. Now that it’s feeling like home, the work is already flowing abundantly. January concluded with the completion of my first major painting of 2024, titled Sampling Stylydium dichotomum near Whistlepipe Gully. It’s a portrait of my friend Diana, a freelance Field Botanist and Conservationist, working across regional Western Australia and Southeast Asia. I met Diana over ten years ago, she was a year late starting high school after her family’s yacht became shipwrecked in Micronesia, where they lived with the local people while her father rebuilt their boat. The lessons of sustainability, curiosity and respect for the natural world she learned in childhood have informed Diana’s advocacy for botanical conservation. Her work in Western Australia involves projects that waypoint and map rare flora around the state to ensure that development doesn’t encroach on populations of threatened plants. I was honoured to join Di on a seed collecting trip in the Perth Hills, where she identified endless plant species by name, carefully explaining their phytotomy, relationship with the larger ecosystem and the importance of botanical diversity. The snake at Di’s heart is Bart, her Python, who is also a good friend of mine, “For me, the gentleness of snakes is a reminder not to be afraid of nature; animals and plants are not scary and it’s our job to protect them.” In 2023, Diana began working on a seed collection program in Nam Kan National Park in northern Laos, researching the propagation of fruiting tree species crucial to the foraging of the critically endangered Crested gibbon.

Compositionally, the portrait echoes the same concepts I was exploring in my 2023 solo exhibition To Rest on Far Sands. I’ve included a mirrored cut-out at the centre of the painting, where Bart features. These mirrored fragments are metaphors and they aid the story. The colour palette is very different though, since the landscape is Australian, I’ve chosen warm, Earthy hues and pared back and erased areas with black. I find it easier to paint arctic, icy landscapes in realism, rather than the Australian outback, because the outback is so uncanny, wild and untamed. It’s easier for me to evoke this through painterly shapes and marks rather than as perfect likeness. Perhaps that’s because the outback still feels so alien to me, something that none of us as outsiders can really pin down and fully feel at home in - but then again surely the arctic sublime should be the same. Regardless, this process of rendering figures in realism, and the landscape in abstracted forms seems to be working, and I’m pleased with the outcome.

Diana’s portrait is an interesting start to the studio 7 residency, because I’m not sure how much I’ll continue working with external figures outside of my immediate circle (Myself, and my family) when building an exhibition concept for January 2025. The problem with major portraits like Diana’s, is that the story told is so huge and so singular, that is almost deserves an exhibition of its own, or at the very least to be in an exhibition of other, equally as profound portraits. I’m not sure how Diana would fit in alongside a body of work that tells a unified message. I keep coming back to the notion of psychological landscapes and figures in the landscape, perhaps that’d work, but this idea doesn’t feel pinned down enough. On the other hand when I do try to pin it down further, thinking specifically about my personal relationship with Australia and the UK, where I grew up, I’m worried that including paintings like Diana’s would make the exhibition feel like a jumble of separate ideas.

I don’t know what to do about this yet. My solution for now is to just keep making work – work that I love, work that moves me – and I am trusting that in the process an exhibition concept will float to the surface. Some things I do know – I’m going to Svalbard and the UK in April and May for a painting trip. I’ll spend a week in Longyearbyen, the worlds’ northernmost town, during which I’ll be capturing content and sketching, then I’ll take what I gather to a cabin in the south of Hampshire, where I’ll begin making some paintings. The intention is to produce at least something – 10 paintings, 4 paintings, 1 painting – that will make it into the final body of work. Until then, I have a few months to keep producing work and reflecting on my vision. I still want to do major portraits of people I love and admire, but I’m also surrendering to the idea that not every painting needs to tell the full story, that it’s actually essential for room to be left for the viewer to interpret the story in their own minds as they journey through the exhibition. That’s why the quality of a show sometimes is seen in the quantity of the paintings, however paradoxical that feels to say.

In the end, I want a beautiful show that says something profound, and I want there to be at least 3 major paintings that grab the viewers’ attention and barely lets them go. They viewer will complete the story through the fragments of remaining paintings throughout the exhibition. It’ll be an exhibition about existence, beauty and life (3 very interwoven ideas), and I trust that it’ll come together because of the sanctuary it’s being created in.