On Belonging(s), Curated by Erin Wilson, Devonport Regional Gallery 2019

Alex Davern

Liam James

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson

Jessie Pangas


1. Possession

2. A close or intimate relationship – a sense of belonging

The double meaning of the word belonging, as both a possession and as a relationship to others, is of interest when we consider the role belongings play in our sense of belonging.


Our possessions are in many ways extensions of the self, and are an important part of the self-identity we build and convey to others. Theorists suggest that there are three distinct phases of life in which our relationship to our belongings forms an integral part of building and communicating our sense of self. The suggestion or contention is that during youth, possessions play a role in the creation of identity; that they are important in maintaining this identity throughout adulthood; and that they assist in preserving this identity as we reach our elderly years (1). This concept of the changing role over time was summarised by Joseph Neal as ‘our years of learning, our years of earning, and our years of yearning (for immortality)’ (2).

Our sense of having the ability to possess objects begins when we are very young, when a particular object may be adopted for comfort, sometimes referred to as a ‘transitional object’ (3), and jealousy over what other children have is common. During adolescence, objects begin to become more closely linked with our identity, and materialism is often considered highest during this period when, conversely, self-esteem is often at its lowest. During this time, possessions begin to play a role in who we are, but can also become a projection of what we want to be. For example, buying a first car is often viewed as a symbol of an independent identity as adolescents transition into adulthood, and the choice of car may say a great deal about who we are or aspire to be. As we negotiate adulthood our possessions, including (and perhaps especially) our houses, remain a cornerstone of our identity but also begin to become imbued with our memories. In our later years, it is suggested the elderly often begin the process of passing down their valued possessions to younger generations of the family, as a means of preserving their identity and ensuring a memory of their life after their death.

In discussing our possessions as extensions of the self, it is also interesting to consider the emotions we experience as a result of the loss of our belongings. Russell Belk suggests that the unintentional loss of belongings can strongly impact and lessen our sense of self (4). The loss of possessions through natural disaster or theft typically produces strong emotions, with the experience of having possessions stolen often being equated to a feeling of violation. However, the loss of possessions through an involvement with institutional settings also demonstrates the link between our belongings and our identity. Belk discusses the systematic deprivation of possessions of individuals as they enter prisons, boarding schools, the military and more, as a means of encouraging the development of a controlled and standardised identity (5).

On Belonging

Throughout our lives, we use possessions to both align ourselves with and differentiate ourselves from others. Whether through interests that our possessions denote, or through engagement with particular styles or brands, our possessions can signify membership of a particular social group, our social status, or adherence to a particular set of values or beliefs. What we own and what we buy can have a direct correlation with how we belong.

Architecture and place may also be considered as extensions of the self, with influence over how we belong, in similar ways to our possessions. Distinguishing between space and place, Datel and Dingemans discuss a sense of place as ‘the complex bundle of meanings, symbols, and qualities that a person or group consciously and unconsciously associates with a particular locality or region’6. The concept of place attachment further explores the way in which we connect to place, with theorists noting that place attachment is ‘an emotional connection between people and their surroundings...’7 which links our experiences, beliefs, emotions and routines of a particular place. Like the objects we own, the places we frequent, the routines and rituals we engage with, and the emotional responses these elicit, each play a role in building our self-identity and connection with others. This connection through shared experiences of place may cross generations and create a sense of a communal identity.

The links between objects, places and identity each converge in the home. The home plays a role in both revealing and concealing aspects of our identity, both as individuals and communities. Carl Jung asserted that our house can be a symbol of our self 8, and the privacy afforded by the home may allow for a divergence between the self we present publicly and the one we explore in private. Significantly, the home is also a space that, through our routines and possessions, we transform into a place that reflects ourselves. Like the individual possessions we acquire, the accumulation and presentation of these possessions in the home, and our shared experiences of these places, becomes an outward communication of our social identity – a fundamental part of being human. Ultimately the places and possessions we feel an affinity toward, and the identity they communicate, provide us crucial opportunities for connecting with others and feeling a sense of security and acceptance, all contributing to our sense of self, and our sense of belonging.

On Belonging(s)

The artists in this exhibition On Belonging(s) explore different aspects of both notions of belonging and belongings. Jessie Pangas’ work is a quiet reflection on the nostalgic significance of the possessions that commonly surround us in the home, acting as repositories and holders of our memories and stories. Liam James positions the European vase as a receptacle signifying the possession and control of the invaded Australian landscape, while exploring this family collectable’s role in reconciling a sense of place in this landscape. Amber Koroluk-Stephenson explores the experience and tensions of migration, and the role of objects as signifiers of place and identity, whether maintaining connections to the past or aiding assimilation into new places and cultures. Finally, Alex Davern focuses on items that are acquired and consumed through our everyday lives, and the role the routines surrounding these objects play in developing our sense of identity and connection to place and to others.

Together, these artists explore how we attach value to objects, and the role these possessions play in the stories we tell about ourselves, both individually and communally.

On Belonging(s) is a reflection on how we construct our identity, connect ourselves to place, and engage with our possessions, both nostalgically and idealistically, as extensions of the self.

1. Gentry, G., Menzel Baker, S., & Kraft, F.B., (1995), “The Role of Possessions in Creating, Maintaining, and Preserving One’s Identity: Variation Over the Life Course”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 22. ED. F. R. Kardes & M. Sujan, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 413-418.

2. Neal, J. in Gentry, G., Menzel Baker, S., & Kraft, F.B., (1995). pp. 560-565.

3. Green, K.E. in Jarrett, C., (2013), “The Psychology of Stuff and Things”, The Psychologist, Vol.26 (Aug. 2013), (Sep. 1988), pp. 139-168.

