28 August – 22 September 2012

Rochelle Haley

Dead Precious

In her exhibition Dead Precious Rochelle Haley considers how gemstones appear to materialise ordinary light, then fold, slice and set it ablaze as if a piece of magical paper. The exhibition also considers a persistent image from a reoccurring dream had by the artist of an animal skeleton whose abdomen cavity housed a large faceted stone. 

The combination of stones and bones stood out to Haley as an enduring theme in human history during research for the making of these highly detailed watercolours. Death and precious objects appear together in stories of buried treasure; jet beads placed between the ribs of ancient roman skeletons; the ring of sapphire worn by Prometheus as a relic of his eternal punishment for stealing the secret of fire from the gods; descriptions of the best Burmese rubies being the colour of blood that spurts from a pigeon’s beak when strangled; the fact that pearls are ‘a brilliant sarcophagus’ for a parasitic worm that managed to wriggle between the lips of an oyster – smooth round pearls being the sign of utter surrender, while baroque pearls a vision of the rage against death; and finally the American company LifeGem that offers to turn the ashes of your loved ones into carbon and cook it into a synthetic, but human, diamond. Literary references to many stories collected by Haley appear in this body of work sometimes in words and phrases that comprise titles and sometimes in the ambiguous compositions of skeletons and gems. 

The beauty of diamond depends on a complicated balance between how light does and does not enter the stone. Polished to bounce white light, cut to keep other rays inside, diamonds split the rainbow and return brilliantly distilled colour piercingly into the eye of an observer. It is a stupefying experience, very much unlike the sparkle of glitter and sequins. 

The series Dead Precious says less about the form, geometry and natural laws of faceted stones and more about the play of light one might experience in life with these objects. The medium of watercolour supports the playfulness of pigment floating in water. There is a material similarity between the medium and the scintillating liveliness of light on water or refracted through diamonds themselves.  In some of the works in Dead Precious chalky bones provide a compositional support and visual contrast with the stones. There is an important interplay between the opacity of bones, that are porous but solid, and the translucency of stones, a prized quality that is rarely, at its best, anything like transparency.

Colour is the result of light absorbing into a stone, so that only part of a story is made visible to an observer. This is an important natural feature of jewels evident in Haley’s paintings. The compositions featuring coloured stones only hint at a narrative while selectively omitting important clues. The Padparadscha sapphire for example, takes its name from the pink orange colour in the heart of the lotus flower. The colour is almost indefinable. The red of the rubies placed in eye sockets of shrunken skulls are sacred reminders of fruit hanging from trees in the jungle of South America. 

Although the best examples are crystal and lucid, a diamond does not let light pass through easily. This is unlike synthetics stones that sparkle with the obedience of digital colours. Nor do diamonds merely bounce light from here in our visible world. There is a living, human-like, negotiation of giving and withholding, returning to the beholder something infinitely more beautiful. It is the other-worldliness of the light returned from the depths of unimaginably old stones that suggest stories of people and events from the past presently mingling with our imagination.

Haley’s watercolours are mesmerising. They capture and hold the attention of the viewer while they contemplate endless time and the relics of death, before their gaze bends, travels and spins off to somewhere else.

This project was assisted by The NSW Artists’ Grant. The NSW Artists’ Grant is a NAVA initiative, made possible through the support of Arts NSW and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.