21 October – 12 November 2022

So much of the past, both public and personal, have streamed into the making of The Dust of History. Back in 1987, while working in Paris, Julie Rrap made Secret Strategies/Ideal Spaces, a black and white mixed media installation where she poses naked alongside her anamorphic drawings of Louvre classics like Degas and Manet - the sensual odalisque breaks free from the cages of art history, fluid shadows against the soldered carapaces of classical Western poses. This current work is a close cousin of these works, and - wild, bold and positive - shows her back to her best.

Here we have Life Drawing from inside out, rather than outside in.

The vertical videos show a creamy back with its hundreds of interlocking muscles - shot from above - in the act of rubbing, smudging and smearing charcoal, on large sheets of watercolour paper. Writhing naked, the body draws itself, following the outlines of hands and feet, as amoebic limbs push figure and ground as close as they could possibly be: to the point of the visceral, the corporeal, the primal. The traces of charcoal left on the body is left also on horizontal drawings that sit in between those vertical videos.

This is an agon, or struggle, which nonetheless looks fiercely playful. We can get a little solemn in catalogue essays, but Julie Rrap, in her seventh decade now (flabbergast!!), still manages to find a little comedy in her own subversive routines. It keeps you young.


Not only a maker of her art, but its protagonist, Julie Rrap falls into her body, like a child into a doona. Once again, as always with this artist, subject and object become one, in her ongoing exploration of the origins of representation. The origins of drawing, as recorded beautifully by Pliny the Elder, start out as a tracing of the shadow of a departing lover, and is commemorated in many pictures of this inaugural moment. (eg the 1793 Invention of the Art of Drawing painted by Jospeh Benoit Suvee.) Thus, the artist chases her elusive shadow around the paper. Between frame and freedom, unclothed animal flesh and the cultural codes of conventional gestures, persona and shadow, Julie Rrap finds home.

Harking back to her conceptual roots, some kind of system is operating (5 minutes/ 500 years; 10 minutes/ 1000 years; 15 minutes/1500 years); and I’m guessing it’s a way of pulling the carpet from underneath the very idea of a time scale; or a way of re-enforcing art’s giddy power to manipulate it?


Art history and Julie Rrap: it’s a love-hate thing, like parent and child, supplicant and dominatrix, there are power relations involved. Male history especially gets taken down a peg or two, with its pompous potency, and its sentimental moralism masquerading as morality. The female nude, for thousands of years the keystone subject of Western Art, is taken down in this current work to the primordial bedrock of a body, and with it, our layered human creativity. 

Julie Rrap has done as much as anyone to play fast and loose with it: Mantegna, Moreau, Munch, Rembrandt, Rodin, Balthus, Duchamp - men mainly, “dreaming men”, and their “take” on the female body. Fluent in dialectic, Rrap jiu-jitsu’s them with irony, the “double-take”. She makes puns on those male artists, while integrating their histories.

It’s not just the objects that are made over the course of time, but the understanding of the society where these artworks are embedded. We don’t need Adam Philips to tell us there can be something intrinsically and unavoidably humiliating about being the child, the passive partner, or the younger sibling: we’re dependent, powerless vis-à-vis that authority, who can use our vulnerability to make themselves big. Then the child needs to do something to transform - to make bearable - the unavoidable suffering this involves. Art becomes the way to get pleasure out of this uneasy situation: it’s a form of psychic alchemy.

The resistance to that power involves compound emotions: pleasure and excitement, discipline and punishment, affection and resentment, that are all part of the intoxicating mix that draws the artist again and again to this subversive game.

This tease that Julie likes to play with Art History, reminds me of a poem by Edward Thomas:

Let me sometimes dance /with you,/Or climb/ Or stand perchance/ in ecstasy/ Fixed and free/ In a rhyme,/As poets do.


I admire this artist’s ways of finding a way forward, in the shifting politics and sociologies of our current moment; the way she concentrates intensely so that her practice doesn’t become mere artefact; and the way she can seize on the heart of intelligence and emotion at once.

Even in our dust, our ash, live our desiring fires.

– George Alexander, 2022

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