Days Like This: Mary Tonkin
One of Australia’s most accomplished and vigorous landscape artists, Mary Tonkin works primarily from her family farm at Kalorama, surrounded by the Dandenong Ranges National Park. Established by her Grandfather in the 1930s, the farm supplies rare bulbs and cut flowers, and is protected from development by a conservation covenant.
Tonkin’s works are principally completed en plein air, a demanding but vital part of the artistic process, in order to capture the lyricism and vitality of the abundant bushland. “Working outside is physically and practically a pain in the neck! I work in quite dense bush and it is often a challenge just to get the work back without wiping the wet paint off. These problems can generally be overcome by planning, but weather remains the constant nemesis or companion depending on conditions and my mood”, she admits. “Because I tend to work on an image all day, sometimes for many months, changing light can be a difficulty. I tend to use that time period to its advantage and slowly work out which parts of the image require which light. I have no studio practice to speak of. I stretch canvases and have a good gander at the work in the studio, otherwise I put the marks down and mix paints on site”.
The artist’s latest exhibition, Two spots at Australian Galleries (4-23 August, 2015), concentrates on two distinct areas within this ever-changing environment she has come to know so well. “It is a kind of paradise. Mostly the attraction is that it is home, I have a deep connection to this land and it affords me privacy to work”. For Tonkin, entering the forest is an activity that allows her the space for introspection, to access and engage with deeper philosophical and emotional concerns. “I think landscape is a fabulous metaphor for our sensuous, sensate experience of life … about a dissolution of personal boundaries, a glorious melding of self and surrounds that is a precious rarity in our cacophonous modern life”. Nonetheless, there remains something primaeval, unknowable, and foreboding about so much of the Australian bush; an intangible energy within the forest that both disturbs and entices. “That sense of ‘otherness’ concerning the bush is at the heart of a great deal of landscape painting … perhaps it reflects a (white) Australian sense of unease about being in this relatively harsh Southern land, far from our ancestral roots”, Tonkin ponders. “Perhaps, more broadly, we do want to belong, but feel a physical or existential threat from the bush? I hope that my delight and sense of being coddled [by it] is conveyed in the works, and that they might somehow serve to dissipate those latent anxieties”.
Across Tonkin’s canvases we see a subtle dance of interpretation as she embeds multiple layers of seeing within the work while traversing the forest. “I really want a viewer to feel a part of the landscape I am depicting, I want that to be an almost physically tangible experience … I do want to convey my sense of melding into the landscape. I want a viewer to smell the dampness, hear the cicadas, feel the presence of forms and the wattle blossom falling whilst they dream”, she stresses. Her work reflects this complex interplay of scale, tone and variation, the struggle to communicate what being alone in that vast space is like at that particular instant. “What I consider the content of my work arises in different ways; sometimes I have a clear idea what an image might be about, but generally I am being guided only by an instinctive interest. A few forms, or an unprepossessing bit of scrub, with the content making itself felt as I work, on other occasions I only perceive it toward the end”, Tonkin relates. “Dreams Intrude, Kalorama (2014-15) was a puzzle for a long time. In that place, I only knew that I needed a shift of viewpoint, a looking up toward the light, then down, out and in. It slowly became clear that I wanted it to be about that strange, spectral dream-memory that can carry through the day, a half-formed image that haunts, alters mood and generally makes a nuisance of itself. On another occasion, with Wattle Stars, Kalorama (2014), in early Spring the wattle blossom was being dislodged by wind and had sprinkled everything‚ like golden stars, or the fireflies I saw sparkling on the grass one night … and like those things it illuminated the space and gave it a mysterious beauty”.
A past finalist in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (1998), Tonkin’s varied practice underwent a pronounced shift away from figuration in 2000. After a camping trip to Central Australia, around the Finke River (Larapinta) at Two Mile, just north of Glen Helen, she experienced something of an epiphany. “It became clear that I was more responsive, more engaged when outside immersed in the landscape. In truth, I had found content for my work. It had always been about being present and looking deeply, but being in the landscape gave me access to my internal life in a deeper way”, Tonkin contends. “It gave me a means of making sense of the world. I am constantly trying to find a way of working in the studio from my drawings, from still life or portraiture, but I have not yet found a way of making anything that is as consistently meaningful to me as working in the midst of the landscape”.