4. Belk, R.W., (1988), “Possessions and the Extended Self”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 15, No. 2 (sep. 1988), pp. 139-168

5. Belk, R.W., (1988).

6. Datel, R. E., & Dingemans, D. J., in Najafi, M., Shariff, M.K.B.N., (2011), “The Concept of Place and Sense of Place In Architectural Studies”, World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 5, No. 8 (2011), p. 1101.

7. Najafi, M., Shariff, M.K.B.N., (2011), “The Concept of Place and Sense of Place In Architectural Studies”, World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 5, No. 8 (2011), pp. 1054-1060.

8. Jung, C. G., (1967), Memories, Dreams, Reflections, The Fontana Library: Theology and Philosophy, Collins.


Written by Dr. Eliza Burke, October 2018

On the surface, Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings look like a game of dress-ups, theatrical sets designed with props and embellishments for a play about to begin. As we wait for the actors to appear, Koroluk-Stephenson’s objects begin their own dialogue, exchanging gestures and viewpoints across the spectrum of light, shadow and colour, announcing their roles in her playful visual vocabulary. Like a dramaturg carefully working the relationships between characters, concepts, sets and props, she balances many stories within each space, the theatrical nature of her settings enhancing the performative nature of her objects and of her paintings themselves. But there is an ambiguous quality to these dialogues as she juxtaposes familiar and unfamiliar objects, mixes landscapes with interiors, and shifts the terms of reference between different cultures and histories across various scenarios. In the mix of modern and classical replicas and representations there is a sense of incongruity and uncertainty alluding to hidden histories of value and meaning such that we may ask - what landscape is this? Who lives here? Where have these objects come from? Where are we?

On a formal level, Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings stage an interplay between two and three-dimensional space. She divides space through walls and drapery that conceal and shape its dimensions, blending interiors with exteriors and hinting at views out the window, beyond the frame. Her folded screens ‘Somewhere in the Middle’ occupy the shared ground between two and three dimensions, embodying tensions between representing pictorial space and dividing it. Her mix of architectural design features – walls, patios, columns, stairwells, windows, selections of ‘landscape’, artificial lawn, white picket fences and the array of classical and modern objects, creates a rich vocabulary not only for exploring the ways we divide and construct particular spaces, but also the divisions between cultural environments and meanings. Blending the hyper-aesthetics of a modern interior design catalogue with elements of pastiche, KS’s approach carries with it a deeper critique of the positioning of cultural materials and artefacts, the shifting and sometimes illusory nature of their value and significance, and how they come to occupy certain spaces and mean certain things.

Shifting focus from her recent works on Australian suburbia, ‘Middleground’ hints at the legacies of colonialism in Australia and the ways in which cultural significance is constructed and exchanged, but also sometimes lost, through particular objects and images. Her ‘Blue Room’ works gather a cast of European and Australian artefacts, where the emphasis is less on their individual meanings or histories, and more on the role they play within a post-colonial dialogue. Stone cairns and maps tell stories of journeys and placemaking, peacocks, globes and model ships speak about the spectacle of exploration and Europe’s fascination with ‘the exotic, Picasso’s ‘Head of a Woman’, or the black and white Aboriginal shield point to European appropriations of ‘the primitive’ for its own cultural ends. Amidst these ‘relics’, ‘trophies’ and ‘legacies’, Koroluk-Stephenson places iconic Australian paintings and artefacts such as the infamous ‘Big Blue Lavendar Bay’ falsely attributed to Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan’s beloved ‘Ned Kelly’, and the rather lonely portrait of John Glover, revealing other dimensions of Anglo-European attempts to forge a ‘national’ vision within Australia against a backdrop of European influences. Critically, she doesn’t give these pieces centre-stage, but instead lets them linger in the background ironically overlooking the pre-cut strips of turf and artificial plants, the staircase or passageway leading nowhere and glimpses of the Tasmanian shoreline out the window.

In these and her other works, it’s perhaps not so much that these objects or artworks lose their meaning or that Koroluk-Stephenson wants to reduce their significance for political reasons, but more a case of showing how they gain or lose particular meanings in certain contexts and spaces. In her ‘pink’ paintings, Koroluk-Stephenson turns to the feminine to explore these tensions, in particular the relationships between Anglo-European myths of femininity and the exotic. In ‘Interior with Australian Venus, after Rayner Hoff’ she elevates and decentres Hoff’s famous sensual Venus, (1927) exploiting the sculpture’s contours like a fashion editor, scaling it down to fit the compressed, domestic space. Juxtaposing Hoff’s Venus with key flower paintings by women painters such as Georgia O’Keefe and Margaret Preston and various eroticised natural forms, Koroluk-Stephenson showcases the exotic feminine in different guises, highlighting its gendered politics within the modern period.

In other works, such as ‘Ancanthe after a Lady’ or ‘Vestiges, after John and Jane’ Koroluk-Stephenson uses conflicts between idealised femininity and the lives of real women to explore tensions within the Tasmanian colonial landscape. Through various classical references, we see the remnants of Lady Jane Franklin’s life in the vestige stones and Greek columns of her ‘Ancanthe’ house, the site of her vision for a garden and culture of the arts, cut short by the disappearance of her husband John during an Arctic voyage. Koroluk-Stephenson places the Hawaiian feather cape, gifted to Franklin in Hawaii by King Kamehameha IV in 1861 on a bright yellow wall, the tropical colour at odds with an otherwise European palette, a symbol of her displacement following many years of searching for John at sea. In ‘Anne and Aphrodite Koroluk-Stephenson’s juxtaposition of a manicured hedge with pristine bust of Aphrodite and the rugged peak of British-named Mount Anne (after Georgina Anne Frankland) in the background, places women at the uneasy centre of Europe’s attempts to naturalise the Australian landscape and its own myths of grandeur.

