Reviews, News and Commentary

The drama and mystery of Jill Carter-Hansen’s Altered Impressions

Reviewed by Penelope Lee

Jill Carter-Hansen, Flame and Feather

Altered Impressions: an exhibition of works on paper by Jill Carter-Hansen

Glass Artists Gallery, Glebe,

Reviewed by Penelope Lee

Jill Carter-Hansen  is a New Zealand-born illustrator, author and filmmaker based in Sydney, Australia. Some of her artwork is held in the permanent collection of Te Papa and the Auckland Art Gallery.  

The story-teller poet in me demands metaphors and unexpected endings. Jill Carter-Hansen

Jill Carter-Hansen is the quintessential combined media artist whose talent is the artful balance of the symbiotic with the specific. While her poetry, photography, film-making, printmaking and artist’s books are all closely interrelated in their content, it is her strength of accomplishment in each individual medium that delivers such unique and beautifully resolved works of art. This confluence of verbal and visual expression lies at the heart of Carter-Hansen’s most recent exhibition, Altered Impressions.

Throughout my life poetry accompanied the visual works I made, whether in sound or image… but poetry none-the-less.1

 Indeed, first impressions of these skilfully executed black and white images, soon dissolve into an awareness of deeper meaning, an altered point of view. Through poetic metaphor, symbolism and analogy these works also convey, the sometimes difficult, memories, dreams and reflections of the human condition; the struggles of a single mother; the burdens of the immigrant; the human consequences of war. Her powerful renderings of the human figure, provocative horses, symbolic objects, and surreal landscapes explore, not only notions of terror, despair and loss, but simultaneously, defiance, liberation and triumph. Carter-Hansen evokes these emotions through the elevated contrast of light and shade. Her profound understanding of the way in which chiaroscuro can bring deep meaning to an image, is clearly demonstrated throughout her work. Recognising the impact that intense contrasts of light and dark engender in a work of art, she relates how,

The work of Caravaggio impressed me. Shadow and light express so much, regardless of techniques. Darkness appears richer with light working through to define shape and space.2

It is this richness of light and shade that brings such a powerful sense of drama and mystery to her images. But as visually engaging as these images are, they also resonate with a primordial part of our human inheritance, the archetypal shadow. Carl Jung proposes that our perceived negative human emotions and impulses, like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage, are denied expression due to their incompatibility with social attitudes. These ‘negative’ impulses are consequently relegated to the darkness of the unconscious.3 To avoid confronting this inner darkness, we often project rejected motives onto others, rather than admit to these dark aspects of ourselves. Group projection of the collective shadow commonly occurs in contentious conflicts, where the outsider or perceived adversary is dehumanised, demonised and made the scapegoat of rejected aspects of our social consciousness.3

Often it is artists who shine a light into this darkness, for when we approach our humanity creatively, we are more able to comprehend the shadow allegorically, and so integrate it into our understanding of ourselves. Carter-Hansen is an artist who ventures unflinchingly into the shadow that many of us find difficult to confront. Yet it is also the way she works with light that makes her images so compelling. Not just the visual light within the composition of the image but, additionally, the poetic light of insight. Captured within each image is a moment of time that contains other moments, other memories and messages, resonating with our collective consciousness beyond the confines of the frame. John Tarrant remarks on our need to balance light and shade when he notes,

We crave not only what the soul craves – depth, darkness, embodiment, the poetry of turmoil in this world… but also the cravings of the spirit – for light, purity, birth-and-death- lessness, the dazzle of true insight.4

