Landscape blog

 

Posted September 2017:

My article on Fred Williams at Geelong Art Gallery appeared in The Age on 27 September. I was interviewed about my article by Sydney writer Matthew da Silva: Fred Williams minimalist Romantic.

 

Posted May 2017:

Seeing nature

Sarah Ormonde and John Wolseley, Dry sand, wet mud, moving earth, Falkner Gallery, Castlemaine (ends 21 May 2017)

Dr Mark Dober

 

In the gallery notes to this collaborative exhibition of prints, drawings and ceramics, Bendigo based artists Sarah Ormonde and John Wolseley state: “In this show we have chosen to focus our enthusiasms on the tracks and traces we find in the dirt around us…this show celebrates the extraordinary beauty we see in the dry sand and the wet mud…”

The fulsome statements the artists make about the experiences and observations that underlie their work speak of an intimate identification with the minutae of  the natural world.  The artists note that just as they make use of mud, sand and wood to make things  (art and studio buildings) so too are termites, beetles and birds busily making  their own structures (burrows, mounds) from these same materials. To most graphically make this point, fragments of termite mounds have been fired in the kiln and exhibited in ceramic form, while sections of tree trunks with termite burrowing are exhibited alongside the frottage derived prints.  The “collaboration” that the artists talk about is inclusive of these creations of the insect world.

In this we can see an idea of Gaia, that is, that nature is a unified and self-governing organism operating in kind of mystical realm beyond conventional science. “I feel my work is about trying to reconnect with those big, frightening but creative forces that are the dynamic of the world we live in”, Wolseley has said. (1)  The artist believes we are of the earth:  an idea made manifest by the materiality, organic form, earth colours and patterns of Ormonde’s ceramics. But a problem in identifying so intimately with nature as the artists do, is that nature, as represented in the world of termites and other micro life forms, can appear as if on a distancing pedestal.

Perhaps a more inclusive way of regarding nature is to view it as one with reality. In this view, comprehensively set out in the writings of American environmental aesthetics philosopher Arnold Berleant, ourselves, the forests and creatures within them, the cars in our streets, supermarkets and everything else in the world, make up the one interconnected reality. This view argues that everything impacts on everything else: the human is necessarily featured (just as we impact on climate, climate impacts on us - hence climate change).

So far as making art is concerned, this way of thinking about our place in nature is well expressed in plein air painting.  The artist places him or herself within the landscape and the ensuing painting represents a bonding of the observed (the subject) and the observer (the artist).  The painting documents the interconnectedness between the two; a sense of belonging, of “being there”, is conveyed, and the presence of the observer is acknowledged. An artist who asserts this idea, in ambitiously scaled paintings up to 5 metres wide, is Mary Tonkin. Her immersive paintings are made in the forest of the Dandenong  Ranges, where she lives and has her studio.

Nature does not necessarily inspire sensual delight or a sense of belonging in contemporary art. A contradictory set of responses may be invoked, or a Gothic like strangeness or sense of disturbance may permeate the work.  The artist may convey an idea of nature and culture (ourselves) as separate and binary opposites. To represent our relationship with nature from this perspective is to acknowledge a gap, perhaps an existential gap, that expresses uncertainty about how much we can know or possess of the world.

A sense of nature’s separateness may take the form of an otherness loaded with spiritual associations and yearnings.  Hence the ubiquity of the void in landscape painting, both in the nineteenth century (for example the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich) and today (particularly where the painting is sourced from photography and other media).

It is not uncommon to find contemporary artists representing our place in nature with an ambiguous mix of the existential, the void, beauty, yearning, and an edgy disconnect – all in the same work.  These are qualities which feature in the work of Rick Amor: an artist who has deeply immersed himself in the visual world (and who continues to this day to regularly paint plein air) while also representing a personal vision that draws inspiration from cinema and crime novels.

Back to Sarah Osborne and John Wolseley:  the artists’ celebration of nature –grounded in a contemporary discourse of the ecological – also echoes pre-modern responses, when eighteenth and nineteenth century European explorations of nature and New World landscapes aroused intense curiosity. The botanical recordings of Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, and the geological drawings of John Ruskin, the art critic who championed J.M.W. Turner, come to mind when looking at Wolseley’s signature highly detailed drawings (however, these are not on display in this exhibition).

The exhibition also invites associations with a pre-modern conception of beauty, where beauty is held to be a quality or element intrinsic to nature (which can be discerned by us to the extent our awareness allows). This concept of beauty seems to be at odds with the modern idea – associated with the ground-breaking philosophical writings of the late eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel  Kant – that beauty is not a discoverable ingredient in things, but is in the eye of the beholder.  Beauty, said Kant, was a quality of perception – it was experienced subjectively – and could not be objectively ascertained.

Asserting that termite burrows are beautiful is a necessarily subjective view.  For the termite mounds in the exhibition are no longer termite mounds, but ceramic objects in a gallery context (anything in a gallery context is no longer what it was outside that context). The claim that these objects represent a collaboration with nature strikes me as fanciful. However, Osborne’s and Wolseley’s work is an interesting collaboration between these two artists, and the exhibition can awaken our aesthetic curiosity to the microstructures of nature, so that we experience them in a different and more thoughtful way.

