John Leslie Art Prize 2022
10th September - 27th November 2022.
Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, Victoria.
Reviewed by Alexandra Sasse
Published in Art Almanac November 2022
Driving through the countryside to see a landscape exhibition is the perfect preparation for the mind. The vista approaching the riverside town of Sale is Dutch in scale, but not sensibility. Soaring skies dominate the column of ant- like cars seeping across the plain. Corridors of tea- tree, wattle and squat eucalypts divide its flatness into neat sections of yellow green acreage. Agricultural order is dwarfed by the immense sky.
Gippsland Art Gallery, on the riverside Port of Sale is buzzing when I enter. The John Leslie Art Prize is back in full swing following the disruptions of COVID.
Heading into the main gallery from the foyer, the ceiling height soars. Surrounded in this expansive space with landscape paintings, I’m slightly overwhelmed by the stylistic diversity. Most of the works are large – no nine by fives here. The hang is double – a contemporary salon aesthetic.
What exactly are the key concerns of contemporary Australian landscape painting? And who wants to know? This is the place to find out – the Prize consistently attracts over four hundred entries from around the country, and draws the highest attendance on the gallery program. The comprehensive printed catalogue demonstrates the serious attention given to this show.
Most of the work is related to figuration, but we are not talking about views. There are also some strong abstract works – the majority of these are in the lyrical painterly vein. Nearly all the paintings are strongly suggestive of interior or symbolic worlds, rather than locales. Great landscape is a synthesis of these. Many of the paintings reflect a kind of in-between space – a wary sort of anticipation. The beautifully composed Early Morning in Lockdown, 2022 by Klara Jones depicts a suburban street. The compactly arranged forms of the road and houses are quietly brooding under a pale orange sky. What will the day bring?
This haunting anticipation is evident in Harley Manifold’s expansive I don’t need Netflix to see Stranger Things, 2022. It’s a landscape we all inhabit: a road at night viewed from the driver’s seat of a car. The deep space of the snaking road ahead, rendered in Prussian blue tones is illuminated by glowing golden reflective road markers. Our destination is unknown. Surface and image are beautifully handled, neither upstaging the unity of the composition.
Frank Mesaric’s Velore Rd, Kilmany, 2022, winner of Best Gippsland Work is hung on the lower line on the northern wall. The work is almost monochrome and melancholic in mood. Crisp industrial forms of old refrigerators are set against a brushy backdrop of foliage and sky. The mood and subtle tonal shifts are slightly reminiscent of Lopez-Garcia’s drawings of derelict interiors. It’s an inversion of the bucolic landscape – where we might expect to see habitation, or agriculture, we are given trash. The embellished dark timber frame, with its allusion to tradition, creates a curious frisson.
A different mood appears evident in the lollipop tones of Darren Wardle’s Ex Tropical, 2020 and Kids Stay Free, 2021. But these lollies are sweet and sour: these slightly slick images of the disintegrating detritus of holiday destinations remind us that irony hasn’t died yet.
Neither has nostalgia. Donovan Christie’s Milk & Paper, 2022 looks back to a ritual almost forgotten with a debt to Jeffrey Smart. The work appears as direct and straightforward as the viewpoint, but only because it is so brilliantly balanced. It’s a playful work with deeply considered formal values.
Sarah Freeman invokes fire and rain in Upwelling—Badgers Creek Fire, 2020 and Deluge, 2022. Worked in egg tempera and wax on board, the surfaces are finely needled creating a network of lines – lost and found – over a ground of floating colour. The effect is mesmerising. Happily, these two are hung slightly separately from other works, leaving space for the viewer to absorb their quiet presence.
The overall winner V34 Reimagining, 2022 by Greg Wood, is sombre, scumbled in grey-green and ochre notes of opaque and translucent paint. A landscape of the mind, it suggests the brink of understanding. A pale warm pink sky is on the cusp of becoming – is it day or night? We are between, in an inderminate space. Sounds about right for late-pandemic 2022.
Despite a cacophony of styles, the instrument of landscape painting has taken the pulse of nation.