Exhibition inspired by pandemic

Marie Strauss’ latest exhibition combines her love of animals with the dangers of Covid. PHOTO:...
Marie Strauss’ latest exhibition combines her love of animals with the dangers of Covid. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
This week’s sharp reminder of Covid-19’s unpredictability will have Dunedin artist Marie Strauss’ audience looking at her latest work with fresh eyes. Strauss explains 
to Rebecca Fox about the effect of the pandemic on her latest work.

Isolation, safety, unpredictability, territory, danger — all words with which people have become all too familiar in the past year as the Covid-19 pandemic has swept the world.

Dunedin artist Marie Strauss has channelled the emotions experienced during this time into her latest exhibition "Gatekeeper".

"It was that awareness of territory of keeping out and keeping in and safety."

At the same time, her son was very ill in Sweden and very isolated as a result.

"That prompted the next part of the series about nightmares. It sort of overlapped with Covid; no-one knew where it was going to go."

She has expressed those feelings in her paintings and sculptures using animals as her vessels.

"There is always the promise of Eden, the beauty and exotic gardens, animals and the danger lurking."

Her love of animals has always been present in her work and are front and centre in her latest pieces, especially her ceramic sculptures, although in her paintings they are also accompanied by mythical-like figures.

"The animals are beautiful but dangerous too."

As Federico Freschi says in an essay on the exhibition, "Compelling and enigmatic, Strauss’ animals are benign companions and guardians, but also fearsome, nightmarish creatures that evoke our deepest anxieties. Taken collectively, they conjure a latter-day bestiary whose symbolism points to the fragility of our relationship with ourselves and the world around us."

Strauss’ love of animals comes from her childhood in South Africa where she lived on a farm.

"They’ve always fascinated me — monkeys, meerkats, the ugly ones as well, ant eaters, warthogs — they’re just awkward.

"That’s where the theatre is. You can play with animals in ways you can’t with humans; there is no sentimentality. The animals give me much more freedom to do that."

She admits some of the figures are "quite creepy"or "dark". Contrasting with this is the use of bright colours — blues, reds and golds.

These days she has a "brilliant" Jack Russell and lives on a stud farm so the animals she is surrounded with are more domestic these days.

However, for these latest works it was seeing a mythical creature in a Swedish museum that was to be the trigger for her "dream stealer" characters although she did not realise it at the time.

"I did not think about it again but then it came out. That’s what happens with me. I seem to file things away and it comes out a the right time."

For Strauss, the three aspects of her work all have a sense of promise including the work referencing the afterlife, The Sons of Horus.

"I’m not really a religious person at all but it fascinates me what do you think is safety, what do you think is danger. For me, the dream stealers have always been that thing you don’t see but when you sleep it is there. "

Despite this, a sense of danger is not far away with the imagery for the dream stealers.

Working away in her studio converted from stables on the farm she lets her art take its own course.

"I don’t push anything. You have to be patient. Things happen in their own time. If you push it doesn’t work. I don’t know where it’s going until you do it and can then stand back."

These days she is enjoying being able to make art full-time after closing her clothing shop, Dada, when Covid hit.

"Covid made the decision for me — I was going to wind up the shop but ended up doing it six months earlier. I did it at the right time."

She opened Dada Botique in Dunedin 12 years ago and launched her own knitwear brand.

"It did what I wanted it to do. I will always love colour, I will always love fashion but it’s never been more important to me than the art."

What she wanted it to do was fund her trips to Europe to look at art.

"Art informs everything I do."

Since the Covid lockdown ,she has been dedicated to her art, working eight-hour days in her studio broken up by weekly visits to Dunedin Art School to work in its print-making facility.

"I’m in a wonderful place where I can just work on my art all day every day. I can’t believe I’m so lucky. I haven’t been able to do it full-time for so long. Now I don’t have to stop or go away."

She also has her own dedicated ceramics studio where she created the ceramic pots, inspired by the Egyptian canopic jars used to store organs, and animal figurines in the exhibition.

"Mine are a more modern version. The drawings are engraved. I come to ceramics from a painter’s point of view."

Strauss is no stranger to mixing up her mediums. She started out studying drama and theatre design.

"I’ve always had a dramatic point of view. Things have to almost be on the stage."

From there, she did post-graduate study in costume design which is where her interest in fashion began.

But her artistic streak came calling and she did a master’s degree in fine art.

"I’ve never not made art."

When she came to New Zealand about 27 years ago she decided to do her honours in ceramics. That was followed later on by another master’s in mixed media and photography.

"I don’t have time to do it all. I’d love to do photography but you can’t do everything at once."

Despite all the forays into different media, she always returns to her first love of painting and drawing.

"I love the making, the process. Drawing is the underlying medium of it all."

In her printmaking she likes to slightly off-print so she gets movement in the work.

"It makes them more painterly than just pure etching. Then I work on them afterwards."

Ceramics give Strauss the opportunity to work in three dimensions. Working in fine clay or porcelain enables her to create the details she likes.

She often works in all mediums at a similar time.

"It’s natural to me to work in an overlapping way."



‘‘Gatekeeper’’, Marie Strauss, RDS 
Gallery, Dunedin, until March 13

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