Jill Carter-Hansen, And I Entered

True insight is often gained through intense, personal experience and in her animated award winning films, The Messenger, Song of the Immigrant Bride and Eclipse, Carter-Hansen’s insights into her own concerns, as well as those of others, are made poignantly evident. Acknowledged as one of Heather Kai Smith’s, Great Women Animators,5 she is driven by a desire to express the hidden qualities of her subjects. In The Messenger we encounter the inner goodness in the souls of two adversaries. Visual metaphors make visceral the fear of the unknown and the challenges of an alien environment in Song of the Immigrant Bride, and the concept of transformation, a reoccurring theme in her work, is eloquently portrayed in Eclipse. These animated films are, as Marie Geissler notes,

dramatic with rich use of images emerging from darkness… edgy and evocative, where the physical elements depicted – whether objects or figures – symbolise (through the juxtaposition of light and darkness), the Invisible.5

Carter-Hansen’s perceptive awareness of the dilemmas of humanity, also permeates her works on paper. Throughout her career she produced a number graphic works in support of environmental and peace organisations. One example on exhibition was the poster, Peace is in Your Hands. Made in the shadow of the Vietnam war, it’s arresting image is that of larger-than[1]life hands releasing the delicate form of a dove. The image was made through experimentation with photography or, in her words, by “painting with light,” for she finds “experimenting with techniques is exciting – whatever the medium.”2 This etherial image is breathtaking in its elegant simplicity. Commenting on its creation she explains,

 I explored the possibilities of exposing photographic paper through various thicknesses of tissue paper, to form a dove-like image.2

Light shining through layers of tissue paper reminds us in our own time that peace is fragile and must be handled with care. Just as the art of image creation must be handled with care. The potency of Carter-Hansen’s work is by virtue of her ability to skilfully synthesise drawing, printmaking and collage into coherent and thought provoking images, as seen in her Equestrian Series. Here, seamless blending of media assures that the subject of the image is foremost in our minds. Out of the darkness, stoic, statue-like horses emerge as powerful, silent sentinels commanding the centre of attention while anchoring the objects around them. These are the great horses of the Middle Ages, a statement of strength and endurance. A woman balances on one horse’s back, a man’s head blows a breath of air across another’s eyes, a hand reaches out to touch the back of yet another. Skilful drawing assures their convincing form while a black and white colour scheme, interrupted with slashes of red (a curtain parting, a ‘witches hat’ cone, a stain on a horses rump) suggests a subliminal narrative. It is not surprising that this artist’s approach to image making is also often subliminal,

Printmaking can be a seductive process… Sometimes (with eyes closed) I draw into dark ink applied to the “plate” surface, prior to printing. The resulting unexpected discoveries can then be taken further to reveal and inspire – often suggesting a sudden undoing of any preconceived idea.1

 However, a conscious and diligent approach is discernible in the hand coloured etching, Night Horse. A red moon and cone float in the darkness behind a dapple grey mare. Careful consideration of figure and ground, the placement of objects and use of light, bring an unusual quietness to this print. There is much attention to detail – the softness of the horses coat, the sharpness of fork prongs, the shadow of another horse barely visible in the background. A woman’s figure, a cone, a moon, a fork. These are images pregnant with meaning. Left to us to interpret as we may, it is the stories her images conjure up in our own imagination that makes Carter-Hansen’s images so compelling.

My narratives can be interpreted as both open-ended or defined. Multiple meanings intrigue me – the use of a word or symbol, misplaced or mismatched, suggest alternative interpretations.1

The solid, heavy horses in these images, are in stark contrast to the lighter, active horses in three smaller etchings, Intrusion/Invasion, Star Eaters and Knowledge in a Place of Ignorance. In the first print, Intrusion/Invasion, a wild black horse gallops across a blood red background. With nostrils flaring, mane flying and hooves having left the ground, this mythical creature is in full flight across a blazing sky. In the second print, Star Eaters, a chimerical horse and his fleeing dog companion, also take to the heavens, soaring “up and onwards into the unknown destiny of space.”6 This particular work testifies to the importance of symbiosis in Carter-Hansen’s work, for this image echoes the words of her short story, The Star Eaters. But as reiterative as this image might seem, perhaps this is also an image that alludes to a natural need for freedom shared between women and horses.7

