Dale Cox's painting 'Untitled', 2019.

Visual Arts

Skeleton landscapes: Dale Cox on responding to climate change through art

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In January this year, a suburban gallery in Ringwood, Victoria quietly exhibited a large, haunting image of a burning Australian landscape, carried into the dark to its death by human skeletons.

In the midst of a country burning, people and thousands of wildlife dying, and no reassurances at the time that the fires would easily be contained, the artwork – painted in 2019 – seemed prophetic in how it captured the grave reality of the start of the new decade.

The painter, Melbourne artist Dale Cox, was inundated with messages on social media and email in response to the artwork, which gallery staff said had captured the imagination of visitors with eerie timing and imagery.

“I was getting all sorts of strangers contacting me on social media and email,” he says. “One parent told me their child stood in front of it for 20 minutes.”

Cox’s painting Untitled won the People’s Choice Award at the R & M McGivern Exhibition, held at the Realm ArtSpace.

“My paintings have started to become a lot angrier. I’ve now introduced the human aspect … That’s because we really are at that pointy end.”

“I love creating artwork that has a poetic quality to it … something people can have a direct exchange with.

“If a child is standing in front of an artwork for 20 minutes, it’s because they’re thinking about it and they’re taking it in, they’re having that kind of dialogue with the artwork.

“If I can get through to people that way and help them see complex problems in a poetic way, then my job’s sort of done, I think.”

Cox’s art addresses his concerns with humanity’s impact on the environment and the landscape; logging, deforestation, loss of remnant vegetation and bush land, arson, and more recently, the increasingly worrying trends of climate change.

But it’s in the last ten years that Cox says his landscape paintings “suddenly caught fire”.

In the 2009 Black Saturday fires, Cox nearly lost his home in Eltham, a gum-tree lined suburb north-east of Melbourne. It was saved when a sudden wind change turned the fire toward the Kinglake Ranges.

Cox’s childhood friend, his wife and their young family died in the ensuing fire. It was a turning point for him.

“I heard many stories from the Kinglake Black Saturday fires that were very harrowing … It brought it all home to a human level, the scale of the problem, that we’re all in the firing line.

“Yes, we live on a fragile continent, already with extreme weather built into its geology anyway. But when you add that extra layer of carbon into the atmosphere and the shifting parameters that further dry out the forests, catastrophic fires are inevitable and it’s only going to get worse, and then worse again.”

After spending a decade painting all kinds of landscapes, Cox recently introduced human skeletons into his work, to remind people that we are part of the problem.

They represent the “human creature”, he says, devoid of gender, age or ethnicity, “our collective humanity stripped to our common element.”

‘Supermankind’, 2019

“My paintings have started to become a lot angrier,” he says. “I’ve now introduced the human aspect … That’s because we really are at that pointy end where it’s coming back to bite us.

“A lot of the projections of the scientific communities are starting to manifest, and we’re starting to hit those points where it’s hard to reverse back again.

“We can’t keep going the way we’re going, business as usual with our whole way of living, our consumerist society, and our capitalist and financial structures on very shaky ground.”

Cox is encouraged by a sense of urgency that has now entered the mainstream climate change conversation, including renewed attention on the government’s support for the fossil fuel industry.

He hopes the dominant paradigm is shifting, that the clichés people cling to – Australia has always been hot, and always had fires, for example – will become outdated. He notes that to feel reluctant to change “in fact now feels radical, indeed looney”.

“What I’m hoping we can take out of this fire season is that we’ve reached a point where you have to be willfully ignorant to be in denial.

“You realise that you’re not a fringe green or looney or a tree hugger … you’re a realist. We just need to harness that goodwill and ability to respond at a ground level, so generously demonstrated during the fires, and feed it up into the political system.”

Dale Cox’s Supermankind exhibition is at Australian Galleries on March 3 – 22.

4 responses to “Skeleton landscapes: Dale Cox on responding to climate change through art

  1. Hilarious! So desperate to sound deep and meaningful while showing a total inability to separate politically motivated climate hysteria from scientific facts.
    The best bit way well be trying to describe themselves as a realist { and not a ” looney”}.
    A bit sad that this mediocre ” artist” apparently doesn’t have the brains to understand issues like not allowing back burning and it’s effects on subsequent bushfires.

  2. if the artist Dale Cox is getting angrier, suggest he “attend Art Therapy”!
    no-one wants to see art with skeletons! drama queen and doomer gloomer…. another frustrated Artist….. one exhibition i won’t be viewing! In a period of bushfires, dead wildlife, Covid19 and the words climate change, we need uplifting; not doomers

  3. It’s a haunting piece and in reply to the comments above – artists have always been provocative, and commented on social ills. Just because you have a different view, doen’t diminish what the artist is trying to say, or the talent with which they express themselves. Perhaps you should attend more art exhibitions to broaden your mind. Thank you for brinking this to my attention Karen Coombs, I had no idea the exhibition was on and WILL be attending.

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