JOHN LESLIE ART PRIZE
Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale
by Alexandra Sasse
This landscape painting prize, based in Sale, is one of those generous moments when a local benefactor makes a significant contribution to the nation’s cultural life. Art awards are like that. For a relatively small sum of money (especially compared to sponsoring sport) an exhibition can be established that generates national interest and ensures that serious contemporary work reaches the regions. Such is the foundation of this present show of 49 works selected from 426 entries. This is considerable bang for your buck.
This is an exhibition with vertiginous highs and repellent lows. Predominantly the work is largish and surreal. Colour has mostly escaped any sense of communicating place or mood and is garish even random. Landscape is realised as political trope, as apocalyptic, as memory, dream, and experience, but common and essential to all, as a space of imagination. The idea of the wild appears, but neither as Arcadia nor in its alternate guise as ‘red in tooth and claw’. Here landscape is a stage in the theatre of our darkest imaginings. The sense of doom commonly imputed to Australian bush in nineteenth century literature and art in works such as Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life or the paintings of Piguinet and Von Guerard is reprised. And frequently added to the silent ominous gloom is the element of fantasy. Magical realism, one the plethora of movements in twentieth century painting and a compelling force in current fiction is a recurring theme. Close to surrealism, but more fantastical, this sees playful fictional elements introduced into the landscape. In Kim Wilson’s See Jane Run sharks pursue a running child through a vortex of scrub. It is at once whimsical and chilling; dream-like with the threat of nightmare. Andrew Menzei’s Descension depicts deep ominous folds of what could be coral reef or earth in deep ultramarine and ochre. The picture draws you into its ambiguous depths, to where do we descend? This urge to look inward to the psychological rather than out and upwards to the sublime speaks of an existential sense of threat. It intimates a world where change and disruption make the classic sense of permanence, a feature of landscape painting throughout most of its history, almost redundant. If this is the temperature of the times, we seem unsettled.
Painters have been forced to endure significant doubt for some decades about their medium by the “Painting is Dead” campaigners; the upshot of which is a widespread lack of understanding and faith in what painting can do. This context adds a level of difficulty for landscape painters today and places an extra burden of responsibility on the curators to facilitate an exhibition showing what painting is capable of. At best, this careworn converted office building serving as gallery (a new building is underway) could contain a profound realisation of thought and experience of the Australian landscape. Paint – a medium with such an extended and subtle range of expression that it has carried the imaginings of humankind since the Paleolithic age – is capable of that. Some of the works actually approach this, and that is reason to hold one’s breath in delight. Nicolas Harding’s Wilpena Wattle Scrub, and Ken Smith’s The Road to the Sea are poles apart in both sensibility and technique, but each pulsates with life and authenticity. Neither quite fits either the melancholic mood or narrative realism outlined above, and this is a credit to the exhibition and an antidote to the notion of that a single kind of landscape could epitomise the extraordinary diversity of Australian landscape and painterly responses. There is no point in seeking a ‘school’ of contemporary landscape, however neat that would make the messy strategies of painters. That simply is not the kind of world we live in. Both our geology and our demography are against it. The crucial factors in an artwork are the artist’s mind and sensibility expressed through form and informed by the history of what is possible. ‘The struggle between schema and things seen’ as Robert Hughes puts it ‘only becomes dramatic when it happens in the mind of a great painter’. There is no linear history in painting, you are on your own; informed but not directed by the past.
But within this plethora, comment can be made on recurring ideas and problems. Many of these pictures are far closer to Henri Rousseau than to Australian landscape forebears. The golden Heidelberg days are gone as is the heroism of Heysen. The sense of space is enclosed, frequently there is little or no sky or it is night time. Quite a number of the artists are struggling with the same constraint Rousseau faced: the lack of an education in drawing. To this is added the photographic filter through which much perception is now mediated. The outcome may someday be a wonderful new synthesis of experience and form, but the pitfalls of smooth surfaces, ambiguous forms and arbitrary colour would need to be overcome.
Forging a painterly connection between the worlds of imagination, the Australian landscape and the viewer is challenging. Courage and ambition are evident in all these pictures. The best works are those in which the painter has successfully communicated something of their own feeling not necessarily for a specific place, but conveying a sense of experience and not mere idea is paramount. The tangible sense of presence in the simplified almost monocolour Gauze by Adriane Strampp is convincing as is the moody Tidal River (Best Gippsland Work winner) by Linda Gibbs. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the winning work which suffers all of the problems outlined above; a sense of the power of either nature or the medium of paint is dimly realised in Amelda Read-Forsythe’s Under the Storm.
But one thing is crystal clear from this show: Australian landscape painting is vibrantly alive.
John Leslie Art Prize, Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, 3rd September – 20 November 2016 – wellington.vic.gov.au/John-Leslie-Art-Prize