Although landscape is one of the most continuously referenced and revered subjects within Australian artistic and cultural discourse, artists working within the genre often contend with the perception that it is perhaps rather ‘traditional’ and static: landscape work is rarely mentioned in the context of shaping contemporary artistic discourse. “Is it the broad genre of landscape that is not ‘shaping artistic discourse’‚ or is it that painting itself is poorly received right now? I wonder if it isn’t that when the landscape genre is mentioned it is assumed, erroneously and narrowly, that one means painting. The trouble is that the whole culture of making and discussing paintings, what might be called the language of painting, has been deeply eroded”, Tonkin observes. “It is perhaps also an issue of quality; a self-fulfilling prophesy whereby students are taught by lecturers who have few painting skills or little painting culture to pass on. So painting, when not actively discouraged, becomes an autodidact activity devoid of deeper understanding of its potential. While landscapes (especially paintings) do not often grace the walls of contemporary art spaces, they remain some of the strongest and most pervasive images”.
Tonkin is an artist who eschews publicity and finds the process of discussing her work distinctly uncomfortable. Despite her reticence, Tonkin’s insightful comments express both a thorough understanding of the field, and a refreshing irreverence towards the wider arts industry, and its shifting preoccupations. “Does landscape painting attract an audience? I’m not so sure about that. It is perhaps too quiet, and there is no ‘razzle dazzle’. I don’t think an artist can be too worried about that end of things, certainly they must be concerned to make the best work possible, but audience numbers are not an adequate measure of worth”, she believes. “We need landscape to ground us, to remind us in our dislocated modern lives that we are gnats in the continuum of life. Landscape serves as a wellspring of hope, beauty and spiritual renewal, it reflects our lives back to us. Work about landscape is unlikely to beep, move or speak, but given time I think it will become clear that any disinterest is an historical aberration. Landscape will remain a vital genre, and it will reward more deeply than trends toward fleeting entertainment”.
Tonkin was awarded the 2002 Dobell Prize for Drawing for her work Rocky Outcrop, Werribee Gorge (2000-01), a substantial entry comprising ten joined sheets of paper spanning over four metres. Held annually from 1993 to 2012, the Dobell came to be regarded as one of the country’s most serious and respected art prizes, one that conferred visibility on an increasingly neglected medium. A lecturer in Drawing at Monash University at the time, Tonkin recalls, “Winning the Dobell was a huge moment in terms of my career. It meant that students took what I had to say more seriously, my representing gallery was ready with a handshake and an invitation to exhibit, but more importantly the prize money (then $10,000) was halfway toward a studio/living space, and a means of continuing to work without having to earn a great deal”. The decision by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation to discontinue the open format of the prize, and replace it with a biannual curated exhibition based around a central theme, was met with criticism from both artists and commentators alike.1
The abrupt change of format for the Dobell also served to reignite a wider debate about the decline in ‘foundation skills’ (namely drawing) amongst fine arts/visual arts students, and an erosion of technical standards more generally within the core curriculum at art schools throughout Australia.2 Of her undergraduate experience, Tonkin comments, “I remember we had more contact hours in first year than medical students! It gave me a great sense of the seriousness and difficulty of the undertaking, practically it meant we had time to figure out a few things. I wonder sometimes if protestations of anxiety about the demise of ‘draughtsmanship’ are code for the demise of a rigorous kind of academic drawing that taught a student to construct forms but not to actually see. I think there can never be enough emphasis on learning to look, to understand how one subjectively sees the world”.
The importance of drawing within Tonkin’s practice was again recognised at the 21st annual Kedumba Drawing Award (2010), where two of her works were acquired. It is a field to which Tonkin feels art schools should dedicate far more course time, “I firmly believe that the foundation year of Fine Art courses should be almost wholly devoted to drawing in all its forms, in a great variety of media. It is such a raw means of thinking, and allows such direct access to ideas and emotions, to play and perseverance. It would enable students to understand what content interested them, what their unique experience of the world is, before theories and fashions had time to override their inherent somatic intelligence”.
As a previous Dobell Prize recipient, Tonkin was one of ten artists selected by Anne Ryan, Curator of Prints, Drawings & Watercolours at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, to participate in the new format Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial. For the inaugural exhibition, Drawing Out (2014-15), Tonkin produced an immensely ambitious charcoal on paper work, Between Two Logs, Kalorama (2013-14). Spanning twenty-six sheets, the panoramic piece is a tour de force at fourteen metres long, and took over nine months to complete. The work offers a truly immersive experience of this small pocket of bush where there is a fern gully with two large fallen trees; it was later acquired by the Gallery. “I use drawing as a means to assess my response to forms and places, to sort out compositions, work through ideas and generally be in a place. The large-scale drawings force a very deep temporal connection and engagement with a small area”, she remarks.
