Mary Tonkin

February 1, 2011

At first glance Mary Tonkin’s new paintings make one think of the scorched and blackened residues after a bush fire has roared through a forest, but here appearances may be deceiving. The area of the Dandenongs where she has her studio on a family property has its share of scorched trees and undergrowth, but this is merely the result of back-burning. Tonkin’s favourite patch of bush has not suffered from the conflagrations that have devastated other parts of Victoria in recent years. It remains lush, green and overgrown. The forest floor is littered with the fallen trunks of ancient trees now covered in moss. Razor grass and prickly bushes grow in profusion. One breathes deeply and inhales a heady blend of fresh oxygen and vegetable decay.

In the forest everything comes in different shades of green but very little of this makes its way into Tonkin’s pictures. Many of her new paintings are low-toned and glowering, animated by touches of colour and dappled shafts of sunlight. The twilight shades owe as much to the artist’s moods as they do to her observations of the bush. Last year Tonkin became the mother of twins, George and Alice, but her pregnancy was an ordeal. The anxiety of the experience has found its way into these paintings, which are darker and more introspective than anything she has previously created.

In these highly personal works, Tonkin has stuck to the motifs she knows best. She uses the forest as what T.S.Eliot called an ‘objective correlative’. The definition comes from his 1919 essay on Hamlet: “when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” This concept provides a philosophical gloss for one of the most common experiences in art. A successful landscape does not merely ask us to recognise and admire the physical data of trees, grass, rivers, clouds, and so on, it sets up an emotional echo in our minds. A sublime landscape of mountains, chasms or stormy seas, aims to give the viewer a frisson of terror and awe.

Tonkin’s paintings take a different path, looking inwards, using the overgrown forest as a sign of interiority. The drawings in which she lays down her immediate impressions are quick and ephemeral. It is almost as if she is trying to capture a scene in rapid motion, refusing to acknowledge the massive inertia of a fallen tree. In the large-scale drawings that grow out of her sketchbooks the entire surface of the paper is covered in quick, nervous lines that have been erased and redrawn many times. We see the forest as a living organism filled with tremulous energy.

That energy is also present in the paintings, no matter how subdued and shadowy Tonkin’s palette. Over the past decade her works have grown more complex and her sense of colour ever more acute. By concentrating her attentions on one small area of bush she has created pictures that convey a vivid feeling of what it is like to be standing in the undergrowth, surrounded by towering trees. In this she is reminiscent of William Robinson, whose magisterial paintings of the Queensland rainforest underwent a similar evolution in the 1980s and 90s. Tonkin’s touch is more broken and spontaneous than Robinson’s, more akin to late Impressionism, but she has the same uncanny ability to create atmosphere. To stand in front of her paintings is to feel that we are part of the landscape and the landscape part of us.

Catalogue essay for Australian Galleries, February 2011

Mary Tonkin: Black Paintings, Australian Galleries, 50 Smith St. Collingwood, VIC.
31 March -1 May 2011