The combined effect of Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings is a playful but profound sense of displacement and the feeling that even if we were to recognise a place or an object, it is ambiguous and only partially there. Her works maintain the seductions of the picturesque whilst unsettling the codes of the many artefacts and objects that we use to construct the appearance of a civilised world, asking us to look more deeply at what is hidden within the stories we tell about ourselves. Beneath her carefully constructed veneers, Koroluk-Stephenson’s works perhaps reflect deeper tensions within modern Australia, the legacies of European influence and the co-existence of displaced cultures, not the tyranny, but the ‘nearness of distance’ that pre-occupies contemporary Australian consciousness. In this sense, her works seem less concerned with the details of the past, and more with the workings of the present – a ‘middleground’ where many myths and histories mingle in close proximity, carving out the space like a set, but preventing us from entering.

Lost in No Space

Written by Andrew Harper, October 2017

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson has never made images of places. If something in her art resembles an historic bridge, found in the Tasmanian Midlands in a heritage village that is at once rather beautiful and terribly twee, Koroluk-Stephenson is not painting that bridge. She is painting the historical implications of the bridge, or she is painting a bridge that is analogous with something that feels like a bridge one encounters from a half-recalled dream state. It is not bridge. It is the idea of bridge.

There are no bridges in this series of paintings.

Koroluk-Stephenson is not sitting still as an artist, but is enhancing, editing and refining her own vernacular of images. This process is ongoing in her artistic production: her work is not static and her investigations are expanding but also becoming more complex.

The landscape is artificial.

There is not a landscape. There is the idea of landscape. It is a landscape overlaid and enhanced with a notion of being alien, or having elements that are alien, composed of a dialogue of bright coloured fraudulent birds and broad-leafed plants, steamed through with a moist sense of an exotic delicacy, that is at once threatened and threatening.

The idea of other and elsewhere looms massive behind the fake walls.

If you go to the theatre – the actual theatre, there will often be a set, and sets are strange things, because they are flat and not even remotely real, but we accept them because you cannot put a real tree into a theatre. We see the image of a tree that is analogous with a tree, which has the historical (and other) implications and context of a tree. This is not a tree. It is the idea of a tree. We accept this construction without blinking in the theatre, where our duty is spectate in a certain way, that there is context for, and that we are taught. It’s interesting that we have to be taught to go to the theatre.

If we look at this series of paintings, they do have elements of theatre sets. Stairs are too flat and do not go anywhere beyond the edge of the painting; the stairs are an idea that lead us up to somewhere, that might be the attic or the upstairs studio or heaven.

None of those places exist.

These are not paintings of places.

They are not paintings of theatre sets either: they are paintings of non-existent theatre sets, or things that remind of and imply theatre sets, which remind of or imply other things, like the idea of trees or stairs, enriched by the complex layered notions all the works are infused with.

Nothing is literal. Nothing is real.

The rubber gloves that appear again and again become birds, but they are not birds. They are used as puppets, but they are not proper puppets, they are gloves, and when no one is using them as puppets they lie, limp, like shed skins, their bright colours like fruit or flowers, and they are none of these things because they complex intersections of notions of materiality, consumer culture, the impact of waste on the environment, the way that people seal themselves off from nature

and they are not rubber gloves: they are paintings of the idea of rubber gloves. Tents. Oranges. We go camping in tents and we take oranges along, but we also make pretend tents in the lounge room on a wet day.

Are these places inside or outside?

Why are trees from different altitudes and indeed different types of forests, that are possibly quite geographically distinct, all mixed together? They are exotic. They do not belong. They are from somewhere else.

There is something unsettling about all the images and how they sit together, both in one painting and as a series of paintings.

There is something that reminds of surrealism, but surrealism as a movement in art was a long time ago and the world has changed: there is a cascade of imagery now, and we see the world in digital resolutions so high they may be more real than reality itself, and this has some bearing on how we see our world, the traditions of art and what Amber Koroluk Stephenson is investigating, with all her complex vernacular of forms and hints that point to a relationship she has with the history of painting, and her understanding of what some symbols mean, and how her work interrogates history, and examines context.

Why do we see a bird or a tree when we are not looking at one?

What have we been taught to see, and by implication, to think, to accept, and to ignore? Koroluk-Stephenson deals in the construction and exposure of mechanics not to de-mystify or destroy, but to examine what is occurring. Her complex language exposes, interrogates, and examines what she sees; and she arrives at a moment where the nature of painting as a way to make art is being examined. She is painting, perhaps, the idea of painting, and dissecting symbol and tradition, exposing artifice and problematic aspects. This is not destructive. It is creative in the extreme, rolling back to essential elements to find put for herself why the work needs to be made, what it is for, and how she may do it better.

It is not a place. It is the idea of place, and the idea of an artwork about a place.

There’s No Place Like Homeland

Written by Miriam McGarry, July 2017

Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biological and personal. (1)

John Berger

Homeland plays with this potential deception of landscape, through the compilation of contradictory landmarks in imagined sites. The scenes are assemblages of the exotic and the familiar; of Dorothea McKellar’s sunburnt sunsets, Vogue Living pot plants, pastoral plains, citrus fruits, and catalogue shrubbery. The paintings invite us behind the curtain, but rather than providing clarity, Amber disorients and disrupts assumptions of what constitutes an Australian homeland.

In Asunder, Amber ties back the curtain, revealing the performance of landscape. The family of pot plants are the central characters, nestled together in a plastic huddle, and sitting apart from the green habitat. Song of Love and Shelter also feature the curtain, although here is it cast as a shroud in the brooding twilight scenes. The paintings both unveil and cloak the staged environments. Amber invites the viewer backstage in her hybrid arcadia, into the paradoxes and messy contradictions of Australian soil, which consists of contested indigenous, colonial and migrant narratives.