For this new body of work, Tonkin sought to preserve the feeling of being ‘enfolded’ within the bush. The vibrant multiple-panel paintings Above the White Gums, Kalorama and Between Two Logs, Kalorama (both 2014) serve to transport the viewer into the dense forest environment. “I see huge changes in the forms – trees falling and the like – and witness the turning of the seasons. I have approached each of the recent large-scale, long drawings as preparatory drawings for a painting. I have thought of them as a means of sorting out what is possible, how much I can push changes of viewpoint whilst retaining coherency”, she says. “They have shown me how difficult it will be to make a (necessarily) long-term large painting equivalent, [as] I have ambitions to produce paintings that make the temporal engagement very physical … where there is no single monumental image, but a series of interlinked and overlapping experiences”.
Despite the considerable scale of some of her works, Tonkin prefers to focus on a meticulous exploration of several distinct areas of foliage and undergrowth at any one time. “I am not interested in painting grand vistas or views. There needs to be a feeling of response to the land and vegetation (an excitement about a particular spot), and a certain level of intimacy (physical closeness to the forms drawn or painted). I am most at ease when the closest forms are within my space, within my reach”, she explains. “I am somewhat compelled to realise (make real) the forms I am looking at, to convey their visceral ‘otherness’, their particularity and beauty. I don’t like to make things up, but am not averse to moving about, changing viewpoint and scale when it serves the image, and better conveys my perceptual experience of the space or an emotional state … My work is very much about what it is to be physically present to the motif, to be a motile, binocular and sensate being. I don’t often paint in local colour, but use colour as a means of constructing forms and spaces, rhythms across the surface and primarily, for conveying the emotional content of the work”.
There is a somewhat deceptive aura of timelessness about the landscape genre, and yet it cannot fail to express, however latently, our often fraught relationship with the natural world. Consistent attempts to master and control the environment, whether for housing and business, farming or resources, and our fear of its potential extremes in the form of bushfires and drought, inevitably shape our response to artistic depictions of it. In recent decades, forests and waterways have increasingly become contested zones, as conflicts between ideologically opposed groups play out at the site and in court rooms, as the demands of industry and population grow ever more insistent. An artist working so concertedly in this area cannot fail to be cognisant of these various factors, “I am very conscious of how lucky my family is, of how precious is the land over which we have custodianship. Having tried to work in the remnants of bushland in Melbourne, I am also aware how degraded they are, what urban pressures have done to those spaces”, Tonkin agrees. “I do not think consciously of a political relationship to the landscape whilst I make work, but I seek to make paintings of sufficient emotional weight and presence to move an audience: activism by stealth!”
Tonkin’s work presents us with a pictorial window whereby the interior of the forest is filtered through the interiority of the artist, as if she were mapping both the place, and to some extent, the person. To hold something so unknowable and unpredictable so dear is to place yourself in its power; this inscrutable landscape is both Tonkin’s companion and abettor. It is an idea quite bizarre to most people in this day and age who spend their time glued to screens of various sizes. Yet there it is on the wall, a testament to the emotional connection one artist has to this wilderness; whose task is to notice, to care, and to observe. “No matter how long I spend in a place, how familiar each frond and branch becomes, it still surprises and is in a constant state of flux. All of my work is about what it feels like to be in a place; the sensations it produces”, Tonkin maintains. “They are a means of vivifying inchoate emotions, giving form to all the joys, frailties and anxieties that make a human life. I love the wonder and mystery of the bush, which for me is a metaphor for the mystery of lived experience itself”.
Mary Tonkin: Two Spots, Australian Galleries, 35 Derby Street, Collingwood, (VIC) 4 – 23 August 2015 – australiangalleries.com.au
All images © Mary Tonkin. Photography: Matthew Stanton.
ENDNOTES: 1 Sharon Verghis, “The Lost Art?”, The Weekend Australian (‘Review’ section), 8-9 November, 2014, p.6-9. 2 see also, Christopher Allen, “Drawn in by the Enigma”, The Weekend Australian (‘Review’ section), 21-22 June, 2014, p.10-11.
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.