What we see is mediated by what we are looking for and that is specific to our time and ourselves.
We have an ongoing love affair with the landscape in Australia. Landscape forms both our imaginative and physical worlds and seeps inexorably into our literature and art. It doesn’t nurture. It is mercurial. Water, the most essential element of life, is severely limited. Despite its whims, we are obsessed with its beauty.
You don’t merely see landscape, you feel it. It surrounds you. This is what a painter attempts to deal with on a two- dimensional limited size canvas. It is always reduction, always simplification, never the whole story.
Two large and beautifully-lit new spaces in the recently rebuilt Gippsland Art Gallery are filled with the latest of these attempts. There are many stories told here through many sensibilities. It’s all about space in Sarah Tomasetti’s Dolma LA, her spare evocative line conjuring a mountain range as solid as rock and as translucent as air. David Beaumont’s striking Ochre Billabong is at the other end of the spectrum – simple suggestive forms in painterly slabs and dashes of sienna, ochre and white are held in place with a single red line near the top of the canvas. Here abstraction jostles with recognition in a frisson of brushstrokes.
No one here is doing fashionably ironic painting. Detached ironic distance is difficult to reconcile with the overwhelming presence of landscape. These artists are in it heart and soul; reconciling sight with inner vision, pushing the medium to express something felt as much as seen. Jason Cordero gives us It Appeared the Guide was in Error – a hovering fantastical mountain in lurid purple and orange. The almost surfboard illustration use of colour here compounds the surreal ‘lost in space’ effect. Kevin Chin’s dislocation of space in Peaks likewise leaves the viewer no longer on solid ground. Natural space as well as the surreal is well represented. Mark Dober’s Night and Day is a breathtaking glimpse of brilliant light, the forms of rock and tree and cloud pattering across the surface with the rhythm of living line. The tension between surface pattern and depth is beautifully resolved. A moodier vision is found in Adriane Strampp’s Last Light – a minimalist metre and a half square canvas, delicately wrought in tempered transitions from soft mesmerising darks suggesting land and trees in the lower third and ephemeral hazy luminosity in the rest of the canvas casting a melancholic twilit beauty.
The medium itself is powerful. Francis Bacon observed that paint acts directly on the nervous system. Elastic, expressive and communicative, three primary colours, some oil. It sounds simple. Of course, it’s not.
Some pictures start with a vision but fail to achieve it. Painting is difficult, and to compound that difficulty for today’s artists, it has been consistently undermined in art schools for decades. Several works here suffer the fate of the self-taught, seen most clearly in the more realist works. Soft hazy backgrounds – often cloud forms – are jammed up against tightly linear hard-edged foregrounds flattening pictorial space and jarring the eye. Combined with a smooth all over finish, this recipe is a popular but indigestible one. The camera could be the culprit; its single lens with limited depth of field can’t take in more than one focus. A painter doesn’t record the world; he orchestrates it. Jo Darvall’s Almost Blue and Jane Chandler’s Coastal Banksia 2 both successfully give an abstracted sense of recession whilst treating the flat canvas as a serious of marks related to landscape forms.
Every point counts-
every thickness and thinness counts
every direction – every brushstroke counts-
and so do the most differentiated colour shades
They do not count for themselves
their velocity and power is manifested
in the magic relation unto them-
Make the picture furrowed like the earth
and brilliant like sun
make it pearl and diamond laden
with colour in every shade
make it hard and weighty like rock-
but dewey like fruit and
pulsating as blood does in
a loving heart
and fill it with life and laughs
that it may be felt how you have
as the maker of a new world.
Hans Hoffman 1955 (Abstract painter)
It’s a high bar to set, but this is what painting can be. Landscape painting is Janus- faced. It looks back to what has been done, but it is the vision of our artists now. What we see is mediated by what we are looking for and that is specific to our time and ourselves. None of these visions are true. All of them are authentic. Some will chime with your sense of the world, some will not.
The judging of art prizes is an opaque process; there are often several stand out works and none of them is chosen. This year’s winners, Vanessa Kelly’s Wyatt brothers Chicory Kiln, Corinella Gippsland and Andrea Sinclair’s Bonfire at Yarragon South wouldn’t have been on my shortlist. The appointment of a journalist, Andrew Frost, to judge a painting award is bizarre. I look forward to the moment when a painter is asked to adjudicate at the Walkleys. Preferably one that believes Facebook has killed journalism, as Frost has stated that painting is ‘dead’ and ‘redundant’. Nice of him to come. As people have been making meaning from coloured marks on two dimensional surfaces since Paleolithic times, I wouldn’t be betting against its future.
Certainly, John Leslie didn’t.
See all the finalists online here
Disclaimer: Alexandra Sassé was a finalist in this exhibition
Update: Congratulations to Linda Gibbs, exhibiting artist with Alexandra Sasse Gallery won the Best Gippsland Artist Award for the John Leslie Art Prize 2020