The sitter

Last night, in a somewhat befuddled, sickly state, compounded by the heady rush of free pinot noir, the Duchess had the pleasure of tripping along to see an exhibition by Keith Burt at Metro Arts in the city. Entitled ‘The Sitter,’ and ushered away in a small and densely populated room adjoining another exhibition, about which I shall not be writing, only because I wouldn’t do it justice, because I’m afraid I failed to penetrate it; the exhibition under consideration was a careful selection of portraits (my favourite!) and what I shall term post-portraits.

The intimate and unmistakably ‘Queensland’ room in fact does justice to the thoughtful and subdued collection of faces, feet and chairs and sheets. The bottleneck doorway frames a large painting of a Scottish Builder, who poses artlessly on his Van Gogh chair, legs parted like the Red Sea, in tiny builders’ shorts like those my dad wears, and heavy boots. Did this man stumble in from the street? Was he doing some work on Keith’s house, and, having observed, ‘You’re an artist!’ ask to sit for his portrait? This is mere speculation. But his endearing working-class pride and fierce Scotch pride are starkly contrasted with the other characters that we then move on to see around the corner—a smart, pointy-moustached man of a long-gone era, a frumpy, indie redhead girl (also in boots) with her iPhone close to hand, modern-day ‘Paul’, leaning forward eagerly and earnestly with a glass of red, and the feet of a mysterious woman. This is only to name a few. I will try not to give everything away.

Each sitter poses on a chair—maybe an old wooden one, maybe a smart vintage armchair, maybe a couch, maybe a modern armchair. Many wear boots, some sneakers, some polished dress shoes, and one has just kicked off her heels. Now, I don’t know if you’ve detected a trend in the documentation of my own feet within this blog, but I have to say that feet are of great interest to me. First of all, they look funny. Everyone’s feet look funny, in different ways. I have tiny, wide feet, with big toes that bend too sharply inwards. J has a gigantic gap between his big toe and the others, granting him a near opposable-big toe, enabling him to climb trees like a monkey. Secondly, they are useful tools, not in the same way as our hands, but almost equally as important. Sure, you can’t do craft with your feet, but you can walk, and perform tricks with them if you learn ballet, and they cop a hiding from hideous spike-heeled things we like to refer to loosely as ‘shoes.’

But I digress.

I was somewhat baffled by the feet and boots and shoes until I saw the heels, and I thought, ‘I love that feeling!’ My living room has, on any given day, about five pairs of heels strewn across it, on the rug, under the couch, next to the piano. A usual day entails me being outside of the house, wearing heels, for fourteen hours, and ends in me floating blissfully to the couch and baring my feet. I’m sure our Scottish friend feels the same after a long day laying bricks. And Paul has something to get off his chest—he should kick off his shoes and unwind as he swills that wine. But Paul is just a guest, moving on again before the day is over.

And this is where the post-portraits come in. My first encounter with Paul is up close in his troubled face, a small portrait focusing on the distress evident in his features. Across on the facing wall is full-sized Paul, a large painting in which we see him seated beside a table, a bottle of wine beside him. This one is hauntingly called Paul, life and death. Then there is his empty chair, After Paul. Perhaps this is so powerful because it constructs a narrative, and this narrative is interwoven with the narratives of disparate others, some united only by their friendship with the artist—some seemingly respectable time-travellers whose jumbled narratives nevertheless merge with the others.

A girl behind me shrieked decisively, ‘Ghost! Ooh, look at that—sheet and boots, definitely a ghost.’ But I think there is something of preservation in the sheets and the boots, though the sitters have risen and left. Like old furniture draped in drop-sheets in old west wings of gothic mansions, the painter has taken pains to keep everything as it was left. The boots are shaken off, life and death have been philosophised about, now it is time to rest.

Keith Burt’s ‘The Sitter’ is showing at Metro Arts, Brisbane, until Saturday 19 November.

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