 

References

1 John Wolseley, quoted in Artist Profile, Summer 2007, p.31

 

Posted April 2016: 

 

You Yangs -- gallery notes, April 2016 exhibition

(copyright, Mark Dober)

 

Time enters art by both the making and the viewing of the work. For landscape painting time is particularly poignant:  it is inscribed in landforms, rocks and rivers that are thousands or millions of years old, it is inscribed in the trees and plants that grow and die, and in the animals and insect life that animate a place. Skies are on the move and light and shadow are in constant flux.

 

It is a thrill and challenge to bring these various expressions of time into plein-air painting.

 

Unlike a movie or video – which record a succession of passing moments, and unlike photographs – which record a particular moment that forever belongs to the past, plein-air painting is a compilation of the experience of many moments that evoke a sense of presentness.

 

To illustrate – think of a nineteenth century photograph and how it seems to take you back to a long distant past, a different world from our own.  Its feels like time travelling.  Compare with a nineteenth century painting – say a Vincent van Gogh.  The presentness of the van Gogh is there to see in how the world looked in van Gogh’s time. But the painting also seems to intrude into our present too – no doubt a reason why we can experience the work so vividly. 

 

There is a physicality and directness to plein-air painting.  This is not to presume any particular style or method, and it is far from the case that all plein-air painters work in a rapid or sketchy way.  Indeed the first famous school of plein-air painters were the Pre-Raphaelites, and they are the last word in meticulous and careful technique. The large amount of time invested in making such work accorded with the work ethic of the Victorian era (a primary reason for the hostility to the later Impressionist style was the latter’s perceived quickness of execution).

 

For me, it is Paul Cezanne who most profoundly explores time in the genre of landscape painting. You have the timelessness of Mount Saint Victoire and solidly articulated forms on the one hand. On the other hand, the patches of colour and blurred edges evoke foliage shifting in the breeze and a sense of the transient nature of lived experience.

 

Cezanne would have found the You Yangs ideal for his purposes.  You have the ancient granite rocks lying all over the place, an inordinate number of dead trees both standing and lying on the ground, and a virtually ubiquitous wind that is both evocative and a curse for the plein-air painter.

 

I have enjoyed painting at the You Yangs these last couple of years or so, though that has perhaps come to an end as my wife and I are about to move to Castlemaine.  The You Yangs seem both whimsical and strange to me – and these have been a source of my continuing interest in painting this place. Sure, I don’t find it to be a particularly joyful place –the You Yangs seem brooding and even a little spooky.  The You Yangs don’t evoke in me a sense of belonging– I drive down there from the urban world of Melbourne, and the You Yangs do not exactly accord with western notions of the beautiful..  But that difference – that gap of empathy or communication between myself and the You Yangs does, I believe encourage reflection and a sense of otherness.  These responses can underlie feelings of wonder and suggest thoughts of an existential kind.

 

Posted December 2015:

 

The Dressmaker, the You Yangs, and Fred Williams

(Copyright,Mark Dober, 2015)

 

The Dressmaker, the hugely popular Australian movie currently showing at cinemas, is set in the fictional small town of Dungatar, which the film hints at being somewhere in Victoria’s remote northwest.

Surprisingly, the actual movie set was built at the periphery of the You Yangs, the rocky outcrop that provides a scenic diversion from the flat landscape traversed along the Princes Highway linking Melbourne and Geelong.

That the You Yangs and its environs would feature in The Dressmaker engaged my curiosity, because in my capacity as a professional artist I do a great deal of painting at the You Yangs.  I wondered how the You Yangs would be presented in the movie.

 

The Dressmaker is a dark and surreal movie, albeit relieved with comic exaggeration, and the You Yangs frequently appear as a brooding background.  The ubiquitous dead white trees that are featured in and around Dungatar contribute to the bleak mood.

 

While the movie setting is a study in exaggeration, a visitor to the You Yangs is likely to be struck by the inordinate number of dead, broken and fallen trees. Yet the Forest Park is also home to 200 species of birds and offers an extraordinarily diverse native fauna. In combination with the big, rounded rocks and granite outcrops, and the views across to distant Melbourne and Port Phillip and Corio Bays, the You Yangs presents much of visual interest.  Children love climbing over the rocks and piling up long sticks against trees. The walk to the summit – Flinders Peak – is busy seemingly all the time and barbecues are well patronized.  Cyclists can be seen at the You Yangs in large numbers.

 

But in The Dressmaker the You Yangs stand for a much starker view of the Australian landscape, a frequently encountered perspective in the movies where remote and “outback” settings tend to be favoured. Often these landscape settings are depicted as dark and disturbing places.  Australian classics such as Wake in Fright, Mad Max, and Wolf Creek come to mind.  The landscape settings in these movies support narratives that feature drama, conflict and violence.

