My mother said, I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
If I did then she would say,
‘Naughty girl, you disobey,
Your hair shan’t curl, your shoes wont shine,
You gypsy girl, you shan’t be mine.’
And father said that if I did,
He’d wrap my head with a teapot lid.
The wood was dark, the grass was green.
In came the fae with a tambourine.
I went to sea – not ship to get across,
I paid ten shillings for a blind white horse
I upped on his back and off in a crack –
Fae, tell my mother that I shan’t be back.
MY MOTHER SAID - Exhibition Essay by By Samantha Houben
Toni Messiter's new paintings respond to the cautionary tale My Mother Said. The body of work explores notions of choice and otherness by provoking the character responses to the question: What would you do? The gallery sets the stage for the dramatic allegorical figures as their enigmatic expressions consider the possibility of new beginnings. Created within a backdrop of a wild and unfamiliar landscape, folklore and gypsy tropes embrace otherness and allure the forbidden. Drawn personal experiences, antiquity and art history, Messiter paints her characters from dolls as figures from the past. The motif explores the roles of girls and women in society as they choose a path of their own. Incarnated onto the canvas, the characters seize the enticing opportunity possibilities of an alternate world.
Messiter's characters are suspended in a moment of contemplation. Carefully outlined, they protrude from dark backgrounds filled with fierce brushstrokes that create a mercurial and uncertain atmosphere. Some exude confidence as they consider following the gypsies, whilst others seem strange, perhaps scared of the threats in the cautionary tale. Collectively they look towards each other for comfort and guidance on their journey, led by elder subjects seen in You won't be mine. Their appearances are rendered from the artist's ancestors and a diverse range of dolls she received. A smoky haze confirms the foreboding scene as a fixture of the imagination and foreshadows that something will happen. Here the artist uses notions of alterity or otherness as a sliding doors moment, offering those on the periphery a choice to redefine expectations in imaginative scenarios full of freedom and vigour.
The juxtaposition of the doll-like characters in the dark wood asks – What are they doing alone? The unsettling scenario questions the message in My Mother Said that girls do not belong in the woods and bad things happen to those who stray. Threats emerge in the work, Your hair won't curl is taken from a line in the poem portraying a girl with unruly yellow hair. Traditionally, these curls required sleeping with rags twisted in hair to create ringlets, mimicking the hairstyles of dolls. The toys encourage play, beauty, and comfort, but also confine girls in the domestic sphere. The title is splashed across the foreground in red paint, barricading the subject back into the frame's interior. Enforcing this absurd threat highlights unattainable standards for women and the constraints placed on them in a patriarchal society. The protagonist rests her cheek in her hand with a slightly furrowed brow, she seems aware of her position within the frame as she considers her response. The work exposes what the tales are trying to supress – when young women begin to question the world around them.
The exhibition encapsulates the moments characters act on their past lives. Most appear in the woods with marvellous unravelled curls, they are encouraged by the white horse figure and the gypsies who have forged their independence. Distinguished by the fabulous gold hoop earrings and scarfs with a big bow the gypsy’s allure with a promise of freedom, but they too have consequences. In came the gypsy paints a girl with an un-ravelled neck ribbon looking at the gypsy who glances over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow and tilted head, she gestures towards the viewer with a mysteriously understanding eye. The gypsy is free from society, there's no guarantee of a comfortable life. Their role as the other acknowledges that every path is faced with challenges and unpredictability which can be to be met with awareness, empathy and resilience.
The grass was green beholds a figure wearing red stockings looking directly towards the viewer, her piercing eyes create a childlike sense of wonder. A white horse frolics into the background, as another white horse is formed around the waist like a flotation device. It offers an oddly secure scene of freedom through isolation and intrigue. No longer fragile and discarded dolls, they embody the heroes in their own tales free to live a life they choose. Messiter playfully references Velázquez's depiction of himself in Las Meninas with an uncanny resemblance to the head from the white horse in I won't be back. The dynamic composition sees two young women in billowing dresses alongside a cheeky nude figure wearing a chain and a white horse head. Almost like a bonnet it is suspended overhead as the figure peers sideways towards the characters with an omniscient air of pride. It is a reassuring spectacle to encourage the characters to take whichever path they please.
There is a performative element in the characters' responses to the poem. The drama unfolds with a tension between an ominous past and a future of unconstrained possibility. Messiter's theatrical positioning of the ubiquitous doll motif, backed up by the gypsy and white horses, play out as a poignant reminder of the realities still faced today. Complimented by Messiter’s unbridled approach to painting and compassion for her characters, these uncanny and inquisitive figures imply that there may be more than meets the eye.
Toni Messiter: Artist Statement & Bio
Toni Messiter's new paintings respond to the cautionary tale My Mother Said. The body of work explores notions of choice and otherness by provoking the characters response to the question - what would you do?
Messiter's dramatic allegorical figures appear as if a decision is about to be made, drawing viewers into an enticing possibility of new beginnings. Their enigmatic expressions allure the forbidden, playing into folklore and gypsy tropes as the protagonist's piercing eyes enchant audiences through isolation and intrigue. Carefully outlined, they protrude from dark backgrounds filled with fierce brushstrokes surrounding the subjects that create a mercurial and uncertain atmosphere.
The ubiquitous doll subject is a playfully absurd yet poignant reminder of the realities for girls and women in contemporary society. Drawn from personal experiences, antiquity, high-art and the three-quarter portraits from Old masters, Messiter incarnates the doll-esque notions to consider experiences as 'the other'. The result is complex characters rendered through layers of paint, fleshed out, they create tension between an ominous peripheral past and a future of unconstrained possibility.
In response to the poem, fuelled by Messiters unbridled approach to painting, these uncanny and inquisitive figures imply there may be more than meets the eye.
By Samantha Houben
‘If the planets are in alignment there are times you get to do the things you want. For me that happened when I rented a studio space where I was able to fully discover the joy of painting. Art has always been my passion, but it had always been something I did on my own way. Visual expression influences everything in my physical world. By the time the studio space was mine I was ready to embrace and explore my creative dream. With the wealth of life experiences, I was able to hone my skills and discover my trait. I am settled in this “figurative conversation” and am enabled to express myself in ways for which there are no words’.
Toni Messiter is a Sydney based painter who began her practice over 20 years ago. Her father, a painter himself, taught Messiter the fundamentals of colour and composition, instilling a deep and enduring adoration for the medium.
Drawing from the aesthetics of 17th Century portraiture and in particular, portraits of the family. There is a stylistic affinity for theatrics which dramatically unfold as ruminations on the human condition; presenting subjects that boarder upon absurdity and delight, provocation and enchantment. Messiter is represented by Stanley Street Gallery.