Deborah Klein: Private Collection Australian Galleries Works on Paper 20 May - 17 June 2000 by Jazmina Cininas

Deborah Klein's acrylic miniatures glowed like jewels on the walls of Australian Galleries, a luminous refuge from the grey of Melbourne winter. I didn’t even know she painted. She’s rather good at it, as it turns out.

Private Collection is a suite of portraits from behind of elaborately coiffed women; painted, drawn and printed with the meticulous attention to detail that has become a hallmark of Klein’s work. These pieces demand decorum, of the artist-hairdresser who labours for hours with pastel, paintbrush and scalpel to construct the intricately knotted showpieces with not a hair out of place, and of the fictional model who must sit utterly still throughout, and even after, to preserve such perfection.  One may only guess the sitter’s identity from the back of the head, with maybe a tantalising glimpse of chin, though it is doubtful the face would reveal much more.  These women are prisoners of their crowning glories; prohibited from sudden movements, protected from the slightest breeze lest a  hair escape to disturb the absolute order.  Ladies of  imposed leisure, they’re destined to forever watch life in slow motion through closed windows, yet their very calmness suggests complicity with their entrapment.

There is an invitation to view, to examine in detail the intricacies of the knots which the sitter herself can never see. Fragment, in oil and water soluble pencil, is surprisingly sensual, an intimate close up of bare neck and shoulders rendered even more naked by the absence of a single stray hair. One can almost smell the powdery softness of this genteel flesh which has never known, perhaps never been permitted, a day’s work. The hairdo is among the more puritan, more sensible of those on display, yet is this very restraint that makes it so sexy – the allure of the untainted, the untouchable.

The hair does not always provide an inviolable defence, however.  The colour red, of velvet or blood, dominates these works.  The red of the background in Mourning Jewel is repeated in the lockets at the nape, evocative  of open wounds or misplaced stigmata.  A nautilus, in fleshy apricots, mirrors the chignon in The Shell Game, nestled between the shoulder blades like some giant parasite,  Siamese twins are joined by their plaits in Sister Act and Parlour Game, awaiting the inevitable act of separation, and Enough Rope hints at the grim potential of Rapunzel length hair.

There is a greater sense of frivolity in the painted miniatures, which positively glow with regal greens, red and golds.  One also sees the introduction of hair shades other than the artist’s own ebony.  With the blondes and chestnuts come ever more elaborate and ridiculous hairdos: Practical and Decorative has her entire head transformed into a plaited basket-cum-helmet, and Column (a personal favourite) sports a luscious, fat blonde ponytail bound up like the toga down which it hangs.  The Victorian ladies and matrons have been joined by frivolous princesses with truly fairy tale locks, minus, however, the happy endings.  The very titles, Jewel, Keepsakes, Reliquary, Pin and Locket, reduce these women to trinkets, however precious they may be.  And the mourning jewellery that the hairdos reference requires that someone must first die.  The price of immortal beauty is life in a glass case.

© Copyright Jazmina Cininas 2000

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