 

Australian painting today presents a mostly differing perspective. White Australian artists who represent the land as benign, rich, colourful and sensual include Mary Tonkin (Melbourne) who paints in the lush forests of the Dandenong Ranges, John Wolseley (Bendigo) who brings a Naturalist perspective to landscape, and William Robinson (Queensland) who shows the tropical landscape to be a manifestation of Creation.

 

While I don’t see anyone else painting in the You Yangs when I am there, one of the greats of Australian landscape painting – Fred Williams – made his reputation by his 1960s series of You Yangs paintings.

Williams, who famously never learned to drive, would be driven down there from Melbourne by his friend James Mollison, who later became Director of Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia. Williams refrained from painting the topography and you can’t identify any of his paintings with any particular spot or view. But paint plein-air he did, regarding the site as an outdoor studio where he could express the experiential in a generic sort of way.

 

Abstract considerations of mark making, paint texture, and colouring are what concerned Williams in his painting. For Williams the landscape was not to be depicted as such, but was a source from which the artist could extract the elements necessary to make paintings. Any element that had a topographical particularity tended to be edited out: there are no views in Williams’s painting of the distinctive profile of the You Yangs, and the ribbon of distant blue water of Port Phillip Bay is not to be seen in any of the work.

With his You Yangs series it is said that Williams changed the way we see the Australian landscape. Avoiding the scenic and the topographical, it was now said that Williams enabled us to see and appreciate the ordinary and familiar in the Australian landscape.

 

But I am not so sure about that claim.  Today visitors go to the You Yangs to appreciate the scenery, the strangeness of the place, its whimsical rocks, the odd looking gnarled and twisted trees, and the sublime view of a place in the distance they call home. This is pretty conventional but enduring stuff. The Dressmaker taps into this sensibility by the way it panders to our continuing recognition of the peculiarity and otherness of the Australian landscape.

 

Posted December 2015 (an unpublished essay with illustrations, written several months earlier, the original version in 2014):

 

 Re-branding the Heidelberg School as “Australian Impressionism”

(Copyright,Mark Dober, 2015)

 

Accompanying any visit to a familiar State gallery collection is your own memory of how the collection appeared to you on the last and previous visits.

When, coming from Melbourne, I recently visited the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, one change I noticed was that the room displaying the paintings of Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder and their associates is now titled ‘Australian Impressionists’(previously the room displayed no title that categorized the work). Until a decade ago this group of artists had generally gone by the name ‘The Heidelberg School’:  their re-naming as Australian Impressionists at the NGA in 2006 effectively made official a re-naming, or ‘re-branding’ process that has been gathering momentum for years now.

It has never struck me as convincing to describe the aforementioned Australian artists as ‘Impressionists’. It seems to misrepresent their work and achievement. I have accordingly investigated the question of how and why the re-naming process occurred.

This is necessarily an historical inquiry, and the place to begin is the coming into art language of the term Impressionism itself – a term coined by a Parisian critic to describe the style of a sketchy painting, titled Impression: Sunrise (1872), by Claude Monet.

Monet’s painting was in a group show of artists who wanted to make paintings that engaged directly with the modern world. These artists were positioning their work in opposition to the ‘machines’ of the Salon: large- sized and dark studio paintings with narrative content. The new Impressionist painting emphasised the artist’s personalised experience of seeing rather than the details of the subject; it was an art of immediacy and movement, of candid poses and compositions. The play of light was expressed in the use of broken and complementary colour, usually mixed with a considerable amount of white. Black was avoided, as were dramatic contrast of tones. The paint was applied in short, thick strokes. Typically, wet paint was placed into wet paint, producing soft edges and intermingling of colour. The effect of these methods was a high-keyed (light-toned) and vibrant surface that was a celebration of experience.

Fast forward to Melbourne 17 August 1889:  a pivotal moment in Australian art history. This was the opening of the 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition. The show mostly consisted of small paintings on cigar box lids. Consistent with Impressionist methods, these had been made out-doors (plein-air). The young Australian artists, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin, would in time become household names. The newspaper review of the exhibition was critical of the ‘Impressionism’ on show. But at this time words like impression, impressionistic, and Impressionism were used interchangeably to describe any style of sketchy painting made in the landscape. Neither critic nor artists had French Impressionism in mind of which they were quite likely unaware. Instead, the primary influences on these artists were the work of English artist James Whistler (who had shown his small nocturnes in his own 9 x 5 exhibition in London five years prior) and among the most talked about French artist of the time, Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Bastien-Lepage worked in muted tones in a photo realist style (he made use of photographs of models).  While the artist did paint out-doors, these were studies for the larger studio work. Naturalism, the art movement to which Bastien-Lepage belonged, sought to evoke sympathy for its subjects. Hence, a sense of narrative and sentiment was to be seen in the work, characteristics evident in the Potato Gatherers (1879) in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. These qualities are particularly evident in the large studio productions of the Australian artists – such as the iconic Shearing the rams (1890) by Tom Roberts

In 1891 our aforementioned Australian artists were described by a journalist with The Australasian Critic as ‘the Heidelberg School’. He had named the group after the semi-rural area of Heidelberg where they had established one of their outdoor painting camps.  But as the camp at Heidelberg was neither the first (that was at Box Hill) nor the last of the plein-air camps, the identification of the group with Heidelberg was not geographically exact. In addition, the membership of the group at each location varied.  Nevertheless, the naming of the group as ‘the Heidelberg School’ came into popular usage. At the same time, the description of their work as impressionist persisted.

