Exhibitions, Reviews, Visual Arts

Country and Western: Landscape re-imagined (S.H.Ervin Gallery, Sydney)

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The ancient Greeks had a word for nature in its idealised form: Arcadia.
It embodied the idea of rustic perfection and relative isolation — natural beauty unspoilt by the depredations of man — an idea which has pre-occupied poets and painters ever since. But nature is not our friend. Her aim is to return us to the compost heap at the earliest opportunity. And this, one might think, is a bracing attitude to bring to any art work which turns to landscape for its inspiration.
A carefully curated exhibition by Gavin Wilson of 50 works at the S. H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney, presents the viewer with responses to landscape that could not be more different from the landscapes of the recent past which still hold the conservative viewer in thrall.
These are the landscapes which art critic Robert Hughes dismissed thus: “Their recipe involves two gum trees, a handful of blue hills, the woolly backside of a sheep, and large tubes of yellow ochre, flake white and Reckitt’s blue … anyone not gifted with imagination could turn out these pastiches …”
There are no sheep in this exhibition. And there are few strictly ‘realist’ works. In photographic realism there is always the temptation to indulge in a display of virtuosity for its own sake and the result is often empty of all spirit, all surprise — just a stale exercise in mechanical perfection.
What you will find in this exhibition is the work of William Robertson whose dense and whimsical rainforest paintings are best described by this exercise: imagine you are a fly in a glass flask swinging away at the hip of a determined entomologist in a rainforest. Every time the flask bounces, twists or twirls, the world rushes up to meet you.
You will also encounter works by Idris Murphy whose near abstractions in acrylic on board are excursions into the landscape which fuse form and occasional electric colour into pure visual poetry.

Euan web Macleod, Present, 2008, oil and polymer on canvas, 124 x 100cm
Euan Macleod, Present, 2008, oil and polymer on canvas, 124 x 100cm

You will enjoy the work of Euan MacLeod whose raw palette knife scraped surfaces, suggest both vigour and precariousness.
Idris Murphy, webKimberley Coast, 2013, polymer on board, 120 x 110cm
Idris Murphy, Kimberley Coast, 2013, polymer on board, 120 x 110cm

The Australian landscape is an untidy and unfinished one — not readily framed. It lends itself to open-ended compositions and abstract patterns with surprising ease.
One might also venture to observe that there are two kinds of landscape painters in Australia — wet landscape painters and dry landscape painters. Elioth Gruner was wet, Russell Drysdale was dry. Fred Williams was dry but got wetter as he went along. William Robinson is humid, Abram Louis Buvelot was dry — even dusty — and so on. Wet landscapes are evocative of fertility, growth, perhaps prosperity. Dry landscapes evoke desiccation, hopelessness and decay. Drysdale’s outback paintings were often a visual repository of ennui and disappointments bravely borne.
Indeed, a number of our landscape painters have actually infiltrated perceptions of our landscape and prod a sense of recognition. Dewy lilac-grey dawns on the south coast put one in mind of Elioth Gruner’s dairy farm canvases, while the sinuous balding hills around south coastal Gerringong are Lloyd Rees’s domain. The undulations of the You Yangs in Victoria were fixed by Fred Williams, and when white gums lurch out at us along Victorian coastal roads, we think of Sidney Nolan’s scrubbed Ripolin compositions.
The unforgiving outback — Australia’s own ‘heart of darkness’ — in a blaze of sunlight, is captured in the work of painter Jo Bertini who has spent a great deal of time in the harshest corners of it. In Through Desert Eyes she stands undiminished in open space, wearing a hunting knife and holding like a mask, the bleached white skull of a steer in front of her face.
Jo Bertiniweb, Through Desert Eyes, 2014, oil on canvas, 92 x 92cm
Jo Bertini, Through Desert Eyes, 2014, oil on canvas, 92 x 92cm

John Gollings who is better known as an architectural photographer, has captured a certain grandeur in the ritual scarring of the red earth from large scale open cut mining operations in his photograph Mt Newman Mines Overburden.
The engaged viewer will also see that landscape painting today has freed itself from the traditional requirements of perspective, that is, the notion that a painter can create the illusion of deep space by creating objects on the canvas that diminish in scale — a discovery first applied with mathematical precision in the early 1400s.
John Olsen’s meandering and playful Country Life Rydal, with its diminished perspective, celebrates the broad encounter between earth and sky and illustrates the perceptive comments Robert Hughes made about is work in the early 1960s: “the pictures seem to grow from his brush as naturally and directly as a twig from branch”.
Finally, works by Aboriginal contemporary artists such as Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford and Mulkun Wirrpanda remind us of how an art born tens of thousands of years earlier in sand drawings and rock engravings, has transformed itself into a vibrant new strain of art on canvas and board.
Rover Thomas, Cyclone tracy Painting, 1994, natural pigments and polymer on canvas, 100 x140cm
Rover Thomas, Cyclone tracy Painting, 1994, natural pigments and polymer on canvas, 100 x140cm

Nothing conveys to us the complexity of a 20th-century city better than an aerial view of it. The skeins of concrete flyovers and the endless grids of streets confirm the Western world’s attraction to order. These Aboriginal painters didn’t need a high altitude map to understand our vast continent because their forebears have been moving across it for 40,000 years or more. Their paintings are their maps and understandably they elude the western mindset. This is a rewarding exhibition in which each artist has imagined a world defined by landscape — not copied it — and has recreated this world on canvas, on board and in photographs.
[box]Main image: John Gollings’ Mount Newman Mines Overburden, 2010, ink jet print on photo rag, 74 x 110cm. Country and Western is at S.H Ervin Gallery, Watson Road, The Rocks until December 6.[/box]

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