Homeland at once familiarises and dislodges the viewer, making us feel at home in a fictional territory which cannot house us. David Hanson, in discussing John Glover, described the painter’s ‘instinct to domesticate the alien, to domesticate the foreign landscape by reference to home.’ (2) Here, Amber flirts with this imperial gaze, and teases mundane home-bound objects into her composite environments to bring a European sense of ‘home’ into the ‘land’. Limp washing up gloves fall across a tree branch, posing as a flowering suburban gumtree, or deflated cockatoo. A plastic flotilla of pot-plants sits adrift in an oasis, and a fruit bowl of oranges is spilled in the tent-like shelter. The glove is a recurring motif in the exhibition: an unintentional riff on John Glover’s name, a reference to de Chirico’s The Love Song, and a sanitised removed hand manipulating the region. Amber echoes de Chirico’s gathering of incongruous objects, to explore a space of belonging, and displacement. These mundane items provide a vocabulary and access point into the depicted non-places, through describing the unfamiliar in familiar terms.

While Amber invites the viewer to feel at home in her landscapes, she also fragments these spaces to disorient and destabalise. Rob Nixon, in discussing the slow violence of displacement, writes:

‘I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath then, a loss that leaves communities stranded in place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable.’ (3)

The paintings in Homeland both displace and acquaint, through erasing the environment of recognisable landmarks and characteristics, and introducing domestic objects with a gloved hand. These are imagined spaces of no-man’s land, where no-one can belong. In sweeping back the curtain, Amber questions the potential of being ‘home’ in an Australian landscape as a space in between ‘native and introduced species; natural and artificial landscapes, the wild and the tame, the civilised and the non-civilised.’ Rather than these binaries of belonging, the paintings suggest homeland as a site of contestation and hybridity, which is shifting, multiple, and deceptive.

1 Berger, John (1967) A Fortunate Man: the story of a country doctor Random House, New York

2 Hanson, David (2005) John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque, Tasmanian School of Art in Picturing the Wilderness Symposium

3 Nixon, Rob (2001) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

A conversation with the Past & a Vocabulary for the Future, written by David Greenhalgh, March 2016

Text for solo exhibition Outside the Garden Wall at Bett Gallery, 2016

They unfortunately could never be postcards: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s visions of the Australian landscape are picturesque, however the animating principle is a psychological undercurrent of melancholy, absence and displacement.

A conversation, not immediate or immediately observable, has taken place across a long-format time scale in Australian painting. Koroluk-Stephenson is the most recent interjection to this discussion. From 1788 to the present, non-Indigenous Australians have sought to reconcile themselves with the Australian continent and its unique and bizarre conditions. In transplanting the means and methods of European art into an environment so alien, landscape painters grasped for visual vocabulary worthy of their surrounds and continue to do so: These concerns did not benefit from syncretism with Indigenous knowledge, particularly in Tasmania, whose history is writ large, for a state so small.

Contemporary relationship to the land can be seen in many incarnations: The primary terms ‘bush’ (1) and the ‘outback’ we use to describe our natural world comprise a lexicon so sparse and unforgiving towards the land, that clinging perilously to the coastline seems a reasoned choice for most Australians. Such a limited vocabulary is symptomatic of the history of the nation—Horace Watson’s wax cylinder recordings of Fanny Cochrane Smith hauntingly hold onto the last fluent words of a language that would have been wholly shaped by Tasmania (2).

Beyond the Garden Wall is where Koroluk-Stephenson wanders into the uncharted, trying to reanimate the vocabulary lost to modern Australia. These sublime, arresting and tacit paintings converse with her antecedent, John Glover, whose depictions provide us with the opening remarks of the discussion: His paintings have been lambasted as awkward, “the foreground trees flat and unreal” (3), as he sought to develop a visual vocabulary to describe his surroundings. In much the same way Glover’s son, travelling to Tasmania by ship, described dolphins as “like a broad thick eel” as he came to terms with the unknown (4).

In light of this, Koroluk-Stephenson employs language such as stranded, foreign and sinking, a seemingly intergenerational dialogue with McCubbin’s Lost and Jane Sutherland’s Obstruction. Her visual vocabulary is equally as exploratory with puzzling artefacts and anonymous denizens populating her landscapes. Just as Koroluk-Stephenson deftly interrogates this relationship to the environment around us, ground-breaking research by Bill Gammage is revising our perceptions of the Indigenous relationship to land: revelations that the Australian landscape may not have been a wilderness, but a managed, cultivated environment worthy of the term ‘estate’ in his book The Largest Estate on Earth. This body of research draws its insights partly from written and environmental records, but also from landscape paintings such as Glover’s.

As our presumptions are cleaved in two, Koroluk-Stephenson presents a duplicitous view with Foreign Object I and Foreign Object II. Both images, viewed together, present a wilderness and a controlled environment, equally romanticised, yet posing the question: On what side of the garden wall does civilisation lie?

1 Bush as we use it in Australian English most likely derives from the Dutch bos, denoting land to be cultivated or land that is uncultivated.

2 The Palawa Kani project does, however, hope to revive this fluency.

3 McPhee, J. (1980). The art of John Glover, Artarmon: MacMillan. p. 37-38

4 Ibid. p. 53

It's hard to look away, written by Andrew Harper

Art with Andrew Harper, TasWeekend, The Mercury, April 2-3, 2016 p.21

Exhibition review for Outside the Garden Wall, Bett Gallery, Hobart

A strange cast of Caucasian folk is staring. All with their backs to us, they stare at bridges, white horses, boats and the bush. What are they really looking at, though? And are they us? In some paintings in this complex series of images by Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, these faceless people are staring at an image, just as we are. If someone stood behind me as I look at theses works, that person would see my back, staring at the backs of the people in the painting, staring at the artwork that is being stared at in the artwork.