It was not until a very long time later, in the 1970s, that questioning art historians, notably Ann Galbally, cited ‘mounting contrary evidence’ to challenge the use of the term impressionist to describe the art of the Heidelberg School. Galbally argued that to describe this work as impressionist was misleading and a ‘myth’ by the way it served to link the Australian artists to French Impressionism when there was ‘no tangible relationship between the works themselves, or in the artists’ own comments about their art’ to support the association. (1) At this time, a number of Australian art historians made use of a new and less problematic term, plein-airism, to describe the out-door work the Australian artists were making. (2)

In 1987 a block buster, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond, opened at the National Gallery of Victoria and travelled to other capital city galleries. This was a comprehensive exhibition of the painting of those same four artists who had first shown together in 1889. In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, then NGV director Patrick McCaughey made little reference to Impressionism, preferring to describe the work as that of the Heidelberg School.

In the 1990s a shift in naming occurred again, back to the original ‘impressionist’ description. But now art writers were using the terms ‘Impressionist’ and ‘Impressionism’ with a deliberate and self-conscious intent to categorise the style. In part this shift can be seen to reflect the gradual cultural change whereby branding made increasing inroads into all aspects of society, including the marketing of high culture. Also, a change in art historical perceptions was triggered by the publication in New York in 1990 of World Impressionism:  the International Movement, 1860 – 1920. This comprehensive and well illustrated book featured chapters from art historians in various European and New World countries on the ‘Impressionist’ art in their countries. The book declared that Impressionism was not only French but global: each country had its own version of Impressionism. The Australian contribution was described in detail by art historian Virginia Spate, in a chapter titled The Sunny South:  Australian Impressionism.

Art historians of the calibre of Bernard Smith now cited World Impressionism to validate the claim for an Australian version of Impressionism. In 2003, in an essay introduction to a catalogue that surveyed the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Smith wrote:  ‘Impressionism is a style devoted to the depiction of light.’ (3) This definition was illustrated by Streeton’s iconic The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might (1896).

Although Streeton’s painting was made on location, and is high keyed and wonderfully captures the intense quality of the Australian light, I would not describe it as an Impressionist painting. The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might is essentially a tonal painting and does not make use of chromatic colour nor broken brush strokes, even if freshly painted. Streeton’s masterpiece is less about the seeing of a subject than describing the view itself. The artist himself did not identify with Impressionism or its aims, and always referred to the art of his youth as the Heidelberg School.

In 2006 the branding of the Heidelberg School as Impressionism was given institutional authority by the naming of the Heidelberg painters as ‘Australian Impressionists’ in the room that displays their work at the National Gallery of Australia.

Then, in 2007, the NGV-initiated block buster, Australian Impressionism surveyed the same four artists as in 1987, but now also included Jane Sutherland. Everything from outdoor oil sketches to large studio-made narrative paintings in a Naturalist style were included in the exhibition. In justifying the labelling of the artists as ‘Impressionists’, the connection now made was not to French Impressionism but to world impressionism. NGV curator of Australian art at the time, Terry Lane, introduced the catalogue by quoting the new revisionist and internationalist definition of Impressionism from the aforementioned text, World Impressionism. And a catalogue essay titled ‘Some reflections on Defining Australian Impressionism’, by the then director of the NGV, Gerard Vaughan, asserted that the Australian artists were a part of the ‘international movement’ of Impressionism because their aim was ‘capturing naturalistic effects of light and colour by painting in the open air, and by painting more often than not on lighter grounds to give luminosity and freshness to their canvases and grounds’. (4)

There are two problems with Vaughan’s definition. First, it conflates plein-air painting with Impressionism.  On this basis many artists who were not Impressionists, such as Naturalist painters who made outdoor studies like Bastien-Lepage, or indeed late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Romantics like John Constable, could qualify as ‘impressionists’. Second, much of the work of Australian Impressionism – namely the studio portraits and narrative paintings – did not meet the very criteria posed by Vaughan.  They were neither light nor painted in the open air. The large narrative paintings, among the most iconic of the work of the Heidelberg group, were tonal paintings in muted earth colours that refrained from the use of broken chromatic colour.

After the NGV survey of 2007, a number of exhibitions promoted the idea of an Impressionist-influenced Australian art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of these was in 2009, when the National Gallery of Australia initiated an exhibition of Frederick McCubbin’s late work:  McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907 – 17.  While McCubbin saw French Impressionist work during his 1907 travels in Europe, the artist’s correspondence and painting shows that it was the English Romantics John Constable and J.M.W. Turner who had the greatest impact on him (Constable made use of the palette knife in his large studio studies, while Turner increasingly made use of the palette knife as his art progressed).

