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Get to Know MFA’s Australian Artist KATHERINE HATTAM

3 Jan
Katherine Hattam with one of her latest exhibits, Federation Square. Photo: Angela Wylie

Katherine Hattam with one of her latest exhibits, Federation Square. Photo: Angela Wylie

Colours of the hectic city

Gabriella Coslovich for The Age, Australia

November 15, 2010

Katherine Hattam’s art is inspired more by places around Melbourne than by family friend Fred Williams.

ART has been an intrinsic part of Katherine Hattam’s life. Her father, Harold Hattam, was a leading Melbourne gynaecologist and art collector, who eventually gave up medicine, a profession he loved, to take up painting, whose call he could not resist.

His friends included some of Australia’s greatest artists – among them Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Charles Blackman – whose work he and wife Kate collected long before it became fashionable. Indeed, it was Boyd who first noticed the remarkable talent of Harold’s daughter Katherine.

”I did these big black and white drawings in my bedroom and I can remember Arthur Boyd came to my parents’ house and he said, ‘Take her out of school’, and my parents both went, ‘No’,” Katherine says.

Not that she minded terribly much. Academically gifted, Katherine went to university and studied English literature and political science, developing a fascination with psychoanalysis along the way. Her love of art, however, never left her – and, unlike her father, she forged a career in it from the start.

Hattam is largely self-taught. She made and exhibited work for 10 years before starting a master’s in fine art at the Victorian College of the Arts. By then, she was 38, twice married and the mother of three.

Her work has been bought by significant public and private institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and Queensland Art Gallery. But Hattam still struggles with the ”impossible combination of obsession and self-doubt” that is perhaps the mark of an artist’s life. Her latest solo exhibition, which opened at the John Buckley Gallery in Richmond on the weekend, was 2½ years in the making, with plenty of ”duds” destroyed along the way. Experimentation and failure was a fundamental part of the process and led to a breakthrough – Hattam’s first exhibition composed entirely of paintings. About half are in gouache, a medium that points to the influence of her father and Fred Williams.

”As a teenager I went on several painting trips with my father and Fred Williams, to the You Yangs and outlying Melbourne suburbs. Both used gouache on paper to paint out in the landscape. Fred worked fast and with intensity, and I remember watching on a couple of occasions him hosing down one or two which he was not happy with when he got home,” she says.

Stylistically, though, the influence of Williams or her father is slight. Hattam’s paintings have more of a Matissean flavour, and this latest lot are so energised and vibrant, pulsating in glowing pinks, reds, oranges and yellow, that they caused one woman to remark how fitting it was to have a show about ”spring” now that the season had finally arrived in Melbourne.

In fact, the show is not at all about spring, but about Melbourne and is inspired by some of Hattam’s favourite places such as Merri Creek, Federation Square, Princes Park and the Tan track.

”I look at the show now and it looks like a celebration of Melbourne. I went for a walk last night at Princes Park, about seven o’clock, it was a hot, summery evening, I love that, where everyone is out exercising and you have all these amazing coloured clothes, socks, sneakers and caps.”

But the paintings are more than mere colourful landscapes. Hattam’s work is a mesmeric tapestry, hovering between the abstract and the figurative, and includes autobiographical elements and recurring symbols that speak of her interior world, and the tension between the domestic and artistic life.

The bright geometric patterns in the painting Federation Square (pictured above) allude not only to the square’s paving and facade, but also to a stained glass window at her sister’s home in Brooklyn, New York. Other paintings feature Hattam’s dogs Minnie and Olive, and her cat Melba – all three creatures are strikingly (and conveniently) black and white. As for the repeated image of the snakes and ladders board game, it’s a metaphor for the ups and downs of life.

About to turn 60, Hattam remains dynamic and questioning. She regularly attends the shows of younger artists whose works excite and inspire. Among them is her son, William Mackinnon, with whom she has collaborated in the past. Both of them feature in a group show opening at Utopian Slumps next week.

And yet, just as her parents had done with her, Hattam dissuaded young William from going to art school.

”I just think it’s too precarious a life,” Hattam says. ”I love the work, but I hate the precariousness.”