Koroluk-Stephenson's art is unsettling. It has a dreamlike quality, not soft-focussed and comforting, but the fragmented feel of actual dreams, flashes of partly recalled, barely understood imagery whose meaning is just out of reach. This is koroluk-Stephenson's great skill. What she is painting has a peculiar familiarity. She expertly captures the Tasmanian bush, yet balances it with renderings of an imagined English Arcadia the early migrants to Tasmania longed to create in their new world while ignoring the beauty already present.

We recognise iconic Tasmanian bridges, yet they are not exact renderings of the Tasman or Richmond bridges. Why are there white horses? Why is one a real horse and one a painting? Why are we looking at a painting of a painting? Why the allusions to theatre, to the fake landscape that stands in the way of the true landscape? Why a screen blocking the view of the drought stricken land, its colours dry and mumbling, overpowered by the garish fraud of a landscape that could never exist in its place? It's eerie.

What's it all about? There is no easy answer and nor should there be. Koroluk-Stephenson is certainly making a comment about landscape art, its history and its politics. She points to notions of cliche by revelling in a rich language of symbols, and makes them powerful by investing them with the quality of the subconscious. Her most clever device is the way she folds the viewer into the art. We stare and we become complicit: we read the symbols and become them.

Outside the Garden Wall: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, written by Briony Downes

Art Guide Australia, Issue 100, p.55, March/April 2016

If Twin Peaks went on summer vacation to Tasmania, their Instagram account would look a lot like Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings. Postcard-perfect scenes with a hint of unsettling ambiguity.

Intrigued by our desire to tame and shape the environment, Koroluk-Stephenson has focused her work on theatrical images of idealised suburbia – pastel houses, clipped lawns and white fences have all been recurrent features. It is a world of carefully constructed artifice, made to look effortlessly natural.

In Outside the Garden Wall the suburbs have been swapped for landscapes. While the open spaces suggest there is more room to breathe, there is still a sense of being hemmed in. Familiar landmarks frame the compositions and add to the staged theatricality of each scene. In Pretend the ship’s not sinking (2016), Hobart’s iconic Tasman Bridge looms behind a cluster of swimmers as they watch the stern of an upturned yacht sink into the river below. It seems like a quaint summer’s day yet an unnatural tension seeps into the unfolding events.

Describing her new works as “highly romanticized and a little haunting”, Koroluk-Stephenson also looks to the sublime in nature as a key inspiration. There is a sinister beauty in the Gloveresque landscape that frames the female figure in Adrift (2015) as she wades out into a river winding its way through bush land, complete with displaced pelicans and a potted plant mingling among the trees.

Through her provocative reflections on our need to alter and construct the spaces around us – a need that now extends online to the social media highlight reel- Koroluk-Stephenson reminds us that things are not always what they seem.

Public Hangings, Ken Urban, written by Andrew Harper

Tas Weekend, The Mercury, August 15-16, 2015, p.20

Exhibition review of Ken Urban, at Contemporary Art Tasmania, 2015

Familiar phrases, ridiculous masculinity and overstated urban cliches hang together in a new exhibition that is rich in a most underused material: satire. Comedy, when successful, is about a lot more than laughter; it's about opening eyes and asking hard questions.

Ken Urban brings together three early career artists whose take on making art uses aspects of contemporary Australian culture, making a show that uses humour and wit to drag in the audience.

David Attwood's mashed-together fragments of mundane language, rendered in what appears to be ordinary felt-tip marker, seems almost senseless but reveal themselves as the random objects that make up existence: brand names, food, weather and everything that's sort of inconsequential and sort of important at the same time. Slapped together with great care, Attwood's blended haikus are funny and frivolous, asking why life is filled with inoffensive inanities and which of them we need. It could very well be none, begging the question of why we even have all this stuff.

Shannon Field's Convicts of The Apocalypse, a series of seven representations of the Australian male, is rough and readymade but just as considered as Attwood's phrasing. Seven-square-headed blokes, complete with capes, astride traditional carpenter's horses, ride nowhere in particular and look all the more ludicrus for it. These figures, made from construction material, are a neat visual pun about the make-up of Australian masculinity and the leftover aspects on convict heritage. You can run, but as it id still a part of you, it could be difficult to hide.

Amber Korolukl-Stephenson's magnifecent installation Paradise Dreaming sits above a tilted plastic lawn covered in fraudulent foliage. It looks like a terrible theatre set from some frightening ameture play, rendered expertly in paint while confusing some innocent native animals and birds as it blocks the view of the actual Australian bush these creatures inhabit.

Ken Urban is filled with intelligent, even barbed comedic observation, shining a precise light on aspects of Australian culture we often overlook but maybe should not.

Ken Urban, written by Geoff Parr

Text for curated group exhibition Ken Urban at Contemporary Art Tasmania, 2015

In 2014 at the Bett Gallery, Amber Koroluk-Stephenson showed a coherent group of Tasmanian painting depicting suburban spaces that were located between the distant rolling hills and an equally distant CBD skyline. That body of paintings marked the artist as an aspiring urban storyteller and virtually chose Amber for an early-career artist exhibition entitled Ken Urban.

In the setting of each painting multiple clues are used to construct an identity of the conscientious homemaker. The incorporation of carefully detailed home and garden layouts, manicured attention to plants, lawns, pathways, lawns and edges and associated accoutrements formed portraits of people in places. It was the very continuity of these suburban fables, which introduces a surrealist element to the artworks that not even the homeowners of Hobart’s iconic Arthur Circus would be able to match.

