SOME FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q- You consider yourself to be a contemporary artist. Why then does much of your work take what could be regarded as a representational approach?
A- The choice of visual language is closely allied to the subject matter and is intended to facilitate communication. It is important to note that European settlement in the Northern Territory is comparatively recent when compared to that of the southern states and of course to North America, which is the source of so much influence. These cultures have displaced their Aboriginal inhabitants long ago and have established themselves in a position of unquestionable cultural dominance. The situation here in the Northern Territory is very different, as the Aboriginal peoples make up about a quarter of the population and the issues surrounding cultural dominance are far from a foregone conclusion. A likely outcome is a somewhat uneasy balance between the two differing cultures. Hence, while Aboriginal art expresses a deep understanding of the land and is widely respected and recognised internationally, there has been very little visual exploration of the region in terms of Western art, and it is almost unknown outside our immediate region. With an almost clean slate therefore, and no real mentors, I am attempting to develop a visual language for this region.
Any art that comes from such different origins must look different and be based on different criteria and knowledge. I find that my Northern Australian work in particular is often misinterpreted or misunderstood by viewers despite its explicit language – for instance a grassfire here denotes good house-keeping, looking after the land, and is not threatening. In New South Wales and the other southern states, where Aboriginal burning regimes have long been abandoned and forest growth has changed, these fires constitute a threat to human life and are rightly feared. My often lyrical depiction of fire is likely to be seen as perverse or inappropriate to a southern viewer.
This difference at so many levels is the reason why communication needs to be unusually clear if the art is to make its point. If even simple and seemingly obvious subject matter is so open to misinterpretation it is unproductive to take liberties with visual language. Consider Cubism – it was possible to distort the image to extract hitherto unrecognised possibilities from it because of the well-known nature of the subject matter – a chair, a bottle, a guitar – these objects were merely vehicles for an idea. Instead I deal with largely unfamiliar subject matter and often have the task of introducing it to the viewer. I also live in a young community which is still finding its identity, a true frontier, still in the road-building stage. This is a far cry from the ancient and rich cultures of Europe, or the well-established cultures of the southern states, where all these struggles were fought and won long ago. On this basis it would be false to jump to the art styles developed in these places and mindlessly copy them.
Q – How did your background influence your development and what were some of your formative influences?
A – Like most artists, there are a number of other artists whose work I admire, but I am different partly because the subject matter that interests me is different, and I had no mentors, no one else had dealt with it before me to solve the problems it presented. Thus I had to work from primary material in almost every case. My family were scientists, and I learned to ask my own questions and solve my own problems through direct onsite research, usually by means of field trips. The scientific background has influenced me, as have the extraordinary places which form the basis of much of my work.
I grew up in Adelaide, and like other South Australian artists, was heavily influenced by the clear, melancholy light and the aridity of the coast and the harshness of the inland. It is no coincidence that a disproportionate number of South Australian artists became Surrealists. My art school training just caught the end of the era when young artists had to learn to draw well, mostly from the figure, and a good grounding in techniques was considered essential. Despite almost continuous pressure from my teachers to paint the human figure the early paintings were predominantly about imaginary or real landscapes. Later work sometimes used figures, and included reefs, or distant thunder made visible, auroras, or fireworks during the day, and frozen beaches. Some were painted on photosensitised linen or paper, and combined large-scale photography with painting. At this time I experimented with high-tech materials and processes, using electronics and computer-generated poetry among others. I was reading a great deal of science fiction, and this was also an influence.
After leaving art school I worked at the Art Gallery of South Australia as assistant curator of prints and drawings. This provided new influences, among the most important of which was being exposed to artworks from every era and culture. This made me develop an art style that was almost timeless, that was designed not to date, as I had seen too many works in the Gallery store which no longer had credibility or which had failed technically. I therefore decided that my work had to be well crafted in order to last, and it had to continue to communicate across the years without me having to be there to explain it. I also handled original works by some of the great early 19th century French explorers, such as Nicholas Baudin and Dumont D’Urville, whose voyages of scientific exploration were among the first to introduce the peoples, the flora and fauna, and the landscapes of Australasia to Europe. This directly informed my recent work, Extreme Landforms.
From Adelaide I moved to Melbourne, this time to teach in art schools. Melbourne’s soft grey weather influenced me, as did its male-dominated, tough and competitive art world. I was a long way away from my subject matter, and lived on memories until they became thin. But some good paintings resulted, moving closer to abstraction as a result of working in the art schools. Here I also designed a number of ballet productions, mostly for Graeme Murphy, and this ballet language still informs the work, especially the idea of the empty stage, the solo and the pas de deux.
Q – How did the major project Extreme Landforms come about?
A – I moved to Darwin in 1977 as part of the great influx just after Cyclone Tracy. Our task was to set up a new art school in this devastated town. I loved Darwin, having visited briefly in the Wet Season some years previously – here was a rich source of subject-matter to be explored, but it was all so different, and ten years would elapse before I knew enough to deal with it even passably well. Much of this period was also spent in exploring formal abstraction and conceptual art. A series of acrylic paintings of swimming pools at night, often with lightning, was the main outcome of this period. These benefited from the exploration of abstraction and used photography as a major tool, thus could be regarded as precursors to Extreme Landforms.
