Country & Western

November 13, 2015
William Robinson, 'Shaded pool Carnarvon', oil on canvas, 92 x 122cm, 2008, Rockhampton Art Gallery collection
William Robinson, 'Shaded pool Carnarvon', oil on canvas, 92 x 122cm, 2008, Rockhampton Art Gallery collection

As Country & Western: landscape re-imagined tours Australia, it will leave a trail of disappointed music fans. The title seems to promise some mystical conjunction of landscape painting and Slim Dusty. In reality it’s all landscape. At the S.H.Ervin Gallery there is not even the sound of a guitar twanging in the background.

It makes one realise there’s a tremendous show waiting to be done on the theme of country & western music. Think of the harsh life on the land; the long country roads; the horses, sheep and cattle; the droughts and floods. And then the human element: self-pity, loneliness, alcohol, murder, remorse, misery and gloom. Inspirational stuff! I can think of lots of artists who’d fit the bill.

So much for the curatorial fantasy. What we have at the S.H.Ervin is a sweeping survey of landscape art that takes the Bicentennial year of 1988 as a departure point. It has been put together by freelance curator, Gavin Wilson, on behalf of the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in Townsville, with the Far North Queensland connection ensuring a generous representation of artists from that part of the world.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of landscape in Australian art. Aside from indigenous art it is perhaps the only genre in which Australia has made an original contribution to the world’s cutural heritage. The bulk of indigenous painting might be also classified as landscape, albeit of a unique type imbued with historical and religious significance.

The National Gallery of Australia had the right idea when it took landscape as the theme for the 2013 survey of Australian art at the Royal Academy in London, even if the effect was ruined by a ludicrous selection of works and a hang that seemed to be modelled on the RA Summer Show.

Country & Western features work by 39 artists, but that is still too many. What we get is a diffuse picture of contemporary landscape, with a number of strong pictures and a lot of average ones. It would have made more sense to reduce the number of artists by two-thirds and allow the remainder to be represented by a broader range of work. This is the advantage of a curated exhibition as opposed to a competition such as the Archibald Prize – it can be crafted to project a cohesive vision.

Instead, Gavin Wilson has opted for a panoramic approach. “Now is the time to assess the relevance of the western landscape tradition in response to the Indigenous vision, and search out common ground (if any),” he writes. “As well, the vexed issues of dispossession, identity, collaboration, mining and land degradation along with the elemental impact of fire and rain and the country’s natural splendour are all viewed from differing cultural perspectives.”

Any one of these “vexed issues” is worth an exhibition in its own right, so to stuff them into one package is a classic case of over-ambitious mastication. By combining soft themes such as “the country’s natural splendour” with tough ones such as “land degradation” and “disposession”, Wilson blurs all the lines.

We get a brisk, entertaining overview of Australian landscape that begs many questions but provides few answers. The stand-out works are probably Elisabeth Cummings’s After the Wet Elcho Island (2004), Angelina George’s Near Ruined City (2007), John Peart’s Red Hills (1983-2103), Ginger Riley Munduwalawala’s Garimala the Rainbow Serpent (1990), and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s Bushfire (2003). These pictures provide good reasons to visit this show, but they leave us wanting to see more of each artist’s work.

Wilson includes essential figures such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, John Olsen, Wiliam Robinson and Rover Thomas, but one gets a very limited idea of their achievements from the works included in this selection. Even painters such as Angus Nivison and John R.Walker, each represented by a single large picture, have gone on to make more impressive work in recent times.

This highlights one of the dilemmas of a touring survey: the problem of securing pieces that will be allowed to travel for the best part of two years.

Leaving aside the frustrations associated with this exhibition, it still gives a good impression of the variety and vitality of Australian landscape art. The most stimulating aspect is the play between indigenous and non-indigenous forms, which has caused painters to keep asking themselves if the European conventions of landscape are relevant for this continent.

