Walking into a Joanna Braithwaite exhibition there is inevitably a sense that, like Alice, you have fallen through the looking glass. Looking Glass embraces the illogical and anarchic, and Braithwaite relishes playing with this in her portraits. The larger-than-life personalities of the animal subjects demand immediate attention but the artist also includes subtle visual asides in her paintings. These could be playful puns or a nod to current events; they provide a sense of (strange) order in the topsy-turvy world seen through the Looking Glass.
The birds in Flamboyance and Looking Glass I are captured preening before mirrors. Resplendent in blue, the peacock’s tail trails off the edge of the canvas like the train of some fabulous robe and his feathery ostentation finds a perfect foil in the baroque frame of the mirror. Unexpectedly, it is the dun-coloured peahen that is ‘reflected’ back to the admiring eyes of the peacock. Braithwaite’s clever composition reveals that not only is the female bird framed in the mirror, she is the central point of the painting. Framed within a frame, the peahen stands up to the splendor of her mate.
Narcissus-like, the flamingos of Flamboyance stare at their mirror images, with powder-puff plumage poised atop spindly legs. Braithwaite uses these doubled bodies to explore variations of line and form. Elongated pink necks become twin heart shapes that are echoed in the gilt curlicues of the frame. These same curves contrast with the squared corners and straight lines of both the looking glass and the picture plane. The considered combinations of line and shape create visual energy despite the stillness of the subjects.
In Virtuoso I and Virtuoso II the juxtaposition of musical instruments and birds highlights the ways their forms mirror one another. The artist’s use of cygnus olor - the mute swan - adds an undertone of melancholy to these works. Deceptively simple, Braithwaite’s paintings are exercises in careful and considered composition; a few deft brushstrokes to create the tilt of a head or the glance of an eye can complete the tone and mood of each work.
Braithwaite tips her hat at the South with Fresh Freddy, the name of which will ring a bell with Dunedinites who remember the eponymous fishmonger’s on St Andrew St. The penguin subject sports a fish-filled hat made from the Otago Daily Times which includes subtle hints about climate change, the recent discovery of giant prehistoric penguin bones, alongside visual puns of frocked gentlemen. The artist’s in-jokes can also be found in Current Affairs: is this Mother Goose balancing a gaggle upon her head? If so, what can be drawn from her headgear, the cover of a weekly women’s magazine featuring the prime minister alongside the slogan “Our Future”? Curious and curiouser!
Joanna Braithwaite’s paintings never fail to delight and intrigue in equal measure. Works that are fun and quirky at first glance often contain subtexts that require deeper thought. Her animal subjects are imbued with a humanity that sparks recognition. Looking Glass makes us think about what we see reflected back from the canvas. Are they like us or are we like them?