The artist chose to push this ‘beyond reality’ element a little further with foreboding titles given to some of the works and she gives this quality a further nudge when she writes about ‘social constructs creating stereotypes’. There is coherence here between the artist’s concept and her choice of content. Together they compose the narrative.

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson is a Tasmanian artist making paintings about social factors in greater suburbia. Given the considerable influence upon Tasmanian artists of the always close-at-hand natural countryside, this ‘in my street’ series re-presents subject matter common to most town folk.

Then a late visit to the artist’s studio provides new insights into the preparation for a large canvas, which the artist intends to complete for the Ken Urban exhibition only a few weeks hence. Immediately evident was the extensive preparatory work, the monochrome sketches and the full-colour sketches and the 3-D models all testing the properties of the content and composition for this major work, presently at the underpainting stage.

As a measure of the considerable care that Amber puts into the preparation of her artworks, the studio visit was most impressive. Meticulous preparation also explains the continuity of storytelling so apparent in Amber’s practice. Even at the preparatory stage this new project retains that same ‘beyond reality’ elements evident in the earlier artworks, only now the symbols of suburbia will be carefully laid out upon a magic carpet and so mobilised are destined to visit their country counterparts: the symbols of Australia’s bushland.



Beyond the Gate, written by Dr. Lucy Hawthorne

Text for solo exhibition Beyond the Gate at Bett Gallery, 2014

The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason.

Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004).

Beyond the Gate dwells on the impossibility of utopia. At first glance, the scenes in Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings are bright and playful. They depict a kind of urban paradise with soft grassy hills, colourful and exotic flora and fauna, generous dwellings, and leisure activities aplenty. Mannequin-like figures dot the paintings, either hard at work, or enjoying the sunny weather next to pools or on the golf course.

However, things aren’t quite right in paradise. Within the flattened picture plane, angles begin to slip. We see impossible walls, paths that lead to nowhere, and awkwardly placed ladders. Two boys peer over a white picket fence where confident black swans have occupied a domestic pool. The treehouse above their heads, although colourful, is clumsy and impractical, and the title – Flying into Shallow Waters – suggests more is at risk than the boys’ toy aeroplane.

In Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s suburban landscape is the backdrop to an extraordinary tale at odds with the absurd uniformity of the pastel houses, lawns and topiaried hedges. Like Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings, his sets exaggerate suburban life, emphasising uniformity over creativity. This conformity is emphasised in Koroluk-Stephenson’s work through the repetition of plants, the Sims-like characters, and unremarkable dwellings. Like film sets, the paintings are dotted with props: slides, ladders, umbrellas, deck chairs, towels and inflatable swimming rings. They’re items of leisure and play, and in many instances, their presence and location are deliberately nonsensical, and their numbers excessive. In the presence of children, they represent an obsession with short term attention and instant gratification at the expense of lifelong learning and the development of creative play.

The artist refers to her scenes as “unreal spaces” that reveal the “absurdity of utopia,” but equally, the absurdity of suburbia. She sets up contradictions: on one hand, she believes the lush foliage alludes to the Garden of Eden, and yet the gardens, with their patterned plants and carefully constructed landscaping, are a little too tidy. Large stumps of trees are repurposed to support balconies, platforms and treehouses. With the trees removed from the environment, they’re replaced with ‘instant’ plants evidently out of place.

The stairs, ladders and slides symbolise instability, cautioning against false aspirations and utopian dreams. Before the Flood depicts a young family watching kayakers paddle upstream. Biblical reference aside, the presence of the dam appears to threaten the safety of the elegant, yet precarious-looking house. On closer examination, it looks like the only access to the relatively large house is via an unsecured red ladder, suggesting that practicality was not the architect’s forte. But it looks nice. With its strong lines and geometric forms, the house has a Japanese aesthetic, which is complemented by the nearby cherry blossoms, cone-shaped trees and placid-looking pelicans. It’s a façade, and a potentially dangerous one.

The scenes in Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings are composites. They’re non-places populated by generic buildings, swimming pools, and rolling grassy hills, most of which are modelled on images found online. The large house in Evergreen is largely drawn from a contemporary prefabricated housing catalogue. Dwarfed by its neighbour, the other house is an original 1960s design with a similarly sloped roof and floor-length windows. Both are puzzlingly empty, even though (with the exception of the delicious-looking lawn) the surrounding plants look artificially well established and immaculately pruned. The exotic plants are unrealistically and uncomfortably perfect, as if dragged from a digital catalogue.

As constructions, Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings lack a specific locality. However, there is a distinct Australian aesthetic, and in some of the images we can see hints of Hobart: a notorious Sandy Bay unit block, a low bridge, yachts leaning into the ocean breeze, and a tiny Mount Wellington. Of all the paintings in the exhibition, End of the Line is the most suggestive of Hobart. It is a collage of local imagery from realestate.com, resulting in unlikely angles, a redundant garage, and an awkward and painful-looking slide that is not only impractical due to the presence of a hedge, but also surplus to the needs of the bored-looking children.

The mythical ‘Great Australian Dream’ of home ownership has encouraged urban sprawl on our city fringes, and while End of the Line, Flying into Shallow Waters and On the Rise, hint at inner city living, other paintings such as Making Way and From the Ground Up suggest new, greenfield developments dominated by large kit homes. Home ownership has a special place in Australian society. It’s an obsession. Type ‘Australian real estate’ into Google and it identifies 124 million results. The first page lists sponsored investment sites, homeloan deals, and newspaper articles reporting record auction prices and the consequential unaffordability of ‘the dream’. It’s political, it’s social, and it’s dirty. In the 1940s and 50s, Prime Minister Robert Menzies openly established home ownership initiatives to counter communism. He reasoned that people who owned a house, a garden and a white picket fence, were unlikely to turn revolutionary. Despite the fact that home ownership is now financially out of reach for many young Australians, the ‘dream’ remains central to Australian culture and identity. Like Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings, it’s a constructed ideal. Her houses, landscaped pools, golf courses and colourful plants would not be out of place in a housing development brochure or model.

