Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

One of the reasons why I admire TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA) is the museum’s strong connection between the modern and contemporary Australian art on display within the museum’s walls and the broader landscape beyond. The current summer exhibitions, ‘Rosemary Laing’ and ‘Fred Williams – 1974’, feature painted and photo-based views, both near and far, by acclaimed Australian artists, Fred Williams (died 1982) and the venturesome Rosemary Laing (born 1959). Victoria Lynn, the director of TWMA, has curated the Laing exhibition, which includes 28 of Laing’s works selected from 10 series over a 30-year period, occupying the majority of the gallery space. In the North Gallery, with its large window overlooking views of a landscape, which is both natural and cultivated, senior curator Anthony Fitzpatrick has drawn together several oils painted by Fred Williams in 1974. These paintings are indicative of a transition in Williams’ stylistic treatment of the landscape and an introduction of human-made structures.

In the Laing exhibition catalogue, Lynn writes that landscape is “restless”, “a complex interplay of historical and environmental conditions”. A few days before the opening of the exhibition, Rosemary Laing explained the ideas behind her ‘landscape’ works on display: she doesn’t just depict nature, but through her extensive research and travels, she focuses on the cultural, social and political connections to the landscape, and signs of environmental impact. Laing is interested in the arrival of people to Australia and their relationship to the land that is their new home, which disrupts the continuity of the original inhabitants. She constructs a layer of objects and structures that create an imaginary and nostalgic landscape of belonging; but she never manipulates nature. Working in directorial mode, Laing employs a plethora of assistants: carpenters, weavers of carpets, and sewers of clothes. As Lynn explains, introducing “elements from our ‘settled’ environment – carpet, clothing, architectural structures, newspapers and the like – creates a disjunction. . . . The photographs both make sense and do not make sense. Rather than being either situated or displaced, the images express states of co-belonging.”

Rosemary Laing, ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’, 2017, from the series ‘Buddens’, archival pigment print, 100 x 200 cm, Ten Cubed Collection, Melbourne © Rosemary Laing, Courtesy Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

According to Laing, we are standing beside her, contemplating the place, or ‘country’, before us, and our possible relationship to it. There is nothing conventional about Laing’s photography: her interventions, or interruptions, to the view she has chosen to photograph means we are not just looking through a frame at a traditional landscape, but in many ways, a memento mori of something now lost. The Flowering of the Strange Orchid from her new series Buddens (2017) is inspired by H.G. Well’s story of the same name (an orchid collector purchases new bulbs from a remote jungle that grow into a blood-sucking monster). It features a hand-sewn ‘river’ of colourful second-hand clothing which has been constructed above the water in the creek. There is a sense of human history: tragedy? A struggle, won or lost, to survive in an alien country? An expression of relief from oppressive living conditions? Laing hints that the vibrant red-orange-yellow colours denote sinewy flesh, fire, blood, life jackets, and flowers. The creek leads to Wreck Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW), where convicts, goods, troops and settlers arrived to take ownership of indigenous land. The coast is littered with shipwrecks, which, as Lynn asserts, “encapsulates the failure of colonisation: the fragments of colonial arrival and departure”.

Rosemary Laing, ‘Walter Hood’, 2017, from the series ‘Buddens’, archival pigment print, 100 x 200.6 cm, Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, © Rosemary Laing, Courtesy Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

The inverted roof truss in Walter Hood (named after a shipwrecked vessel from Wreck Bay) resembles urban wreckage of a house in a forest, contrasting with what looks like a failed shelter formed from a broken tree trunk—both failed human sanctuaries. This links with the upside down house frame in the series leak (2010) which comments on sheep farms owned by early settlers who were forced from the land due to economic pressures, development of country towns and children leaving to find jobs in cities. The high viewpoint and wide angle give the picture a timeless, panoramic quality. Both images reference the fundamental and overwhelming impulse by humans to create a home.

