Michael Reid Southern Highlands proudly announces the debut exhibition of Sydney based painter, drawer and printmaker Mirra Whale, The Table. We visited the artist in her inner-west studio last month to preview the thirteen oil on linen pieces which form this show, and to hear the artist’s thoughts on art making, motherhood and the tightrope walk between both.
To find Mirra Whale’s studio, you must first walk through her mother’s home – a charming blue Federation duplex partially shaded by a mature Magnolia tree. The tree’s limbs stretch out over a narrow street in Sydney’s inner-west and, now in full bloom, create a dazzling front entrance.
My arrival one Friday morning was heralded by dog barks and the sound of paws on wooden floorboards. It wasn’t long before the front door swung open, painted a rich cherry red, and there stood Mirra, gently chiding one especially excitable fox terrier.
We exchanged hellos and pleasantries, and then I was led inside a narrow hallway. All along the walls and running upwards to the ceiling were relics, collectables, artefacts and ephemera. Every square inch was taken up by an object of some description. I keenly felt as though I were standing in a living wunderkammer, or ‘cabinet of curiosities’. It was, in short, a dream for anyone with an overactive imagination – and, for an artist, surely a constant source of inspiration.
I wanted to catalogue some of it with my camera, but time was limited and there was a prevailing purpose to my visit: to photograph Mirra in the lead up to her debut exhibition with Michael Reid Southern Highlands, The Table.
For those who aren’t familiar, Mirra Whale (B. 1979) is a gifted painter of still lifes and portraits. An exquisite depiction of Leigh Sales, with a wash of deep blue, nabbed the artist a finalist spot in the 2019 Archibald Prize – her fifth time on this pedestal. That same year, Mirra took home the Eutick Memorial Still Life Award (EMSLA) for her painting Sprats and Vino. It was selected for its ‘subtle animation’ of her subject, allowing one to ‘step outside of modern life’ and into a space of quiet contemplation.
Today, a chance for quiet contemplation is rare for Mirra. We’re joined in the studio by Reya, her one year-old, and her eyes, the same blue as her mums, peer out and regard everything with great intensity. I take a few pictures of them together while Mirra describes the changes motherhood has brought to her practice. For one: a near-total shift to nocturnal painting, and a necessary relocation from her shared studio in Marrickville (counting Julian Meagher, Guido Maestri, Celia Gullett and Karen Black as neighbours) to working alone. A certain dependable noise and peripheral energy might now be missing, but raising Reya with her partner has brought its own creative thrust.
Nestled between the jars, tools, and pottery that crowd Mirra’s work table, I spot a blue pacifier and think of it as the perfect little embodiment of Reya’s influence and the weaving together of motherhood and still life.
Domesticity, once derided as ‘simple and saccharine’ by the old male guard, is now broadly accepted as a lens for examining key formal and conceptual concerns.
Having traced Mirra’s career for some time, her paintings in the The Table are especially nuanced. Every painting carries at least one impeccable detail or epiphany. The shock of cobalt blue, for instance, in The Blue Vase and Sweet Peas or the single cracked egg in a carton of six in Anchovies and Eggs. These objects eloquently express the profound changes Mirra has experienced in the past year and her redefinition of what ‘home’ means to her.
Much to my amazement, we were already approaching noon, and the sun cast a warm light against Mirra’s studio. It was almost lunch time for the Whale house, and Reya – otherwise an expert in front of the lens – began to fuss and wiggle.
It was time to gather my things, to give my thanks to Mirra and the family, and to step back through the cherry-red door – with a brain buzzing at the thought of a gifted artist finally returning to centre stage. The Table runs until October 8 at Michael Reid Southern Highlands