Having grown up riding horses of her own, Carter-Hansen has a deep respect, intimate knowledge and genuine understanding of their innate qualities. While this may be a motivating force for her use of the horse as a means of visual expression, just as significantly, she is also able to draw on its metaphoric meaning. For the archetypal horse,

…carries many characteristics of the person as well, such as fertility, fidelity, sensitivity, strength, selfishness, anger, stubbornness, stupidity and vanity. In psychology it can be the unconscious, subhuman side… Types of horses: two – intellect, especially when harnessed together; winged – poetic relations; grazing – peace.8

Visual symbolism is a highly effective messenger, for often more can be deduced from a single image than a given paragraph of words.8 A prancing horse is surrounded by seemingly alchemical symbols in the work, Knowledge in a Place of Ignorance. There is a poetic relationship between the image we see and the title we read. Do these symbols represent ignorance or knowledge? Does the horse connote wisdom or apathy? A shadow falls beneath the horse where only one hoof makes contact with the earth. The horse’s head is raised to the sky as if he too might take flight “into the unknown destiny of space.”6 Pale grey and yellow wash over the etched surface, imbuing the image with a softness and lightness of spirit, perhaps expressing those “mysteries of life that cannot be quantified.”2 We ponder the image and seek to derive meaning, drawing on own past memories and personal imagination.

It is possible that a close relationship with horses has inadvertently instilled Carter-Hansen’s work with a vigour and mastery that could only be achieved through a disciplined dedication to her art. The effort, training, and patience required to work with horses is not unlike the stamina and endurance required of the serious artist. Pia Cuneo, writing about the historical importance of horsemanship, points out that to ride well is a difficult skill to master. Considering the equestrian pursuits of 17th century noblemen, she comments,

It was a noble art, one that called for the possession of a range of qualities: physical, emotional and moral. Apart from requiring good balance, steadiness and courage, riding instilled leadership skills. It also taught humility. Unlike courtiers or underlings, who might flatter the young nobleman, a horse was honest, punishing an error by depositing the rider on the ground.7

Good balance, steadiness, courage and humility are indeed needed if one is to make ones way as a female artist. But as Nikki Savvides has observed, the woman-horse connection in particular also acts symbolically as “a liberating and empowering force from a political, social, and personal perspective.”7 This force is inherently apparent in Carter-Hansen’s Essential Tools series. In her hands, household tools take on new meaning and become, Manipulative Implements for Relationships. In Loosening Up, a garden fork is poised ready to dig the earth amongst a forest of stiff bare trees. A pair of pliers appears to be squeezing blood out of the corner of the print, Gripping Firmly, perhaps inferring a lover that won’t let go. In one of the most forceful images, Striking Squarely, a hammer displays a fiery energy, signifying anger or even, ‘hitting the nail on the head.’ But in the last print in the series, Smoothing Over, a trowel is depicted calmly patching things up. The vigorous and dynamic drawing in these hand-coloured prints, transforms seemingly benign objects into the personification of human emotion. They are delightfully animate images, spontaneous and full of wit, deftly executed and highly emotive, baring the refined hallmarks of Carter-Hansen’s work: confident, dynamic drawing, thoughtfully executed printmaking, a sophisticated sense of composition, discerning sense of colour and a highly intelligent ability to make profound, metaphorical, visual statements.