The case for the Impressionist credentials of the Australian artists was made most comprehensively and openly by the 2013 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australian Impressionists in France 1860 – 1905. While some of the work in the exhibition looked Impressionist in style, much of it did not.  Most often, the work from the exhibition showed some Impressionist influence, mixed with the influence of other art styles. In the work of John Peter Russell and Charles Conder, for example, the two most extensively represented artists in the show, Russell’s colour was mostly bright and Post Impressionist, while Conder’s work evoked in soft pastel tones the dreamy sentiment and mysticism of Symbolism and Aestheticism. 

The diversity of the art in the exhibition reflected the complexity of the Parisian art world at the end of the nineteenth century when a variety of art movements, some avant-garde, were jostling for attention. Australian artists in France at this time were receptive to these competing influences. The singular branding of the work in the exhibition as ‘Impressionist’ did not adequately describe or represent the work on show.

Elena Taylor, Curator of Australian Art at the NGV, acknowledged in the exhibition catalogue and in the exhibition wall texts (5), the wide variety of influences on the Australian artists. But she did not see the diversity of influences as problematic for the Impressionist theme - it was noted that just as French Impressionism was far from a singular style, so too was Australian ‘Impressionism’.

For all the attention given to nuance and complexity, the core aim of Australian Impressionists in France was to appropriate this art to the Impressionist brand. Such branding obscures vital differences between the French and Australian achievements: unlike the Australian artists the French Impressionists were in possession of a shared identity: they exhibited together, often painted together, and in the process forged a pioneering art movement. To the extent that the Australian art could be experimental by assimilating a variety of new styles, it lacked the focus of shared purpose and originality that is synonymous with French Impressionism.

The branding of the Australian art at the Federation Square exhibition represented the completion of the phenomenon, years in the making, of rebranding a significant slice of Australian art history as ‘Impressionist’. The branding of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australian art (whether made in Australia or France) as Impressionist, even where it is not, is likely to have much to do with marketing. Governments, which fund the network of public art galleries, are interested in large audience attendances (as are the art institutions).  Impressionism has excellent ‘brand recognition’ – it is the most popular art movement in history (6) -- so to brand art as Impressionist is to maximise its attraction for audiences. 

To brand art as Impressionist also lifts its prestige by linking it to an art movement that is significant to the story of an emergent Modern art, placing it in an upbeat and progressive light. Other influential art movements of the time – like Aestheticism and Symbolism – that are far less well known and popular with the art-going public than Impressionism, and do not share its glamour and progressive image, have accordingly been played down. For Naturalism - not at all a part of the trajectory of modern art as the history books describe – it is a case of having been mostly written out of the narrative.

The current international Impressionist brand has confused and weakened the identity of Impressionism. It incorporates so many varied styles and aims over a now expanded time frame, that it has become too unwieldy to fit a narrative of the origins of Modern art. As a result, Impressionism has been refashioned into a period piece that stands apart from Modernism. In the catalogue Introduction to Australian Impressionists in France, Elena Taylor pointedly differentiated Impressionism from both earlier Realist, Romantic and academic styles, and from Modernism:  Modernism is said to begin decades later in the early twentieth century with the more abstract art of Cubism. Yet arguably, the one key feature that much early Modernism possesses, for all its dramatic and rapid changes in style, is a liberating and investigative use of colour - colour used like never before in the history of art (think Post Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Abstraction).  Impressionism in fact played a key role in setting this story in motion and is an integral part of the story of early Modernism.

The irony is that to play down the role of Impressionism as an instigator of Modern art is consequent upon the ‘upgrading’ to Impressionist status that is sought for the Australian artists. The linking of the Australian art (whether made in Australia or France) to ‘World Impressionism’ seeks to show an international context and relevance, but this comes at the cost of inviting an unflattering comparison with the French originators, which can then position the Australian art as a derivative and weaker emulation. The originality and specificity of the Australian work is diminished in the process.

 

Endnotes

 

1     Ann Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell, Melbourne, Sun Books, 1977, p.9.

2     These art historians were Helen Topliss, Anita Gallaway, Ann Galbally, and Leigh

       Ashbury.

3     Bernard Smith, Two Centuries of Australian Art:  From the Collection of the National          

 Gallery of Victoria, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne, 2003, p.45.

4     Gerard Vaughan, ‘Some Reflections on Defining Australian Impressionism’, Australian        

 Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, p.19.

 5    Elena Taylor, Australian Impressionists in France, National Gallery of Victoria,

       Melbourne, 2013.

 6   The highest number of visitors to a show at the NGV was for The Impressionists

       (2004). The second highest attendance was to Monet’s Garden:  the Musee Marmottan

       Monet, Paris (2013).    

 

 

Posted 27 April 2015:

 

Immanence, Steps Gallery, April 2015

 

Welcome to my exhibition of paintings. Mostly these are of the You Yangs, and all of the work has been made plein-air (the larger ones over several sessions).

