Transfixing, she’s staring at us through a doorframe – or is it a painting? We’re invited to draw, then bid…
Punkish creativity… a joy to behold
Created by Diana Feng, Tegan Verheul and Clarisse Zamba of the Weekly Women’s Writing Collective, Artist/Muse is a life-drawing class turned exploration of what seems an old-fashioned artistic relationship. Who does the looking? Who merits credit?
When Olivia (Caterina Grosoli) bursts through Paul’s (Sushant Shekhar) door, the two begin a tumultuous relationship. She’s an artist’s model: he’s a painter making his name in 1990s New York City. We’re pencil-wielding sense-makers of an increasingly tempestuous relationship. Paul wants to possess Olivia entirely – distil her energy onto canvas, even if it means subduing her. Olivia seeks freeness, and an equal partner in creation. As exhibitions, and their accompanying threat of audience, loom, passion darkens as artist and muse vie for creative control. In Olivia’s words, art is “more real than looking in the mirror”: an alchemic act of “co-creation”.
This show is grounded in the physicality of art-making. Movement and intimacy (directed by Kim Wright) explore Paul and Olivia’s evolving relationship – extending the play’s often lyrical writing. I particularly loved the ever-present fluidity of Grosoli’s movement and marvelled at how her incessant momentum translates into static poses – conveyed as effortful only when that pose is not of her own making. This vivaciousness spilled over into a fiery yet playful portrayal. Shekhar, in contrast, puts forward a carefully judged performance as the reserved, mysterious Paul. An excellent muse’s artist, he’s frequently translated to the audience through Olivia’s gaze, or Laurent’s evaluations (a fabulously camp collector played by Luke Oliver).
Innovation and beauty abound, too, in the play’s staging. Jacob Anderson and Ching Huang’s repurposed frames and canvases create a moving, liminal space where lighting takes on an impish character of its own. From their subtlest shadows to unbridled brushstrokes of colour, Shu-Ang Yeh’s painterly states and inventive use of projection are breathtaking. Chia-Ching Ho’s sound design harmonises these elements, a brooding underscore to the action. It’s brilliantly directed, spellbinding sensory immersion.
With strong performances and striking visual beauty, I felt I was looking for something more from the plot itself. Inspired by Picasso and his muse Fernande Olivier, it remains a collage of well-selected but disjointed elements. Without much more than the rows of a predictably souring artistic relationship to carry it, the play risks stagnancy. Olivia’s moments of punkish creativity were a joy to behold, but insufficient to inject the pace and thematic deepening the show needs.
Overall, this is a clever central concept, forcing us to confront assumptions about artistic ownership and process that have long gone unquestioned. In an artistic context that still places unequal value on some aspects of creation, particularly by women and marginalised artists (Yilin Wang’s unattributed translations of Qui Jin’s poetry used by the British Museum spring to mind), it’s a much-needed conversation. Artist/Muse is a wonderful starting point, presented with such boundless energy that it bursts out at us from the stage, cigarette still burning in hand.