The big change was that with a real income for the first time overseas travel became affordable. There were actual places out there that were even more extraordinary than the ones I had been inventing. So in the summer of 1982 I explored Iceland and Greenland, and soon produced a series of exploratory paintings, then two series of conte drawings in black and white. These were the first works of my career that could be said to be mature and resolved. They also were to become the first part of the extended project that would occupy me for the next fifteen years, Extreme Landforms.
We then lived for a year in Ohio in the United States, where I worked on the second series of drawings of the project, Hawaiian Volcanoes, having spent some time there in transit. It was from here too that I applied to join an ANARE expedition to Antarctica, with the Australian Antarctic Division, and was duly accepted.
The Antarctic paintings were produced back at home in Darwin, and in due course were exhibited at New Parliament House, the Museums in Darwin and Alice Springs, plus several other venues. Australia Post later reproduced four of the paintings as a set of stamps. This group of works was a highlight of my career and they have proved popular. But they provided new challenges in almost every aspect – their subject matter was entirely alien to most people, and as a result it was necessary to develop a style which was simultaneously good art but which also communicated extremely clearly. This was the time when an artistic device was developed, which is now standard to my work, that of the large canvas with its horizon linked to the eye level of the viewer so it seemed as if the viewer was able to enter the illusion. There were nine large paintings in this series.
The images of Northern Australia continued using the same format. These explored dramatic seasonal phenomena such as grass fires, lightning and storms. Through these images I hoped to introduce others to the landscape of the north, which is so very different from what most Australians ‘down south’ have experienced. In order to assist viewers’ responses I developed a means of using compositional language to guide them, so – as mentioned above – images of grass fires use a non-threatening body language to indicate that this is land that is being cared for, in sharp contrast to the ferocious bush fires of the south where the old practices of fire management are no longer used. Nineteen paintings eventuated, plus a number of pastel drawings. The full Extreme Landforms survey show was held at the Museum in Darwin.
Q – What is your current project?
A – I was invited to join Norforce on a training expedition to Coburg Peninsula with the Aboriginal soldiers who provide much of the security of the coastal regions – a most valuable experience, and was also able to visit East Timor with the 5/7th Battalion while it was still under military control. Pastel drawings from both these series are now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Current work comprises a series of paintings dealing with underground and open-cut mining, both dealing with industry in the north, and people whose everyday jobs bring them up against the elements in an extreme environment. This series has developed directly out of Extreme Landforms.
Q – What is your style of painting/work practice, and do you consider yourself to be a landscape painter?
A – The first challenge is to develop a visual language specific to each selected site, and much preparatory work goes into this. How to paint ice, or water, or rain, or sandstone as compared to shale? I have had to learn some geology, plus some meteorology, and have had to study fire and find out about the refractive index of water and how reflections work, all in order to produce what looks at first glance to be a painting based on a photograph. The only trouble is that often there is no photo to assist, and the illusion has to be just as convincing as if there was.
First the topic is selected for its dynamic and emotional qualities. The body language of the composition comes next, and is often at odds with the expected emotion. Thus a peaceful-seeming landscape can have a deeply threatening composition, or an image depicting an underground mine can be astonishing in its unexpected beauty and tranquility. Overall, my emotional theme for much of this work is the tension between simultaneous beauty and fear – the one pulls you forward while the other pushes you back.
When I work I always think in three dimensions, spatially, like a sculptor, trying to depict depth, weight and density, the substance of the form – what it feels like, and how it relates to other forms. Most paintings deal with the interaction of just a few elements and explore this in some depth. Most are also based on pure abstraction, as per the work I did in the early exploratory years in Darwin, so they play a double game. The language of pure abstraction is simply that of the Design Elements and Design Principles that are taught in first year art classes. This is then combined with the language of representational art to give a much more complex and subtle message than is possible with either language used alone.
Often photographs are used as a starting point or for information, but the image is pulled apart, I select and study what is to be kept and discard the rest. The remaining enhanced elements are then recombined to look almost, but never quite, like reality. In effect they become ‘postcard’ from somewhere exotic, an ambassador for a place summed up deceptively simply in a single image.
So, no, I do not tend to think of myself as a landscape painter, because my interest is rarely in depicting a particular place at a particular time. Instead the intention is to understand and then transmit to the viewer some knowledge of the whole class of related issues, and how these particular abstract elements combine to affect each other. Besides, landscapes are usually fairly passive and I cannot maintain the necessary interest to work on a painting for an extended period of time unless it is satisfyingly dynamic.
Q – Is communication an important factor in your art? If so, why?
A – A strong emphasis is placed on communication. It is no use indulging in the delights of abstraction if the subject matter is profoundly unfamiliar, as the viewer will not be able to make the required connections. This is why I have chosen to work in what at first glance appears to be a straightforward figurative style. Only when the viewer is able to access the work, to read it, can one hope to communicate. But I admit to deliberately piggybacking intense emotional messages by means of compositional language.
I feel a need to share the privileged places I have been fortunate enough to visit, and offer the viewers the next best thing to seeing it for themselves. They can see through my eyes [which is obvious], and my emotions [which is not]. Next time an issue hits the press, whether it concerns Antarctica or perhaps Northern Australia or a mine site, hopefully people who have seen these paintings will have some knowledge of the place concerned, and this will in turn assist them in forming an opinion. My work is never overtly political, yet knowledge is always influential, and this carries responsibility.