Rosemary Laing, ‘Aristide’, 2010, from the series ‘leak’ C Type photograph, 110 x 223 cm, The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2011 © Rosemary Laing, Courtesy Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

As the visitor drifts into the end gallery, the panoramic painting by Fred Williams, Lilydale Triptych I (1974; featured image), provides an interesting contrast to Laing’s contemporary panoramic views of the Australian ‘landscape’ (for example, Aristide, Brumby mound). Lynn and Fitzpatrick are keen to promote the major working theme of TWMA: considering the past through the filter of the present. In the mid-twentieth century, Williams explored ways of painting the wide panorama of scattered scrub of the Australian landscape that rises up to the horizon. He framed and flattened the forms created by nature into a semi-abstract painting. I have written about his 1960s You Yangs paintings here.

In 1974 Williams introduced more colour and less abstracted forms into his landscape paintings, which included human-built structures. His large-scale work Lilydale Triptych I (1974; featured image above) depicts the Cave Hill Limestone Quarry in Lilydale (east of Melbourne) replete with echoes of a productive history: a ruin, and an abandoned railway track. It is divided into horizontal sections, with “the centrally placed ochre band of the open pit running like a scar through the otherwise largely cleared, green pasture. The inclusion of two pieces of earth moving machinery on the right of the central panel, provide a sense of the sheer scale of this excavation while the blue smoke wafting from the plant into the dusky pink sky indicates its ongoing operation.” (Fitzpatrick)

Fred Williams, ‘Landscape with Acacias IV’, 1974, oil on canvas, 106.7 x 91.5 cm, Private collection © Estate of Fred Williams

A joie de vivre of new plant life pulsates across the canvas in Williams’ Landscape with Acacias IV. Yellow blobs of paint represent wattle attached to overburdened saplings. Although the composition has a distinctive Williams ‘look’, with its minimised sense of recession and linear horizon line broken by cropped slim trees with black outlines anchoring the composition, there is greater animation through colour combinations, elastic shapes and varying textures applied to a light background. This is a clear departure from the dark, sombre colours that dominated Williams’ earlier paintings.

Fred Williams, ‘Sherbrooke Pond I’, 1974, oil on canvas, 106.2 x 96.5 cm, Private collection, © Estate of Fred Williams

In comparison with the turbulent animation and pale background of Landscape with Acacias IV, Sherbrooke Pond I is calm, animated only by intense, vibrant colour. According to Fitzpatrick, Williams composed Sherbrooke Pond I in late November, 1974. It is interesting to note that in earlier versions of his Forest Pond series, the views lack vitality due to dull tones, which, as Patrick McCaughey observes, sucks the air out of the picture. The dense forest reflected in the stagnant pond is intensified by the lack of a horizon, but the 1974 rendition is evidence of Williams’ regeneration as an artist and his willingness to experiment with the representation of vegetation and its reflection. Splashes of vivid colour enliven an otherwise oppressive landscape.

I am captivated by the power of words and visual imagery to shape our senses of place. As earth dwellers, we must become more respectful of the way we respond to, and settle ourselves upon, the land. On the other side of the globe, Roger Deakin (Waterlog and Wildwood) wrote about his deep respect for nature. He built his home, Walnut Tree Farm, according to three senses: a habitation, an agreement with the land, and a slow subsidence into intimacy with a chosen place. Rosemary Laing and Fred Williams convey this respect and depth of understanding in their evocations of Australian landscapes.

 

Both exhibitions close on 11 February, 2018

Guided tours: Thursdays 11am and midday; Sundays 2pm and 3pm

 

 Featured image: Fred Williams, Lilydale Triptych I ,1974, oil on canvas, overall: 105 x 272.5 cm, TarraWarra Museum of Art collection, Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO, Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2008 © Estate of Fred Williams

 

References:

Anthony Fitzpatrick, Fred Williams – 1974, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2017

Victoria Lynn, ‘Co-belonging with the landscape’ in Rosemary Laing, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2017

Patrick McCaughey, Why Australian Painting Matters, The Miegunyah Press, 2014

Categories: Musings on Art

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