Leila Jeffreys is an acclaimed Australian contemporary artist.
She is best known for visceral and mysterious images of birds that explore and subvert the traditions of portraiture. Her avian subjects are photographed at human scale with a startling attention to colour, line, form and composition. For Jeffreys, birds are both medium and message. Her practice opens windows into critical questions about the shared anthropomorphism that connects humans with animals, the sense of wildness that tugs at the fringes of everyday existence and the fleeting and precious connections that bind us to the natural world.
Increasingly, Jeffreys’ work as an artist is inextricable from her concerns as an environmentalist. Working in the tradition of artist-activists that include great American Land Artists such as Robert Smithson and Agnes Denes and contemporary artists such as Ann Craven, Janet Laurence and Roe Etheridge, Jeffreys’ arresting images are the result of yearslong periods of research, exploration and investigation. The artist collaborates with conservationists, ornithologists and sanctuaries around the world to find her subjects before forging an intimate relationship with the birds that she photographs in her studio. Through Jeffreys’ gaze, seemingly minor details such as the shape of a cockatoo’s beak, the rise and fall of a budgerigar’s plumage and the curious expression that flits across the face of a hawk are freighted with meaning. They’re proof of her subjects’ status as individuals. Her images are alive with an empathy and generosity that flows freely between artist and sitter, upending the power dynamic that underpins the history of portrait making in the process.
Jeffreys’ practice is characterised by a sense of curiosity, openness and an unwavering moral vision. But it’s also driven by an aesthetic rigour and a line of artistic inquiry that deepens with each new body of work. The artist’s first exhibition, 2010’s Portrait of a Budgerigar at Sydney’s Iain Dawson Gallery, used exquisite portraits of budgerigars – one of the world’s most common pets to challenge perceptions around beauty, intimacy and the value of the ordinary. Series such as Biolela - Wild Cockatoos (2012), shown at London’s Purdy Hicks Gallery and Sydney’s Olsen Irwin Gallery (now Olsen Gallery), attracted record audiences. The show evoked the tension between the strange and the familiar at the heart of Australia’s anxieties about its own identity.
by Neha Kale
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