Although many of the figures in Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings seem emotionally neutral, the relationship between the people in Upper Limits is intriguing. In front of a modest house balanced on stilts, a young woman crouches over a partly-constructed swimming pool, while two men appear to be holding a conversation on the grassy slope. One is dressed in a suit, and could be a real estate agent, and perhaps the title refers to a ‘maxed out’ mortgage and the ‘limits’ of the dream. Of course, it could equally relate to the precariousness of the raised house on the edge of a rocky retaining wall, or the wooden staircase perched on worryingly high supports. A tree stump absurdly incorporated into a bizarre wooden platform represents the destruction of the natural environment, and a desire to control nature through the replanting of more desirable and flamboyant foliage. The golf courses located in most of the paintings further symbolise this drive to impose order on the natural environment through the artificial construction of smooth surfaces, varied lengths of grass, water hazards, and ‘natural’ grassy knolls.

Despite the exhibition title, few of Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings depict physical gates or fences. Notions of ownership, division, and even exclusion, are suggested via more subtle means. For instance, Divided Living depicts a block of units on the left, and a large modern house with floor to ceiling windows on the right. The two are not divided by a fence, as would usually be expected. The division is instead implied by the size and the distinction between public and private space. Although the house is closer to the front of the picture plane, it still seems disproportionately large compared to the sad-looking flats. In the early twentieth century, Modernist architects associated glass and transparency with technological and ideological virtue, destroying the distinction between public and private life. Walter Benjamin remarked: “to live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence. It is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism that we badly need. Discretion concerning one’s own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an affair of petit-bourgeois parvenus.” 1 However, the practicality of the material means that these kinds of houses tend to be quite costly, and not as egalitarian as once imagined. Unlike the shrouded units, the occupants of the house aren’t concerned with curtains, and we can see their vast living and bedroom area, along with their designer furniture and artwork, suggesting that the links between class and privacy have greatly changed over the last century.

While Divided Living comments on class through ownership, many of the other paintings suggest social division through labour and leisure. Themes of work and play are repeated throughout the paintings, depicted by two distinct groups of people: the workers and the holidaymakers or ‘leisure makers’. The workers, heads down, are absorbed by their labour, subject to the gaze of the leisure class. In Making Way, the workers are watched by a group of children and teenagers wearing t-shirts and swimming costumes. One teenager observes from a deckchair, while others stand on an oddly situated viewing platform, phone in hand, and uncomfortably out of place. Where there are no ‘leisure makers’ (or ‘leisure seekers’) on scene, their presence is nonetheless suggested: in Higher Ground a towel lies casually on the freshly laid turf, and in From the Ground Up, an inflatable ring sits atop a turquoise pool. Throughout the paintings, surplus deckchairs and brightly coloured umbrellas sit empty, waiting, and the pools, treehouses, golf courses, slides and tents - things usually associated with holidays – sit in a landscape that’s still being created. Again, it’s a contradiction designed to deconstruct notions of luxury and ownership.

Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings address an overwhelming number of themes, from the destruction of the natural environment to the absurdity of suburbia and notions of greed and desire. The works highlight our harmful attempt to control nature through the irrational recreation of exotic landscapes in our gardens and parks, and that instant gratification can be a substitute for happiness. As Richard Flannigan writes in The Narrow Road to the Deep North:

And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter – professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space – was vested with the greatest of significance, and everything that did matter - pleasure, joy, friendship, love, - was deemed somehow peripheral. (2013, p. 400)

It may be sunny in paradise, but those exotic plants have a sting.

1 Walter Benjamin, ‘Surrealism’ in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, Peter Demetz ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 180.


Half Full / Half Empty, written by Jess Bradford

Text for solo exhibition Half Full / Half Empty at Archive Space ARI, Sydney 2014

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color…Primal images, simple engravings are but so many invitations to start imagining again.”

Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1994), 33

Absence in Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s body of work Half Full / Half Empty is set as an invitation. In row upon row of Koroluk-Stephenson’s suite of images from suburbia the central subject of the house has disappeared. Literally taking on the exhibition’s title each painting has a house physically cut out of the image making it half full or half empty. After setting the stage, Koroluk-Stephenson has stepped out and allowed the viewer to fill in the void with our own images, stories and memories. And it is an easy space to fill. The image of the suburban house is a familiar one no matter which country we spent our childhood. So much so that the empty space in Koroluk Stephenson’s work retains an implication of history. Leaving the viewer’s process of interpreting the image to be part recollection and part quest, as if through our memories and projected fantasies into the space we could start to access some of the real histories behind these homes.

Half Full / Half Empty follows on from a body of work responding to the suburban environment. Throughout her practice Koroluk-Stephenson maintains an adept hand at balancing the possibilities of the nostalgic, the banal and the strange found in suburbia. Despite having the markings of picture postcards or hotel art Koroluk-Stephenson’s work never falls into the blandness of the picturesque. Her paintings have a surprisingly meaty texture, with the neatly trimmed and blooming foliage of her garden’s often sitting heavily on the painting’s surface. Aiding her escape from pure sentimentality is her compositional ability to suggest the rich potential of narrative present in these residential neighborhoods. In her works there is the sense of untold stories hidden behind the façade of the suburban home. Each image possessing individuality based on a backdrop known for its homogeny.

