A woman hangs upside down acrobatically from a tree. Her body contorts to extend the twisting trunk, filling in the blank space like a new branch. Tamara Dean’s (b. 1976) performative images employ an exquisitely idealised narrative to depict the natural world as a return to Eden. Here, humans are not simply living in harmony with the environment, but seamlessly become part of it – breathing, growing, collaborating and, importantly, thriving.
This large-scale retrospective presents two decades of constructed fine art portraiture by the Australian artist – who began as a photojournalist – from traditional documentary photography to performative, staged portraits. “My work enables conversation about serious environmental issues but from a place of beauty, not destruction,” she explains (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2019). Her oeuvre unearths the artistry inherent in a sustainable life. “I create symbolically charged works, which bridge the separateness humans create in our minds between ourselves and nature.” It’s an affront to the relentless anthropomorphism and individualism that is defining our age.
At times, these portraits bring to mind Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-1852) or The Day Dream (1880) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Just as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were guided by John Ruskin’s call for artists to “go to nature in all singleness of heart … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing” in the 19th century, Dean’s images speak to a contemporary quest for spiritual and aesthetic nourishment through a rediscovery of our kinship with the environment.
Monash Gallery of Art,Victoria | Until 19 February
1. Tamara Dean, Tumbling through the treetops (2020). From the series High jinks in the hydrangeas, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney + Berlin).
2. Tamara Dean, Night garden, 2020, from the series High jinks in the hydrangeas pigment ink-jet print 75.0 x 100.0 cm Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection donated by Tamara Dean 2022 MGA 2022.32 courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney + Berlin).
3. Tamara Dean, Bluebells, 2020, from the series High jinks in the hydrangeas pigment ink-jet print 100.0 x 75.0 cm Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection donated by Tamara Dean 2022 MGA 2022.30 courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney + Berlin).