 

As a painter I seem to have the You Yangs to myself – I never see any other artists down there. Which seems strange to me, given its possibilities for painting and its proximity to Melbourne and Geelong.

 

But the You Yangs do pop up every now and again as a subject in the art historical record:

 

There is a painting at Geelong Art Gallery, by Eugene von Guerard, where the distinctive profile of the You Yangs appears in the distance. Titled View of Geelong (1856) the rocky outcrop adds to the picturesque qualities of the scene.

 

Von Guerard’s practice of dramatizing topographical features in his landscape painting was about romanticizing  the new land that was opening up to European settlement. In such paintings nature is presented as scenery, and the scene is pruned within its borders (the frame) and is self contained. Neither artist nor observer are seen to be present to the scene witnessed, for the space of the painting is not inclusive of the viewer.

 

Geelong Art Gallery also has a notable painting from Fred Williams’ You Yangs series.  Titled Yellow landscape (1968) this abstract work is an example of Williams’ celebrated anti-picturesque view of the Australian landscape. It implies a vantage point from within the You Yangs looking across the surrounding flat pastoral country and studiously avoids any picturesque focal point or feature (so far as I know Williams never painted the profile of the You Yangs nor ever referenced Port Phillip Bay, a distant scenic feature seen from the You Yangs).  

 

Looking at Yellow landscape the viewer is not grounded anywhere and is floating or hovering above a landscape that begins somewhere in the distance.  A sense of detachment prevails (in spite of the romantic qualities that the distance evoked in the painting implies).

 

For all the great differences of style and content, the picturesque painting of von Guerard and the anti-picturesque work of Williams share an elusive feature:  in neither case can the viewer spatially enter the landscape. This is because the landscape is not inclusive of the artist’s own standing point from which the landscape is observed.

 

So far as my own work at the You Yangs is concerned, I see it as neither exclusively picturesque nor anti-picturesque but inclusive of both. Picturesque qualities of my work could  include the distant views (including the Bay), and a feeling of pleasure in the presence of nature (I’m not sure why scenery should be so often disparaged and avoided in contemporary landscape art when scenery is the primary means – today as a hundred years ago – by which people seek out an aesthetic experience of landscape).

 

But in a non-picturesque way I am also seeking a sense of one seamless reality in which artist/viewer are included in the landscape. In my painting I usually seek to include the ground where I sit, the screen of trees in front of me, the far distance and overarching sky. All are interconnected, and are a part of the one seamless reality that makes for environment. In the painting a blending thus takes place between the seeing and the seen. By titling my show Immanence I have sought to give a name to this sensory field of experience. 

 

Posted 4 December 2014:

 

Landscape Painting Prizes:  the contemporary Australian scene  (Copyright,Mark Dober, 2014)

 

What place does landscape painting occupy in the contemporary Australian art world? It seems that landscape painting, while less central to Australian art now than during the nineteenth century and the modern period, still occupies a significant place. The position now is not so much insecure as more complex.

 

On the one hand the genre of landscape painting is well represented in many good commercial galleries, and landscape is a recurrent theme in contemporary painting prizes (7 of the 42 shortlisted paintings in the 2014 Geelong Contemporary Art Prize pictured landscape). The choice of landscape as the theme of the forthcoming inaugural Dobell Australian Drawing Biennal is indicative of the continuing importance and relevance of landscape. And several of the prestigious national painting prizes are now specifically devoted to a landscape theme.

 

Yet on the other hand, contemporary landscape painting is largely absent from the public gallery system:  places like Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art never seem to show it, there was little representation of landscape in the recent Melbourne Now survey at the National Gallery of Victoria, and Australian landscape rarely appears at the   prestigious international Biennales. Nor does landscape painting often appear at Melbourne’s ARIs (artist run spaces). 

 

While not viewed as particularly “cutting edge” or “innovatory” by these latter sections of the art world (it would seem), landscape painting is not likely to go away soon, if ever. This may have much to do with the way landscape and painting go exceptionally well together (that is, genre and media are a natural fit). Moreover, it would seem that landscape painting addresses an insatiable human need to find meaning and beauty in the larger visible world that surrounds us. Landscape, after all, is and always will be out there, and it is a significant reality that we all experience in one way or another. Each generation faces the challenge anew: how to reinvigorate and bring new experience to the genre?

 

Landscape painting prizes: an overview

The shortlisted work and winners of the nations’s leading contemporary landscape painting prizes (the John Leslie Art Prize, Fleurieu Painting Prize, John Glover Art Prize, New South Wales Plein-air Painting Prize, Wynne Prize, and Paddington Art Prize), provide a useful guide to how the genre has been travelling in recent years.

