Hayley Megan French’s small (9 x 11 cm) painted-over Polaroid photographs mounted on Tasmanian oak are beautifully presented, placed at a comfortable eye-level in a grooved shelf running along three sides of a square space.
We walk along looking closely at each tiny image, noticing the differences in colour palette, the detail or lack of it, the arrangement of trees, the deployment of space, much as we would if we were walking along a footpath bordering the broad road of an Australian suburb. In this way, we appreciate French’s observation that walking her neighbourhood was important to her process as it familiarised her with details that became inscribed as “home”.
Late in 2018, French began documenting with Polaroids her experience of living in the western suburb of Guildford where she and her partner have bought land and intend building their own house. Her growing love of Guildford – unceded land of the Bidgigal Clan, home to Australia’s largest group of Arabic-speaking people, and also site of the heritage-listed Pipeline, integral to Sydney’s first reliable water supply – has led her to reassess the value of the often maligned Australian suburbia. In 2019, French’s project expanded to include two places with which French also feels a strong connection – Kunanurra in WA and Toowomba in QLD.
French makes use of a less restricted colour palette (formerly a hallmark of her work) as a means of signalling unique aspects of each suburb. Light and dark purples and complementary yellows identify regional Toowoomba, the more outback Kunanurra is painted over in shades of ochre and burgundy, and Guildford, anchored to Sydney, while maintaining the light and dark burgundies, introduces a range of warm blues and yellow greens. Notably, the colours leave an impression of warmth, light, space, while the always present, dense and often edgy shapes of green foliage provide an essential gravitas.
Small is also a new direction in French’s work. While at first sight the rows of tiny images seem uniform, as do rows of grid-like suburban streets, close inspection reveals signature differences. Houses with the same floor plan but placed at a different angle on the block, a high or low front fence, two halves of the one structure painted in different shades, the focal – or not – driveway and the car, or the placement of trees, all of which have their own personal or societal narrative. There is often humour in the details French has chosen not to erase from the reality of the Polaroid, such as the single striped towel on a wonky Hills hoist.
In an artist’s talk at galerie pompom (June 13) both French and her interviewer, writer Felicity Castagna, were mutual in their positive re-evaluation of the suburb and its community life, defence of an aspirational ethos, and affirmation of the uniqueness of individual suburbs. Perhaps a response to the erasure of character from larger Sydney as urban, high-rise, homogenised redevelopments increase and consequent replacement of actual community life by “community centres”, they ask us to reconfigure the suburbs as rich and complex.
Several in the audience queried their enthusiastic reconnection with suburbia, one person noting the total absence of people from French’s images. It is true that while her images convey warmth and richness – the pipeline for instance becoming a thing of beauty and a metaphor for connection – at the same time, they are strikingly empty of activity. Life is implied but it is private: to know the suburb, to see its character, its fullness of being, we have to walk it, as French tells us from the start.