Joy Hester is the most intriguing of the Heide modernists and, until recent times, the least recognised. Whereas Nolan and Tucker rode off to fame hidden behind their masks to explore the Australian bush, Joy Hester remained at Heide. Rather than exploring Australian inland and myths in oils, she explored her feelings and truths in brush and ink.
Rarely exhibited, her last major exhibitions were both in 2001, at the National Gallery in 2001, titled Joy Hester and Friends and at Heide — Leave No Space for Yearning: The Art of Joy Hester.
The current exhibition is in the main gallery of Heide Museum of Modern Art, and 160 works are thematically and chronologically arranged.
The life of Joy Hester offers enough material to make at least two television mini-series, but there are two facts helpful to know in the viewing of this exhibition. In 1947, Joy Hester was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and was given two years to live; however, she survived another fourteen years. She died in 1960 aged forty.
Looking at her early works, a number of recurring themes catch the eye, including the presence of a picture hung on the wall in the background. Drawings of street life echo Danila Vassilieff. Many influences might be observed, including elements of Tucker, Nolan, and Blackman. Who knows who influenced who in the hothouse of Heide? As the timeline progresses through the gallery, it is clear her work experiments, revolving in and around her emotional world.
Of the many themes Hester explored, the love series of 1949 and 1950 are the most compelling. The use of a shared eye is a recurring motif. Her use of the haptic eye meant that she would often start her painting with an eye and paint from there, with noses all but disappeared. Towards the end, the images dazzle.
Expertly curated by Kendrah Morgan, showing sensitivity to the themes of Hester’s work, the exhibition catalogue features a curatorial introduction, and essay by British drawing expert Deanna Petherbridge.
There is no doubt were it not for the support of the Reeds, many of these works may never have survived. At the time of Hester’s death, many works had been scattered and held by various people. Joy’s son Sweeney, together with John and Sunday Reed, helped collect them to ensure that they were preserved. Truly, the support of the Reeds enabled Hester’s work to be rightly recognised.
Nolan and Tucker have remained stylistically in their swashbuckling 1960s and 1970s. Hester’s work however, demonstrates that time moves for the ages. She was fearless. Her emotional approach in these works has a powerful impact, particularly in this time of self-isolation. When restrictions lift, Heide has plans to open the Joy Hester: Remember Me exhibition for three months.
The reviewer, Bill Gillies, needs to declare that he has been for the last fifteen years a volunteer at Heide. That can at least enable him to say that of the Heide exhibitions in his time, this is one of the best.