 

A few basic facts about these prizes: with the exception of the Wynne Prize they began at around the same time:  the Fleurieu in 1998, the John Leslie in 2000, the John Glover and the Paddington Art Prize in 2004, and the NSW Plein Air Prize in 2008.  The prize money to the winner ranges from $20,000 (John Leslie Art Prize, NSW Plein-air Painting Prize, Paddington Art Prize) to $50,000 (Fleurieu Painting Prize). Three are held in Sydney (NSW Plein-air Painting Prize, Wynne Prize, Paddington Art Prize), one in Tasmania (John Glover Art Prize), one in South Australia (Fleurieu Painting Prize), and one in Victoria (John Leslie Art Prize).  The number of entries in these prizes just keeps growing – the John Leslie attracting over 400 entries this year. Among the best known of Australia’s landscape painters feature in the prizes, though household names – artists of the stature of John Olsen or Rick Amor -- tend to be missing. These prizes can function as a battleground for those artists who aspire to such heights, and for the much larger group of artists who are seeking to get better known, and advance their reputation in the art world.

 

The organizational encouragement and backing in recent years represented by these landscape painting prizes suggests a strong belief in the current and future prospects of the genre in Australia.

 

John Leslie Art Prize

The bi-annual John Leslie Art Prize is held at Gippsland Art Gallery in Sale, Victoria. The 2014 winner was Shannon Smiley, and recent previous prize winners have been Tony Lloyd (2012), Jason Cordero (2008), and Andrew Meier (2006). The winner is invited to be one of the three judges for the next prize. The money for the prize comes from a Sale resident:  John Leslie OBE.

 

A striking feature of the John Leslie Art Prize is the strong representation given to painting making use of photographs and other mediated source material. Though some work shortlisted – whether abstract or plein-air – can be exempted from this generalization, the above mentioned prize winners have all shared this quality. Stylistic features that tend to go hand in hand with the use of photography in contemporary landscape painting were much in evidence in the John Leslie Art Prize: smooth/thin paint surfaces employing fine detail or, its opposite, the void, and the use of monochrome colour as well as theatrical and sublime contrasts of light and dark.

 

Fleurieu Prize

The bi-annual Fleurieu Prize is Australia’s richest painting prize. The prize is financially supported and promoted by the State Government of South Australia (the Premier signing off on Forwards to the catalogue). The prize is viewed by organizers as a means of increasing tourism to the Fleurieu Peninsula: the peninsula is a major wine growing region and the prize exhibitions are spread among several wineries. In addition to the main landscape prize, there are painting prizes on the themes of food and wine, and the local Fleurieu landscape. The publicity aim appears to be to link the art, local landscape and vineyards to enhance the status of all three.

 

The prize catalogues show that a wide range of contemporary styles are accommodated with proportionally more work that could be described as abstract or whimisical, and proportionally less work that is darkly romantic and photo-sourced compared to the John Leslie Art Prize. The winner for 2013 was Fiona Lowry.  The website lists the finalists for 2013 only.

 

Wynne Prize

The annual Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales began in 1897 and is currently valued at $35,000.  The AGNSW website, which lists images of all of the finalists of the last few years, demonstrates that the prize features the best known artists painting the Australian landscape.  Recent prize winners are Michael Johnson (2014), Immant Tillers (2013 and 2012), Richard Godwin (2011) and Sam Leach (2010).

 

The styles that make it to the final cut are diverse. But there is no online selection of entries: paintings must be delivered to the gallery for selection.  As a result the prize is mostly a snapshot of the work of leading Sydney artists (Tasmanian artist Philip Wolfhagen has previously won the Wynne Prize, but for most artists interstate, having to send a work to Sydney in the hope of being selected does not encourage participation). 

 

An interesting feature of the Wynne Prize is that it allows for work of very large dimensions (up to 3 metres square) while the other art prizes surveyed have more stringent size limitations. This  may be because the AGNSW has more space and bigger walls on which to hang the work.

 

NSW  Plein Air Painting Prize

This annual prize held at the NSW Parliament is for a plein-air painting of a NSW landscape. The prize features many well known contemporary artists, for whom plein-air painting might be only an aspect of their working method. Recent winners have been Tom Carment (2014), Guy Maestri, John Bokor, Isabel Gomez, Rodney Pople, Euan Macleod and Noel McKenna. Familiar places to the artist, including urban sites, are often the subjects painted. Finalists’ work can be seen on the prize website

 

As a result of its specific devotion to perceptual practice, it can be assumed that the NSW Plein Air Painting Prize has boosted the profile of plein-air painting as contemporary practice in the State of NSW. So while many in the art world tend to view plein-air painting as not contemporary – an adjunct to studio practice -- this prize demonstrates that plein-air painting can be a fully fledged contemporary expression and statement in its own right. 

 

A limiting feature of the prize, in my view, is the condition that entries not exceed 100 cm wide and 150 cm high.  This taller-than-wide format allowed is, I am told, due to columns vertically dividing the wall space. And while the modest dimensions allowable may suit most plein-air artists, the overall size restriction does nothing to challenge the assumption that modest scale is evidence of a not very ambitious kind of painting. Actually, a number of the very best plein-air painters – for example, Australia’s Mary Tonkin and England’s David Hockney -- work to a very ambitious scale when painting landscapes outdoors.

