Undercoat reviews Perfume

Posted on March 3, 2014

Undercoat reviews Gemma Donellan’s Perfume at Cube Gallery.

Once, in a long distant European past, I sat down on a bus, and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer sat down with me. As I had been introduced by a trusted friend, it was a fairly easy relationship to cultivate. The book and I got on well enough to wind up in bed together the same night, and it even hung around the following morning; I made breakfast. Unfortunately for me though, to use one of its phrases directly, the book was ‘made of dark honey, smooth and sweet and terribly sticky’, and soon our flame faded as the chapters drifted through my hands and out of my control. All good things must come to an end, and I dumped it in some cheap hostel; I nevertheless cast my mind back from time to time, and think about our moments together fondly.
Today I’m doing just that, standing at the entrance to Richmond’s Cube Gallery, in preparation of Gemma Donnellan’s Perfume, an exhibition of painted perfume bottles that, looking at the promotional poster, promises to be just as sweet and sticky as the book was on my memory. Before reaching the gallery, I encounter a series of colourful A4 crayon pictures stuck to the foyer wall. An anonymous primary-schooler has scrawled ‘Gemmas exhibition hope you come’ in one of them, which makes me smile. I had already sensed there was a good news story happening here, and as I land at the top step, the extravagant feather boas draped over a table confirm it. Süskind’s Grenouille would not enjoy the human element on display today, but on first impression I’m actually feeling up for it. Maybe my teenage misanthropy is finally wearing off.
I find Gemma in the centre of her exhibition, and ask about the kids who have made sketches for her exhibition in the hallway. ‘My daughter is in grade one, so she has heaps of friends,’ she concedes, ‘I wanted to expose those kids to art, so I told the mums at school to bring them along. I would say there’s been thirty come through so far; it’s been really nice to see them.’ A grade one’s recreation of one of the larger canvases is sticky-taped up next to it in the main room; it’s basically a pink triangle with a name next to it. I look at it vaguely astonished: why have I never seen anything like that before?
Gemma explains Perfume the exhibition is not only the saturated canvases laced with aromas on display, it’s also a celebration of femininity and friendship. Each painting in here is named for one of her female friends or mentors. Some she has pre-imagined, and some have only found their names once the work has been completed. I can certainly believe this while we camp outside Paloma, a fiery canvas named for a Spanish friend of Donnellan. This lovely detail is both a bottle swirling with passionate reds and oranges (which Gemma took pains to reach) and a beating heart, a live organ of aestheticism, beating proudly out into the room. Alongside is Chris, which Gemma believes is her breakthrough work. As I stare deeper into this refraction of summer hues, I begin to taste is a sticky, aromatic Tokaj. Dessert is served.
‘You know glass is notoriously hard to paint, right?’, her neighbouring artists had told Gemma when she started her artistic journey through perfumery last April. Unperturbed, the main gallery shows that Donnellan has an increasing mastery of her genre, as she acknowledges that her best work on the bottles has only just started emerging on the canvas. ‘I have a large collection of bottles, and have been fascinated by them since I was young,’ she says. I notice that the desk in the centre of the room has a bowl filled to the brim with dainty glassware. Some half-cooked illusion to a trapped genie floats through my head; I then dismiss this as wishful thinking.
Escaping this thought, I turn to one painting which sits drier on the palette, evidencing more composure than the amorphous shapes found in the other works. It’s sharper and yet less starkly colourful; less bold. The curves that Beyonce would be proud of are gone here. It’s more honest, reflective, ponderous. Gemma has left me, but now I want to ask her about this one. Why is Caroline so different? My internal gallery clock is ticking as I stretch my eyes over this again and again. Nup, nothing, but I like it. Acknowledging my notepad has founds it’s way back into my bag, I figure it’s probably time to go.
I jumble down the stairs again, and again see the kids’ scrapbook artwork plastered to the wall. There’s every reason to smile again, every reason to remember art is inclusive, and every reason to revisit those books I read in Europe. I jump on my bike and trek back through the Richmond crowds, trying to remember a quote from Perfume which describes Donnellan’s obvious commitment to her art. Luckily Google has all the answers, and fishes out the quote I want within seconds: ‘talent means nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and with hard work, means everything.’ I find the irony of looking this up confronting. Nonetheless, the pedals keep turning in Melbourne, and the cool Sunday night makes me realise this: I have a busy week ahead.

Gemma Donellan’s Perfume runs until 17 March at Cube Gallery, 550 Swan St, Richmond.
Gemma is a graduate of the Diploma of Visual Arts at RMIT University.

Eric Brotchie is the resident Scribbler at Undercoat.

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