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Review: Heathen, Mailbox Art Space


I had never been to the Mailbox Art Space prior to their current exhibition, Heathen. Of ‘Heathen’, the promotional shots of the works gave me the impression of huge canvases filled with extravagant, thought provoking watercolours.

After getting mildly lost in my own city looking for a gallery space on flinders lane, myself and a friend realised that we had to go up a flight of stairs tucked away at the 141-143 Flinders Lane Pawson House heritage building. 

The stairs were choked with people talking and drinking wine. We were late – I figured that people must have already gone in and come back out to discuss the exhibition.

Pushing up the stairs apologising, looking for the door to the gallery, jostling almost everyone, we began to get funny looks. We followed the eyes of a few patrons, turned and beheld a set of 18 1930’s mailboxes, the kind you have in an apartment building – lots of about 15x10cm boxes, crammed next to each other, with glass fronts.

Within these tiny boxes were not the vast canvases of traditional galleries that I had expected, but miniature works by Belle Bassin, Valentina Palonen and Anna Parry, with work from the curator, Mitchell Brannan’s, private collection, interspersed. It is one of Melbourne’s smallest gallery spaces.

To quote the exhibition’s description, the theme of ‘Heathen’  is ‘mysticism, the numinous and the unknowable’, the goal ‘to explore ways of knowing that are beyond rationality and empiricism’.

Parry has included the watercolours, Palonen the intricately detailed sculptures, and Bassin the photography and digital media.

 Parry’s watercolours are a kaleidoscope of colour, which with inspection seems to shift like sand in the wind before your eyes, solidifying after moments into new forms. Acorns turn into hearts which turn into crystals, pomegranate seeds are in fact perhaps precious jewels, seaweed like tendrils lurk blue like veins. Organism meets mineral meets the abstract, in which a darkness of spirit and light comedy of visual play meet.

Palonin’s contributions take the form of mixed media sculptures. Her works that that drew me the most were a series of disembodied hands holding objects. To call these sculptures intricate would be an understatement – the detail is so incredible, accurate down to the fingerprints and tiny creases of the skin.

 The hands are painted green on the fingernails, yellow on the fingers, and purple on the palms, implying that each hand might belong to the same owner. Each hand interacts with an object – one holds an acorn, another a seashell, another a rock, another a crystal. As I interrogated the pieces, I began to mime the hand gestures the sculptures were set in. 

Some have the knuckles facing away from where the face would be, delicately holding the object, indicating that they had perhaps just picked the object up and were observing it, curiously. Other hands gripped their objects hard, possessively, tightly, so that it was obscured from view. I began to see the hand less as a dumb tool, but as of extensions of our mind, of our curiosity, able to display love, hate, ownership and fear as clearly as if these emotions had been yelled.

Bassin’s digital photography and one minute video installation are perhaps the most difficult to interpret in the exhibition. She employs seemingly simple patterns of undulating line in black and white, which spiral and throb the longer one observes it into a headache inducing maze of complexity. It is not an optical illusion, it is more interesting than that, but I can’t help but compare the effect of Bassin’s use of shape and time in her still images with the Penrose infinite staircase.

Fascinatingly, the artists were not given the theme of the exhibition – ‘mysticism, the numinous and the unknowable’ to work to – the pieces were curated by Mitchell Brannan, picked from artists who had, prior to the exhibition, pushed their work to answer the questions of ‘Heathen’s theme. This is intriguing, as there are some startling similarities and parallels in the works, all the more interesting due to the fact they were not established by communication between the artists. The motif a heart, acorn, shell or crystal shape appear in each artists work. Each holds significance to the unconscious.

The shell, indented with the infinite spiral pattern, which surfaces from deep beneath the ocean to be viewed by the person. The ocean has over time consistently been used as a metaphor for the unconscious mind in art and literature. 

The acorn, symbolic of rebirth, or the circle of life. It is also suspended oddly in time, a snapshot of what might one day be a mighty tree, it also stands in for the child or the embryo from which we all began, either within our parents or our ancestors at the dawn of time.

Finally, the crystal, brewed deep below the ground by forces untold, becoming something wonderfully, staggeringly beautiful, but is for the most part likely never to see the light of day. It is highly symbolic of the innermost workings of the human mind, and perhaps hints at why so many crystals in the images the artists provided oscillate between seeming both organic and mineral, heightening the metaphoric tie between object and abstract.

All said, I had a brilliant time at the Mailbox Art Space, and I can highly recommend the ‘Heathen’ Exhibition. It’s running until the 30th of July. Check out extra details at, which will also treat you to a digitla copy of Anna Parry’s watercolour ‘Sacred Geometry’. 

Written by Jim Thomas


July 27th 2016
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