In this exhibition we go beyond the simplicity between optimism and pessimism as the title points to deeper questions of perception, interpretation and the imagination. In these images that seem to be simultaneously full of ghosts and clear vessels longing to be filled, our thoughts become the sole occupants of the empty homes.


Amber Koroluk-Stephenson: Urban utopias with an edge, written by Rebecca Speer

Concrete Playground (online journal), Published October 29 , 2013

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson is one to watch. The Tasmanian artist is showing her most recent works at MOP gallery and they’re an absolute delight.

Her paintings of urban utopias are ever so slightly undercut by a subtle sense of uneasiness. The artist draws inspiration from her native Tasmania, presenting large, brightly coloured canvases filled with neat brick houses, overly manicured gardens, girls sunbaking and little kids about to take a dip in the backyard pool.

Upon closer inspection, the suburban ‘utopias’ depicted begin to fray at the edges. Seats are overturned, the sunlight is a little too bright, and the picture planes shift ever so slightly, giving a fabulous sense of discord. The apple tree is laden with far too much fruit, and it’s all falling neatly onto the blanket below.

The title of the series, ‘Quixotic Habitation’, also points to the imperfection of the painted utopias, along with the titles of the individual works. Staging of an illusion, Prelude at the Garden’s Edge and In the Interlude – there’s something a bit filmic about the scenes. They feel a little staged, a little too studied.


All that Glisters is Not Gold, written Dr. Lucy Hawthorne

Text for solo exhibition Quixotic Habitation at Mop Projects, Sydney 2013

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson’s exhibition title Quixotic Habitation evokes the unreal, the unpractical and the ideal, for the term ‘quixotic’ stems from Miguel de Cervantes’ delusional hero, Don Quixote. In a lengthy speech, Quixote’s squire Sancha Panza, declares, “all that glisters is not gold,” indicating that first impressions or at least a surface reading are rarely indicative of the truth. And so it is with Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings, which demand a double take, a second glance, a deeper reading.

It’s apt that the idiom ‘double take’ stems from filmmaking. Like a Tim Burton set there is a slight delay before we realise the scene before us is not an idyllic suburban paradise. The landscape is familiar yet unreal, the fruit falls too conveniently on the picnic rug, the exotic shrubbery is at odds with the post-war weatherboard houses and 1990 model wagon, and the newly laid grass is already seamless. In each painting, the characters of Australian suburbia play a familiar role: a teenager sunbakes on the grass next to her hose-wielding little brother, the family dog patiently waits by dad as he carefully rolls out turf, and two young boys fascinated by something in the pebbled garden feature are clearly up to no good.

The unsystematic perspective and unnatural lighting are also suggestive of theatre. The houses in the triptych, Staging of an Illusion, celebrate a certain ‘anti-perspective’, the oblique angles akin to those seen in pre-Renaissance paintings. And this perspective seem at odds to the textbook rounding of the backyard pool and carefully rendered backyard paraphernalia, hinting at the ‘staged illusion’. Plants around the perimeter form a brightened arena or stage, isolating the characters from the other dwellings that dot the far-off hills, and a new concrete path oddly services the hills hoist rather than the house. In the Interlude also abandons illusionary perspective at times. The buildings and cars are flattened and by consequence draw attention to the four figures in the front yard. The characters’ pursuits appear purposeless and in the context of this exhibition the painting acts as the ‘interlude’ between the more idyllic scenes depicted in the other two works. Prelude at the Garden’s Edge is more overt in its titling and contains multiple references to Eden: the apple tree, the woman asleep on the grass, and the young boy holding the snake-like garden hose over a bed of healthy seedlings. Beyond the white picket fence lies Hobart’s Tasman Bridge – an identifier at odds with the backyard’s tropical plants. The inclusion of exotic plants, many of which were sourced from the internet, is the artist’s response to the lack of native species planted around Hobart. The act of removing nature and replacing it with an exotic ‘other’ is not new to Australia; in fact, when the British colonial settlers first arrived in Sydney, their attempt to replace what they saw as a foreign nature with the familiar English landscape, established an unofficial plant hierarchy that still somewhat persists today.

The Australian obsession with suburbia and the ‘aspirations’ of the working class is humorously reflected in Koroluk-Stephenson’s paintings. In particular, the favourite phrase of Australian politicians, “working families”, comes to mind when viewing Staging of an Illusion. The father works the garden; the kids play in the pool; they have a dog, a cat, and a shiny hills hoist (strangely, no mother figure though). It’s all a bit kitsch, a bit creepy.



ISBN 978-1-921661-39-6

50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2012, Debutantes: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, written by Ashley Crawford

Australian Art Collector, Issue 59, January-March 2012

They could be film stills from the opening phase of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or John Waters’s Hairspray. Whether photographs or oil on canvas, Amber Koroluk Stephenson’s works exude a perfect scent of 1950s kitsch and while there’s a considerable dollop of humour, it is delivered with an acidic twist. Indeed, for some odd reason, looking at these works, I began pondering the grotesque practice of Chinese foot-binding.

Women, throughout history, have been burdened with notions of fashion and what it is to be considered attractive. Whether it be feet or hair or whalebone corsets or waxing there is inevitably pain involved. But appearances must be maintained, even if, as one of Stephenson’s titles attest, She’s too Hip to be Happy.

“Social constructs create stereotypes that define femininity,” Stephenson says. “Nostalgic femininity is part of my day-to-day life and I collect it obsessively. In the present these things hold new social and cultural meaning and value. This body of work reflects upon an era when the feminine persona was more or less dictated, a time when women only wore dresses or skirts and hesitated to leave the house without first applying lippy.”