View of “Linda Marrinon,” 2016.

View of “Linda Marrinon,” 2016.

Linda Marrinon

View of “Linda Marrinon,” 2016.

Linda Marrinon has been exhibiting for over three decades. Fresh from art school in the early 1980s, she saw her pictorial works swiftly embraced by an Australian art scene flush with the spirit of postmodernism. Back then, her practice combined cartoonish social types, childlike text, and jokey invocations of late-modernist abstraction, often infused with a wry feminist humor. Her current work is less easy to match with contemporary art trends.

In the late ’90s, the artist began transferring her facility with comic-strip drawing to three-dimensional art. At the same time, she embarked on a serious study of classical nineteenth-century sculpture and the technical innovations of Rodin, Degas, and Aimé-Jules Dalou. The results were distilled in 2006 when Marrinon began to show editions of enchanting small figures and busts in tinted and painted plaster, terra-cotta, and bronze. Expressing her long-standing interest in social types, many of the figurines reflect the mannered poses and sartorial templates of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture. The artist miraculously reconciled precise attention to details of dress and period with the disorderly, corrugated surfaces of realist and Impressionist sculpture.

Marrinon’s latest Sydney show included works from 2015 and 2016. Exhibited atop white cubic plinths were three busts and six full figures of women interspersed with seven naively fashioned statues of animals. Gainsborough’s Daughters, 2016—two plaster figures tinted in pastel shades of pink, blue, and lemon—was the only work to reference specific historical persons. This piece exemplifies the artist’s gift for transforming the minor genre of the statuette into much more than a decorative trinket. The title recalls Thomas Gainsborough’s Georgian-era paintings of his daughters Mary and Margaret. Marrinon has modeled the young women mirroring each other in dress style and erect frontal stance, with the younger peering curiously over the shoulder of the slightly older sister. At the feet of each is a roughly crafted traveling valise, hinting perhaps at a rite of passage from child to woman. Yet like all of the artist’s figurines, the abbreviated, cartoonish facial features convey a uniformly ageless and benign innocence.

One of the delights of these works arises from the contrast between smooth, childlike faces and the intense, color-enhanced tactility of other surfaces and details of dress. Viewed head-on, the Gainsborough sisters’ gowns appear to be formed by broad sweeps of the sculpting plane and dribbles of dried plaster. Seen from behind, sartorial details emerge out of more turbulent, meringue-like accretions of plaster and barely formed dollops of material that appear about to melt.

Marrinon sometimes intensifies the haptic allure of her figures by incorporating plaster-soaked string, muslin, or hessian to indicate hair and accessories. The bust in profile titled Woman with Snood, 2016, wears a loosely woven string hairnet clotted with mustard-tinted plaster, a color that prevails over the woman’s head and torso. This coloration, combined with a stilted left-leaning posture and one missing arm, gives the figure an air of antiquity. Yet, typically, Marrinon has punctuated signs of the distant past with modern notes. These include the woman’s pert retroussé nose, one plump cartoon of a hand clasped to her chest, and an oversized, lumpish, light-gray hat, which vaguely resembles a swan.

Marrinon’s exquisite, modestly scaled figurative sculptures incarnate a fine balance between gravity and whimsy, material candor and delicate refinement. The cast of social types provokes tender emotions, and yet these characters seem untouchable, withdrawn from us into worlds of their own.

Toni Ross