 

The Glover Prize

The Glover Prize is an annual $40,000 painting prize on the theme of Tasmania’s landscape. The exhibition is held at the colonial era village of Evandale near Launceston. Recent winners have been Mark Rodda (2014), Janet Laurence (2013), Rodney Pople (2012), and Josh Foley (2011). While the styles and subjects of these and earlier prize winners are immensely varied, the prize attracts more than its fair share of landscapes that evoke brooding loneliness.

 

The aim of the prize, according to the website, is “to stimulate conversations about the meaning and possibilities expressed in the words landscape, painting and Tasmania”. The Glover Prize is open to artists from anywhere in the world, though the subject requirement and the prohibitive cost of interstate art transport to Tasmania, suggest that the great majority of the participating artists are Tasmanian.

 

Paddington Art Prize

This prize began as a private initiative by Marlene Antico and is held annually at her commercial gallery in Sydney.  Finalists’ work from the past 10 years can be seen on the prize website. The kind of work shown, and its quality, is comparable to that of the other prizes I have surveyed, though the 2014 exhibition especially well represents plein-air and vigorous looking work (a characteristic of much of Sydney’s best contemporary landscape painting!).

 

A personal view of current trends

The shortlisted work in the surveyed art prizes shows a great diversity of styles and  qualitative consistency.  It is not possible to determine how the selectors have arrived at their selection.  Selectors like to present their decision as being “difficult” but ultimately  about choosing the most outstanding work: letters to rejected artists usually  imply that their work was not selected because it wasn’t competitive (as in “we had a very strong field of submissions this year...”). 

 

But it may be that selection owes much to selectors seeking the best examples of differing/niche landscape painting styles, in particular work perceived as unusual or “stand out”. Diversity – “something for everyone”—perhaps in itself a good thing, can  result.  Yet this approach tends to work against those good painters who are not among the very best known “stand outs” in their niche/stylistic field. One suspects that when it comes to selection, mannerism and gimmickry can often trump good painting which is overlooked because it more quietly asserts its quality and insights.

 

So far as the choice of winner is concerned, it seems that no overall style is favoured, though we can safely assume that the taste of the judge(s) will play a big role in the result. Again, it often seems that it is the “stand out” look – work that is perceived as different and unique – that is a strong factor in choosing the winner. Yet this is not always the case and quite often the rationale for the judges’ choice is a mystery to most. 

 

A quirky feature of these prizes is that the great majority of the winners are men. Are the artists who paint landscape and enter these prizes primarily male?  Would the gender of the judges make any difference to the choice of a winner?

 

There is a tendency for much of the work shortlisted to pursue two differing aesthetic visions. On the one hand, there is the romanticism of the sublime: mountains, waterfalls, mist and fog, the dark, and the void. On the other hand, there is the so called “everyday”: a fragment of nature or the urban environment meant to be decidedly unpicturesque and unremarkable. So we have the dramatized (darkness and light), versus the ordinary (often engaging the viewer by its hyper-realism).

 

What we don’t see so much in these exhibitions is landscape/nature as we experience it for our pleasure and enjoyment: such as going for drives, taking in a view, or bushwalking. Does such subject matter sound conventional and unchallenging?  In the hands of a good painter it need not be. In my view, it is all to the better if some artists are seen to be engaging with how society views landscape as aesthetic experience.  This could mean – to give examples of some of the most outstanding contemporary landscape painting being made -- painting in the forest (Mary Tonkin) or painting pastoral views of the Yorkshire countryside (David Hockney). There is a place for more good work in the landscape prizes that avows a direct and lived experience of landscape.

 

 

Posted late June 2014:  Moments of Seeing -- an exhibition of plein-air landscapes by myself, Richard Birmingham and Stephen Armstrong, at Cambridge Studio Gallery in July, is our first showing together.  A statement to accompany the exhibition is below.

 

I have been making work for this show for a while now, in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.  More and more, I have become interested in the psychology of space when making these works.  My wife, Liz Nelson, has also been doing a lot of work in the gardens, mostly huge scaled and multi sheet drawings, one of which is on show at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery (Swan Hill Drawing and Print Prize).  This work will be included in her first solo exhibition at Tacit Gallery in August.

 

Liz and I have just returned from a trip to England and France.  We made drawings in central London at the river, and we visited Hockney country (The Wolds, Yorkshire), Arles (Van Gogh), and Aix (Cezanne).  Took lots of photos and hope to give a lecture sometime about these artist's landscapes at these places, relating the work to the landscape as it is today.

 

Posted June 2014:  Moments of Seeing at Cambridge Studio Gallery, Artist statement

 

The paintings in our exhibition were made outdoors (plein-air).

 

In plein-air painting, mark-making and looking are organically related and it is this relationship that is intrinsic to the meaning of the work. In other words, plein-air painting seeks to express the experiential as it unfolds in real time.  It is a way of working that asserts the authenticity of being there.   In this way, plein-air painting can be seen to be about vision – as much about how we see as what is there to be seen. 

 

This seeing is personalized, filtered through the temperament and life experience of the artist. The resulting work may be gestural or exacting, tonal or emphasizing colour, naturalistic or tending to abstraction.  Artists as diverse as John Constable, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul C&eacut