My sincere thanks to writer Vanessa Berry for her thoughtful piece on Madeleine’s exhibition.

Madeleine Preston // Home@735, March 2023 Vanessa Berry

The heat of the day still clings as a wide pink sunset moves quickly across the sky. Outside 735 the crowd spills out along the footpath, celebrating the gallery’s reopening with a survey exhibition honouring co-director Madeleine Preston, a year after her passing. It is fitting to enter the gallery amid the sound of conversations, as this was a guiding force in Preston’s practice: the conversation, the ongoing dialogue, that occurs between present and past. Her art engages material, political and art-historical memory, rekindling it in thoughtful, gestural and unexpected ways, capturing history’s afterimages as they linger and affect the present.

These histories can invoke events or situations, as much as they can be more indirect and ambient, the political temper of a moment or era. At the entrance to the gallery Gudrun Ensslin (2017) is a brooding portrait of the controversial political figure. Ensslin, a leader of the far-left Baader-Meinhof group, has come to be equated with power and resistance as much as violence and terrorism. The portrait captures her in a quieter, more ghostly moment than she might usually be imagined. Her eyes are hollowed and lips firmly set, the details of her face veiled with sweeping brushstrokes, reminding us there is only so much we can ever really know of her, or indeed any historical figure.

Preston’s paintings present colour and mood over detail, and by doing so highlight the imprecisions of memory: what disperses and what remains. In The Gleaners, 1857-2015 (after Mamma Andersson), which hung in the Sulman prize in 2016, the bent figures of the gleaners merge with their landscape, requiring a keen eye to make them out, a contrast to the foreground focus of Millet’s Des glaneuses. This suggests at once their inscrutability and their absorption in their task, which is first and foremost one of survival. There’s a sense of slippery, flowing time, unable to be isolated as entirely past or present.

A turn to ceramics, after a transformative residency with ceramicist Lydia Draper in 2014, opened up another conversational mode within Preston’s practice, and another method for reckoning with the complexities of memory. Her ceramic works are often collections, groupings or gatherings, where the material relationships between the pieces evoke further resonances.

In Pure Desire #1 and #2 (2021-22) the last works Preston completed, slip cast vessels are grouped together – vase, bottle, jug and goblet – their differing physicality made uniform through the casting process. They could be archaeological artefacts, museum pieces, or domestic objects: it is up to us to decide, and to consider the mechanisms by which we regard a particular object as precious, or worthy of status. As with all of Preston’s works, they are generous in their suggestive potential. The reflective engagement they bring about pushes towards an awareness of the social and political forces that are constantly shaping our lives whether we are aware of them or not.

We see these forces at work in Darlinghurst Eats Its Young. First exhibited in 2012, this collection of photographs of life in the Darlinghurst squats – taken by Maggie Woods in the 1980s and later inherited by Preston – have gone on to shape a project that interrogates nostalgia, gentrification, and the socio-political implications of everyday life. The prints exhibited here present Facebook conversations that move between memories, reflections, trivia and argument as they decode the photos, recalling the inner city pre-gentrification and the varying fates of the people pictured. The project will continue: Preston completed the script for the short film of Darlinghurst Eats Its Young in early 2022, recording the narration for the film a few weeks before her death.

Some of the people from those Darlinghurst days are gathered to mark the opening tonight, among Madeleine’s family and friends, her colleagues and students, and the wider Sydney artistic community, all of us celebrating this much loved and missed artist. Her works and legacy remind us that we carry the past with us, and that we speak to it throughout our daily lives, and that these conversations, vital and critical, can also be subtle and beautiful.

Pure Desire #1, 2021-22, glazed ceramics, stained timber assemblage