Mandy Martin, 'Burnt Patch at Handover Camp' (2013)

Mandy Martin, ‘Burnt Patch at Handover Camp’ (2013)

It began as one-way traffic with Albert Namatjira painting his homeland in western-style watercolours. Nowadays the influence runs in the other direction, with many white artists responding to the stimulus of Aboriginal painting. Only Tim Johnson, who has previously collaborated on paintings with Papunya Tula artists such as Clifford Possum, is prepared to use the all-over dotting we associate with desert art, but one might discern faint echoes of Aboriginal painting in the contributions of Cummings, Nivison, Peart, Julie Harris, Idris Murphy, John Wolseley and Mandy Martin. It need not be merely an iconographical affinity. In Burnt Patch at Handover Camp (2013), Martin paints a relatively straight Outback landscape using the same ochres favoured by Kimberley artists.

Angelina George, 'Near Ruined City' (2007)

Angelina George, ‘Near Ruined City’ (2007)

The work that stays with me, more than any other, is Angelina George’s Near Ruined City, which is also on the cover of the catalogue. The title is slightly baffling, because there is no city to be seen. George has painted three layers of rocky red outcrops in a free-flowing, expressive manner rarely seen in the work of Aboriginal painters. Ruined City is the name (nickname?) given to a part of the desert included within the artist’s ancestral lands. She has painted her memories of this country, lending the work a dreamlike appearance.

George (1937-2015) died in April, the youngest of five sisters. The eldest sister, Gertie Huddleston (1933-2014) is also represented in this show with the multi-panelled piece, Different landscapes around Ngukurr (1996). The sisters’ styles are antithetical, even though they lived in the same places. Huddleston’s likeable, colourful pictures have charm, but George’s work is imbued with a remarkable power.

One of the reasons landscape painting fell out of fashion in the 1960s-70s was that artists began to feel there was something intrinsically dishonest in treating a painting as a window onto the world. The hard-edged abstractions and Minimalist canvases of that era claimed each painting as an object in its own right.

Another reason was the idea of landscape as “property”. This was raised in John Berger’s famous/notorious critique of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750), a painting in which a well-heeled couple stand to one side of their own farmlands. It was their “proprietary attitude” that rankled with Berger, prompting him to turn the unsuspecting landowners into objects of Marxist derision.

Today, when the avant-garde mania has abated, and the artworld has succumbed to the embrace of capitalism, landscape is back on the agenda. With the rising tide of ecolological consciousness, it threatens to assume a centrality it never enjoyed in the past, at least in western painting. The danger is that the genre will become increasingly caught up with those “vexing issues” Wilson mentions, sacrificing spontaneity for sanctimony.

John Olsen, 'Desert seedling', watercolour on paper, 159.5 x 121cm, Gold Coast City Gallery collection, licensed by Viscopy, 2015

John Olsen, ‘Desert seedling’, watercolour on paper, 159.5 x 121cm, Gold Coast City Gallery collection, licensed by Viscopy, 2015

The real pleasures of landscape painting arise when an artist manages to transmit his or her particular passion for a place. Take, for example, Streeton’s early views of Heidelberg, in which one can almost feel the sunshine beaming from the picture. It’s also there in John Olsen’s You Beaut landscapes of the sixties, and William Robinson’s Creation Landscapes. The great landscapist allows us to feel what it is like to stand in the midst of nature, and surrender to the spectacle.

Although there is a tradition of ‘ideal’ landscapes that stretches back to Poussin and Claude, there is no hierarchy of styles in contemporary art. A landscape painting can be as neat as Jason Benjamin’s Post History (2012) or as abstract as Claudine Marzik’s Seed to Seed 16 (2012). A landscape is a mirror of the painter’s mind, be it melancholy or grandiose. As Wordsworth argued, in one poem after another, there is a perfection – or innocence – in Nature that makes us conscious of our own fallen state. In a landscape painting we can travel, in our minds, to a more congenial world.

Country & Western: Landscape Re-imagined
S.H.Evin Gallery, until 6 December
Touring to Blue Mountains, Wagga Wagga, Mornington, Orange, Cairns & Darwin, 2016-17

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 14th November, 2015