The Fascinating Meaning Behind the Signature Female Face Splashed Throughout Rone’s Exhibitions

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Walking up the many flights of stairs towards the forgotten back section of Melbourne’s iconic Flinder’s Station to enter Rone’s latest exhibition — Time — is exhilarating in itself. The peeling-paint walls tell a story; of a once-bustling inner city hub, for workers and socialites alike. It’s no wonder that the location was a base of inspiration for Tyrone Wright — better known as Rone — a celebrated street artist-turned immersive installation extraordinaire.

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Time is a look back into an era that has been abandoned and left to decay at a standstill. Cobwebs cover a room full of sewing machines, once a bustling seamstress room, alive with tea and cake breaks, a view overlooking Melbourne’s skyline and patchwork pincushions in tow. Cups of coffee have been left half full, flowers have shrivelled and dried in their vintage vases and unopened letters are strewn across the mail room counter. It’s as though a destructive gust of wind came through, sweeping the entire scope of the station’s third floor, wiping out all forms of breathing life; leaving only their objects behind.

“For me it was a response to the space” Rone tells Thrillist Australia. “It’s something that felt like it should’ve always been here, which has been exaggerated in a fictionalised way, as an imagined history.”

Imagined by Rone, the abandoned floor is a snapshot of mid-century Melbourne’s post WWII era, when European migrants powered the city’s booming manufacturing industries. Walking down the corridor, with each room presenting a different area of business and social life, you’re immersed by a haunting soundscape by composer Nick Batterham, that ignites such nostalgic emotion inside of you, that it actually gave me a fright; in moments.

Using digital 3D scans, Rone was able to design and dream up the entire storyline, from the forgotten pharmacy, to the overgrown ballroom, to the battered curtains in the abandoned library, and his signature female portraits pages of longtime muse, Teresa Oman, gracing each room with an unspeakable softness.

“I’m fascinated by this feeling of abandonment, like everyone just walked out one day and never came back. It’s something that I find truly haunting and beautiful.”

As I was walking through, each step feeling cautious; as though I was going to wake up and be thrust back in the real world like something out of The Time Traveller’s Wife, I couldn’t help but notice the emotion that was happening around me — and inside of me. Despite not being alive during the period of reference, the items around me; carefully collected and selected by Rone and his longtime interior stylist, Carly Spooner, felt weighty. Every item held a story, and it’s decay, a metaphor of time that has passed.

We all have a difficult time letting go of the past. The past holds memories of emotions, people, a certain experience we may have had that changed the way we see the world, and there were people around me in Rone’s exhibition, Time, who were experiencing these emotions in a visceral way.

“Oh! I used to have one of these as a girl!” an older lady exclaimed, as she walked into the pharmacy next to me and up to the glass cabinet, where she pointed to a hair comb. She turned around to look at her daughter, who had come into the room behind her, with tears in her eyes. “This is just like the pharmacies were when I was young.”

I was struck by her immediate emotional response to this imagined environment, created by Rone; an artist that like me, wasn’t alive to witness mid-century Melbourne.

“I think it’s emotional because something that is abandoned, frozen in time, doesn’t mean it’s destroyed even though it’s time has passed. It’s this reminder that time itself, is a destroyer. Layers and layers of dust start to tell a story, that can’t help but remind you that you’re looking at the past.”

It’s truly an overwhelming concept; the concept of time. It hits us in big moments in our lives, like when we lose someone, or when something big changes; we’re forced to accept that time just keeps going, and that it’s truly out of our control.

Rone, as an artist, has become known for his fascination with decay and the beauty that lies within something that has been abandoned. Pairing vignettes of aesthetic abandonment with large-scale portraiture of female faces, his signature style is impactful as it is controversial. While there’s no question about their visual impactful, young art lovers, writers and critics on the internet have been questioning the behind these female faces, and whether they have meaning at all.

In this TikTok video, Video Essayist Mary McGillivray, criticises Rone’s use of female faces as “vacant motifs”, having been to see this latest exhibition, Time.


She says that his original murals of female figures and faces, first seen on public buildings around Melbourne as “mute” and “anonymised”, expressing that she has a problem with the fact that he “uses female faces purely as decoration”.

This review of Rone’s work fascinated me. As I was walking through Time, allowing the space to descend upon me, I felt impacted by the face of model and muse Teresa Oman. I didn’t feel as though she was “mute” or “purely decoration”. Although naturally extremely beautiful to the eye of mainstream beauty standards, I felt as though her face had meaning. I asked Rone himself, what the meaning behind his use of the female face is.

“She’s the emotional representation,” he says. “She becomes this emotional conduit over a space; she captures the emotion of the room and makes it feel real.”

“My work with painting female figures is something that’s developed over time and at first, I didn’t quite understand it myself. Having her there, it just seemed to make the space work, to give it that extra layer of feeling that a physical space doesn’t conjure up on its own. When you see a human face, it’s different to seeing an object. Something in our brain switches; we’re hardwired to feel rather than think when we see someone’s face.

“When I was working in predominantly street art, I started to paint these very feminine figures, which were in huge contrast to the work that my friends were doing and were often alongside mine. And I liked that contrast. Like this super soft, feminine figure next to a screaming vampire or something. It brought this element of calm, that felt nice to me.”

“In Time, I see her as a vessel of other people’s emotion; she inspires them to feel.”

This adds an unexpected layer to the conversation, that femininity and an open female face, can actually change the entire feeling of a space. I think about the exhibition and try to imagine it without Teresa’s face. It would still be a beautiful display of the beauty of decay and the true pain and love that is encapsulated within time; but it might not be as emotional.

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She feels like a figure watching over you and the space, a protector perhaps, of the humanity that was once there. Without her, I think the imagined spaces would feel slightly less real; more like a film set than something that you can believe once existed.

I see her value, beyond the physical beauty of the work. I think that the question to be asked here is: why do we have a problem with beauty inspiring art?

Artists have always had muses. And while our mainstream references are male artists with female muses, there have been countless female artists with muses of varying genders. The relationship between artist and muse and the assumed power dynamic between the two, seems to be a delicate topic for young people on the internet today. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — questioning the power dynamics between powerful men and beautiful women is definitely important; given the abuse of power that we’ve seen time and again.

However, when it comes to something like art, why are we so quick to assume that the beautiful woman has no value but to be beautiful? And, if her beauty has inspired art, isn’t that the most empowering thing of all?

As a woman, I feel my most empowered when my body and beauty is being celebrated. Beauty can be very one dimensional, utilised for the purpose of selling something, or perhaps sexualised in a way that doesn’t truly celebrate her as a woman, but in Rone’s work, Teresa is not a nameless woman. She is model and muse, Teresa Oman, who brings a layer of emotion to Rone’s work that wouldn’t exist, without her.

Time will run at Flinders Street station’s ballroom until 23 April 2023. Get tickets here.

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