One final work that epitomises Carter-Hansen’s ability to synthesise media, word and image into a unified work of art, is her artist’s book, Passages. Reading an artist’s book is an interactive experience, involving all our physical senses. The integration of text and image, choice of media and consideration of the physical structure of the book, communicates meaning in a way that is specific to the artist’s book alone. Unlike the viewing of a painting or print, artists’ books allow an intimate, corporeal experience of art through our sense of touch, smell, sound and time, as well as vision. Sequence, repetition, juxtaposition and the mystery of concealment and revelation, all contribute to the uniqueness of this art form. On display in the gallery, one was reluctant to take Passages down from its shelf and read its contents. Galleries are for viewing art, not handling it. But books are meant to be handled and an encounter with an artist’s book is not unlike the experience of opening a gift. At first the contents are concealed but once opened, a world unfolds and “transition and progression through the journey”10 begins. In the introduction to Passages, we hear how,

Through the limitless passages of life, I’ve discovered image and words that rearranged me. Using combined mediums of print, collage, drawing and text, Passages, slowly unfolded.10

A hinged wooden box opening like pages of a book, acts as the cover of Passages. When opened, each side of the cover holds a concertina folded book; one encased in the front cover of the box, one in the back cover; one black, the other white. On taking the first book out of its niche, fine red leather lacing must be untied before proceeding to read its contents. “Passages begins with a journey, traveling to places unfamiliar”10 it tells us. Rich, complex collaged prints consist of Carter-Hansen’s symbolic imagery of a bird making its way through a surreal abstract landscape. These images are augmented with silver, hand-written, self-authored text. As the book unfolds, the narrative flows across its linear format, the complexity of its imagery enmeshed with its prose, one inseparable from the other. She writes

When we look again, travelling with the light of stars, to a time when legendary creatures were admitted to the mazes of our minds, by chance we found a point where something stirred, startling us in its discovery as we searched … for a place of shelter…an encampment… and warmth in… an unknown place.10

It is a work that requires concentrated engagement, insisting that we dwell a little longer, ponder meaning, reread and start over, before coming to a close. Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, acknowledging the unique experience of reading a physical book, writes,

…if you have a book in your hand, no matter how complex or difficult… when you have finished it, you can, if you wish, go back to the beginning, read it again, and thus understand that which is difficult and, with it, understand life as well.11

 In the art of Carter-Hansen, we encounter the richness of a life that encompasses the light with the dark, humour with seriousness and art with politics. Her creative endeavours affect us all on some level and even possibly alter our impression of the world we all share. A working artist who sees this world through uniquely gifted eyes, she asks that we too might consider her priorities and join her in her vision. For as Mary Oliver so astutely observes, “those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward… Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.”12 Jill Carter-Hansen’s life work is certainly ‘altogether different from the ordinary.’ Her intelligent use of metaphor and allegory, outstanding drawing skills, consummate handling of technique and deep understanding of the human condition, offer us a gateway into the unpredictable, often unwanted, mysterious heights and depths of our humanity. In the exhibition, Altered Impressions, we are privileged with an opportunity to alter our own impression of what it means to be an artist, what it means to be human.

The older I get the more I realise the less I know, except that, ’mystery’ is all.

Jill Carter-Hansen Penelope Lee Graphic Artist and Educator 2018


1 Jill Carter-Hansen, Altered Impressions, Artist’s Statement, 2018.

2 Jill Carter-Hansen, Artist’s Statement, 2012

3 Diamond, S.A., 2012, Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: What is the “Shadow”? Retrieved 13/12/18,

4 Tarrant, J. (1990) The Light Inside the Dark, Hodder Headline Group, Sydney

5 H.K. Smith, Great Women Animators: Ongoing international directory of historical and contemporary female animators, Retrieved 15/12/18,

6 Jill Carter-Hansen, The Star Eaters, essay, 2012

7 Savvides, Nikki (2012) “Loving-knowing” Women & Horses: Symbolic connections, real life conflicts and “natural horsemanship,” Humanimalia, DePauw University, Retrieved, 13/12/18

8 Dictionary of Symbolism, (2001) Retrieved 20/12/18,

9 What is an Artist’s Book? Printed Matter Inc., Retrieved 15/12/18,

10 Jill Carter-Hansen, Passages, artist’s book, 2016/17

11 Manguel, A. (1996) A History of Reading, Harper Collins, London

12 Oliver, M. (2016) Upstream: Selected Essays, Penguin Putnam Inc, New York

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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