While Anne Wallace’s figurative paintings might seem conventional on the surface, they are anything but ordinary. Her meticulously painted canvases lead us to expect a narrative but, on a deeper level, deny us that satisfaction. Their strangeness comes from her unusual use of perspectives, the superimposing of images, and references to disparate sources.

Wallace combines the familiar with the unfamiliar, capturing a tension between the real and the imagined to depict slightly awkward moments. Like any good ‘story’, they seem to refer to sexual and social confusion, vulnerability and violence, alienation and loneliness or fantasies of power and revenge. Her paintings have an uncanny ability to tap into a shared psyche, drawing on the language of pop culture.

This comprehensive survey of Wallace’s practice brings together nearly 50 works from public and private collections and spanning three decades.

The exhibition is accompanied by a major publication, featuring new essays by Gillian Brown, Francis Plagne and Vanessa Van Ooyen.

Curator: Vanessa Van Ooyen

Anne Wallace: Strange Ways is a QUT Art Museum touring exhibition


28 March–21 June 2020
This exhibition will not go on public display due to the temporary closure of the Gallery


An essay by Dr Loris Button for Untitled, magazine of the Art Gallery of Ballarat Association, Autumn 2020

The recent acquisition of Anne Wallace’s Biltmore Hotel Flower marks the first work by this significant contemporary painter to enter the Art Gallery of Ballarat collection.

Anne Wallace was born in Brisbane in 1970 and grew up in suburban Kenmore. In 1990 she completed a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts) at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) where she was taught by the renowned landscape painter William Robinson — she credits Robinson with teaching her the traditional oil painting skills on which she continues to rely. In 1993 she was awarded a Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship, which enabled her to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, the oldest art school in London with a significant history of teaching painting – this was an important consideration for her as she primarily works in oils in a figurative style often described as contemporary realism. Wallace says that the painting course at that time was trying to be challenging about what painting could be, and more than twenty years later she still regards her fellow Slade students as important role models for the serious work ethic with which they approached their chosen profession. She completed a Masters degree at the Slade, graduating in 1996 with the Melville Nettleship Prize for Figure Drawing.

Anne Wallace, Sour the boiling honey, 1991. installation view at QUT Art Museum
Anne Wallace, Sour the boiling honey, 1991. installation view at QUT Art Museum

Wallace has won a number of prestigious awards and prizes, including the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1999, and in that same year she was awarded a Residency at the Cité International des Arts in Paris. Since 1993 she has regularly exhibited with her long-time dealer Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney and more recently with Kalli Rolfe Gallery in Melbourne where she now lives. Her works are held in many public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland University of Technology, National Gallery of Victoria, Brisbane City Art Gallery and Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery, as well as many private collections.

Anne Wallace, Exemplar, 1993. oil on canvas. Collection of Theobald Family, Tasmania
Anne Wallace, Exemplar, 1993. oil on canvas. Collection of Theobald Family, Tasmania

Throughout her training and subsequent career Wallace has pursued what is often regarded in contemporary art circles as the quaintly old-fashioned genre of figurative oil painting, creating imagery that is deeply engaging, often slightly disturbing and always difficult to read. In 2000, she attempted to clarify what her paintings are about, rejecting the frequently repeated links to film and narrative that have characterised commentary on her work over the course of her career:

There are at least two things I regret having said about my work. The first is that my work bears a relation to film; the second is that the pictures are like ‘unfinished narratives’ … The subject matter is such that this kind of semi-obfuscatory treatment of it is the only possible way I have of depicting it. It is the straining towards the meaning of something which is the emotion accompanying the actual experience of some of the things I am trying to depict — it is not just something arising artificially from the artwork, but this thing precedes it, in the experience of living. i

Anne Wallace, Satin Lining, 1996. oil on canvas. Private collection, Melbourne
Anne Wallace, Satin Lining, 1996. oil on canvas. Private collection, Melbourne

Her paintings depict scenes of ambiguous meaning and atmosphere, and have been variously compared to Balthus, Magritte and Beckmann in their ability to create tension and layers of meaning – I would also add Vermeer to this list. The work is influenced by a number of factors, including the various types of Queensland architecture she grew up with, the time period from roughly the 1920s to the 1980s, novels and films about mid-century America and music by musicians such as The Smiths, one of the most important rock bands to emerge from the British independent music scene of the 1980s. Many of the works refer to something – perhaps a poem or a line from a novel – and while it is possible to appreciate the painting without knowing the reference, knowing it does allow the viewer to appreciate the painting more fully. ii

Anne Wallace, Sangfroid, 2004. oil on canvas. Collection of Ross Wolfe and Erica Green, Adelaide
Anne Wallace, Sangfroid, 2004. oil on canvas. Collection of Ross Wolfe and Erica Green, Adelaide

Wallace says of her painterly approach to her practice that:

For the most part, the images I paint are purely my own inventions. I take photos of a scene after having thought of it and then drawn it. I paint from the small 6×4 photo … I do not grid up the photo in order to scale it up onto the canvas because I enjoy the difficulty of trying to make something that small much larger, with no mechanical assistance in getting the proportions right … I like to think (or I flatter myself) that I am using it in the way Delacroix, Manet and Degas did — as a tool, not as a theoretical principle. iii

Anne Wallace, Eternity, 2002. oil on canvas. Private collection, Brisbane
Anne Wallace, Eternity, 2002. oil on canvas. Private collection, Brisbane

The paintings often allude to crimes and crime scenes, and Biltmore Hotel Flower is one example of this. It references the famous unsolved murder in Los Angeles in 1947 of Elizabeth Short, who became known as the Black Dahlia following her grisly death. She was last seen alive at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA, hence the painting’s image of a hotel stairwell, based on a picture of the hotel Wallace found on the internet. It is thought that the name Black Dahlia was attached to the victim because of her thick head of black hair and in reference to Blue Dahlia, a Hollywood film that had been released the previous year. Such has been the ongoing public interest in the case that in 1987 the famous crime writer James Ellroy wrote Black Dahlia, a fictional account of the case in which the crime is solved. A film based on that novel, directed by Brian de Palma, was produced in 2006.

Anne Wallace, Biltmore Hotel Flower, 2019. oil on linen
Anne Wallace, Biltmore Hotel Flower, 2019. oil on linen. Purchased with funds from the Joe White Bequest 2019. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Wallace’s painting may perhaps be seen as both a tribute to Elizabeth Short and the many other women who have lost their lives to violent assault and a meditation on society’s obsessive and ongoing interest in such awful crimes against women. Sadly, in recent years this phenomenon has been all too familiar in our own state following the brutal murders of several innocent young women in Melbourne.

I ma delighted that Biltmore Hotel Flower has found a permanent home at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Anne Wallace in Biltmore Hotel
Anne Wallace on a recent trip to California, visited the Biltmore Hotel, where a photograph of mruder victim Elizabeth Short is on display. Photograph supplied by Anne Wallace

Dr Loris Button
Honorary Research Fellow
Federation University Australia

This essay was published in Untitled, Art Gallery of Ballarat Association, Issue 3, Autumn 2020, p 9

Selected works


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