Very interesting article from the Australian Weeekend Magazine. would love to hear others' opinions on this!
Eyes wide shut
From: The Australian
Wilderness: Balnaves Contemporary Painting Art Gallery of Nsw, Sydney. Until May 23.
WILDERNESS, the new contemporary painting exhibition sponsored by the Balnaves Foundation at the Art Gallery of NSW, has a promising subject.
One may hope that we shall encounter artists who are looking at the world with fresh eyes, shaking off the cliches of the art school and the routines encouraged by the market.
Can all the energy generated by ecological awareness and green politics conceivably wake aspiring artists from their self-absorption, pull them out of their dreary stylistic ruts and make them face the infinite complexity, suggestiveness and ineffability of the natural environment? Not this lot. Unfortunately, Wilderness is a disappointingly obtuse collection of works whose only common thread is the overriding concern to achieve a distinctive brand identity.
Landscape has a rich history and, because its subject is ultimately the place of humanity in nature, its evolution has been intimately involved with philosophical and spiritual ideas, and with the scientific and technological changes that have objectively modified our relation to the environment.
As a distinct genre in painting, landscape emerged from the background of Renaissance pictures and attained full maturity in 17th-century Rome. One of the factors that helps explain the new authority of the genre at this time is that formal religion, for all the energy of the Counter-Reformation, was losing its monopoly on spiritual experience and nature was beginning to appear as a complementary or alternative focus for such aspirations.
From very early in the tradition, various categories of natural site had specific associations. If to most people the natural environment was associated with the hard work by which they earned their livelihood in the fields - the regular cycle of the labours of the months surround the portals of many cathedrals - the classical landscape evoked a different and harmonious communion with nature.
Bucolic verse, one of the important sources for these pictures, was inspired by the relatively leisurely life of shepherds and goatherds, in which the long hours minding their animals are passed in music and singing, usually about love and its vicissitudes; the pastoral landscape is infused with eroticism and melancholy.
In contrast, a landscape of wilderness was imagined from the beginning in poetry and from very early in painting.
Unlike the pastoral world, uninhabited forests and mountains tend to be associated with virginity (hunting, the main activity associated with such localities, seems to be symbolically the antithesis of lovemaking in mythology); Christian ascetics retire to the wilderness, or the desert as it used to be called, to abjure the flesh and meditate on other-worldly matters.
Wilderness was one of the canonical varieties of classical landscape in the 17th century, represented above all by Salvator Rosa. The romantic period, fascinated by the darkness that lies beyond reason, found it above all in those terrifying and thrilling subjects that were called sublime: the ocean, mountains, avalanches, volcanic eruptions or great storms.
What inspires classical and romantic landscapes is the same thing: the sense of the life of nature and the desire to capture that living presence. It is not a matter of merely sentimental response to the environment but an intimation of something outside ourselves, yet potentially connected.
The experience can be interpreted in psycho-physiological or theological terms. Inherently, however, it is a purely ontological intuition, whether it takes the specific affective form of beauty (in the classical mode) or terror (in the romantic). But is there any sense of beauty or terror in the pictures gathered in the present exhibition? Unfortunately, the answer is that there is very little, if any, of either because the artists are too wrapped up in their own stylistic games, too self-enclosed, to be open to anything that is so radically other.
What we see here is each individual desperately trying to create a signature style.
This premature demand for a distinctive look can be a terrible trap for young artists. They find themselves in a dead-end: producing a saleable product, but one that is limited and formulaic, offering no way forward. Mary Scott is a good example: she paints monochrome pictures based on a display of birds in the Natural History Museum in London. Having found this one idea, no further thought is required.
Exacerbating the mental laziness of such work is its reliance on photography; time and again, it is not painting we are looking at but a painted-up version of a photographic image, which the artist may not even have taken. Indeed, there is added kudos in working with found images. The trouble with this kind of work is that the real intelligence of the painter is articulated in the act of painting, or more precisely in its many stages, from planning a composition to executing the nuances of form, tone and colour. When artists copy photographs, there is no more immanent intelligence in their work than in house painting; and when they try to disguise the banality of their material, they never achieve more than painterly effects and gimmicks.
Thus Fiona Lowry reproduces photographic images of nature or of figures in faint pastel colours that are meant to make them prettier and imbue them with significance. Daniel Boyd copies pictures of zebras and lions in an illustrative style and adds cutesy captions to imbue them with political connotations; it oozes arch self-satisfaction.
Julie Fragar is on to a good thing, copying photographs of blokes with the animals they've shot; and when the result is too boring, she can always add words over the top. Stephen Bush has an illustrator's talent that he tries to camouflage with deliberate ugliness, combining kitsch images and executing them in lurid poster colours. Over all this he pours a kind of Dale Frank sauce of painterly excess, but the result is neither convincing nor appetising.
Among those who can paint, Louise Hearman is a curious case. Her early work, a couple of decades ago, was striking, but she seems to lack confidence in her ability to think in painterly terms; perhaps afraid of looking old-fashioned, she falls back too often on trivial or even ludicrous conceits. As for Del Kathryn Barton, she has gone so far down the path of eccentricity, mannerism and an almost hysterical self-indulgence that the work has come to resemble outsider art.
James Morrison, with his quasi-naive love of minute detail, almost falls into the same category but is saved by a sincere, if obsessive, passion and quirky humour.
The case of Tony Clark is rather more complex because he has richer material to deal with than hand-me-down effects borrowed piecemeal from contemporary stars such as Gerhard Richter and their local epigones. He has one series based on the figures from the Portland Vase that the catalogue compares with breathtaking silliness to the act of the vandal who attacked the vase in the British Museum in 1845.
Clark's pictures are not an act of vandalism of his source. They are playing with rediscovering the actions of the vase by setting them in imaginary landscapes.
Also by Clark is a sequence of landscape sketches from a series called Myriorama. It was inspired by an early 19th-century game in which cards with landscape elements and a common horizon could be joined together to make a variety of compositions.
It is striking that there is more irresistible evocation of the life of nature in these little images, even though they are derived from a debased and cliched use of the classical language and clumsily repainted by Clark, than in anything else in the exhibition.
Apart from this echo that reaches us across the centuries, the only other pictures in which we feel the pulse of life are those of Andrew Browne. The painterly surface of his pictures is profoundly unattractive, but he manipulates the forms of trees and rocks in a way that is expressive and based on an understanding of the inner life of these things. In better company, his work would be more impressive.
The rest of the works in the exhibition are inherently incapable of conveying any sense of that ontological recognition of being that is the experience of nature.
Introverted in sensibility and trapped in sterile, self-referential stylistic routines, they are the embodiment of narcissism and alienation. There is not a breath of the life of nature here, much less the thrill of wilderness.
How can anyone take this work seriously? It is by virtue of the spurious dichotomy - enshrined in the secondary art curriculum - between conceptual practice and material practice. Whatever one thinks of this separation in other domains, it is particularly inappropriate in art.
It means, in practice, a fundamental depreciation of the integrated and concrete kind of intelligence that is proper to art. It allows the artist to omit all the profound work of picturing the world, use shortcuts such as photography, concentrate on creating a brand look, then fill the deficit of meaning by claiming there is some political or theoretical motive behind the work.
Sales patter aside, the distinction between conceptual and material practice is simply nonsense.
The bad news for the painters of Wilderness is that art isn't easy after all.
You have to work a bit harder than that to make paintings that will be striking, memorable and enduring. And to make landscapes, you have to look at a world beyond your own uncomfortable yet exquisite interstices.