Arts Hub – Country v Western: the battle for Australia’s landscape

GINA FAIRLEY – WEDNESDAY 11 NOVEMBER, 2015

The new take on Australian landscape pits the Western tradition of landscape painting against Indigenous interpretations of the environment.

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Painting by the late Angelina George Near Ruined City (2007) which won her the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award; Collection of Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory

Despite its rodeo-tone, Country & Western: landscape re-imagined is far from a cowboy view of the Australian landscape. The new exhibition redefines Australian landscape tradition by examining the perceived polarisation of Country (Indigenous) with Western (non-Indigenous) art, bringing commonalities into focus.

Australian artists are the heirs to diffuse landscape traditions, through the struggles of Eugene von Guérard to break away from British traditions, the Heidelberg school’s Australian Impressionism, to Fred Williams’ distinctive abstractions.

What sets this exhibition apart, however, is a curious starting point: an argument that our nation’s bicentenary in 1988 launched a different understanding. Curator Gavin Wilson believes that the ensuing 25 years have seen evolving attitudes and perceptions of the national landscape, bringing Indigenous and Western perceptions together in a closer conversation of understanding.

‘Now is the time to assess the relevance of Western landscape traditions in response to the Indigenous vision, and to search out common ground (if any),’ says Wilson.

He identifies ‘vexed issues of dispossession, identity, collaboration, mining and land degradation, along with the elemental impact of fire and rain and the country’s natural splendor’ as the cords that bind this national psyche – despite being viewed from differing cultural perspectives.

‘The fact that Australia is largely a nation of [urban] fringe dwellers does not diminish the mythical pull of the bush,’ said Wilson.

Shane Fitzgerald, Manager of Gallery Services, the exhibition’s organiser, said that landscape remains a defining factor in Australia’s cultural identity. ‘In 2015 the notion that our landscape defines, represents and binds us remains as much a prevalent impetus for artists as that of the early and deliberately nationalistic pre-Federation pictures that captured the Australian cultural identity of the period.’

Country & Western is touring to seven regional centres, taking the conversation about perceptions to the places where differing perceptions about the spirit and function of landscape have often collided.

It heralds the commencement of Gallery Services’ National Touring Program that was developed as part of the Visual Arts Strategy in 2013 to provide national and international exposure for northern Australian artists and programming, and to ensure their place in the national consciousness. The organisation sees landscape is the perfect platform for attitudinal change.

There is also change in media. Like our expansive landscape with its conglomerate of characters, so too this exhibition turns to 39 artists, deliberately moves beyond painting as the traditional landscape medium.

A chain of bonfires

Wilson opened his exhibition with a memory: a sequence of spectacular bonfires lining the Australia coast that marked the bicentennial year of European occupation.

‘It was a bitter-sweet moment: bitter for Indigenous people who saw the events of 1788 as the beginning of a brutal physical and cultural dispossession …On the other hand, most non-Indigenous people who celebrated the event felt secure in their sense of nationhood,’ write Wilson in the exhibition’s catalogue.

‘The chain of bonfires was a gesture that attempted to cross cultural divides, triggering memories of personal and historical events. A painting that resonates with the bicentennial ring of fire and harks back to the fiery coastline that greeted early explorers is Lighthouses of Australia 2006 by Noel McKenna.

‘The artist’s meticulous notation of all the nation’s lighthouses establishes a moment of instant recognition. The blank dark interior reinforces the enigma that lies at the heart of the continent,’ explained Wilson.

Other artists in the exhibition who explore the topic of fire – both destructive and for it ability to renew – are Imants Tillers, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Mandy Martin, Elisabeth Cummings.

Similarly drought and flooding rains have a pervasiveness with works by John R Walker, John Peart, Townsville-based Shane Fitzgerald, Angus Nivison and Rover Thomas.

Angus Nivison, 'Late twentieth century landscape, Summer rain'; Collection of Newcastle Art Gallery

Angus Nivison, ‘Late twentieth century landscape, Summer rain’; Collection of Newcastle Art Gallery

Mine scars

While extreme climatic events continue to shape and characterise the national landscape, so too does the role of mining. Paintings by Noel McKenna, Mandy Martin and photograph John Gollings approach this contemporary iteration of the landscape narrative.

Gollings photographs of open cut mines in Western Australian – scarred and battered sites from Pilbara to Kimberley – demonstrate Wilsons’ thesis beautifully, their aerial perspective not dissimilar to the over-arching view of Indigenous artists.

‘The Indigenous notion of Country has begun to steadily infiltrate the national imagination,’ he said.

With the emergence of Indigenous art to commercial prominence in the 1980s and 1990s it was a shift moment when the interior started to penetrate the national psyche. What Wilson questions is whether the spiritual connectivity will ever find a meeting place, and whether these images offer such an entry point moving forward.

Another strong re-imagining of landscape is through the image of photographer

Ricky Maynard, ‘which transport the viewer to site of past injustices’. As in Gollings images of mines, the viewer becomes witness, and participant in this narrative.

Ricky Maynard's Broken heart 2005; from the series "Portraits of a Distant Land"; Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery Sydney

Ricky Maynard’s Broken heart 2005; from the series “Portraits of a Distant Land”; Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery Sydney

‘As Maynard asserted, they are the example of co-authorship where places and stories have been pointed out and recalled by people close to the event. The collaborative nature of the photographer’s process acts as a catalyst to re-invigorate landscapes scarred by past injustices,’ explained Wilson.

The overlay of past and present is what Wilson attempts to pit as our national shift in understanding landscape as a genre today.

Surveying the work assembled, ‘what becomes apparent are the often elusive, spiritual connections associated with certain sites,’ Wilson concluded. ‘A genuine sense of place goes beyond the contours of physical appearance. This understanding is embedded in the life and culture of Indigenous artists. While grappling with this concept, their western counterparts have grasped the profundity of Country in re-imaging the national landscape.

‘Whilst we move closer to the Indigenous apprehension of Country, it will remain forever the unequivocal spiritual and cultural domain of its original custodians,’ concludes Wilson.

Country & Western: Landscape re-imagined is showing at S.H. Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill, Sydney from 30 October – 6 December, before beginning a national tour.

The exhibition tour has been organised by the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery. After Sydney it heads to the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery (8 January – 6 March 2016); Wagga Wagga Regional Art Gallery (19 March – 8 May 2016); Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery (VIC); Orange Regional Gallery (NSW); Cairns Regional Gallery (QLD); with the final venue, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory opening in November 2016.

Artists include: Tate Adams, Paddy Bedford, Jason Benjamin, Jo Bertini, Elisabeth Cummings, Shane Fitzgerald, Angelina George, John Gollings, Julie Harris, Gertie Huddleston, Tim Johnson, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Joanna Logue, Euan Macleod, Mandy Martin, Claudine Marzik, Ricky Maynard, Ron McBurnie, Noel McKenna, Andrew Merry, Tracey Moffatt, Idris Murphy, Angus Nivison, John Olsen, Tommy Pau, John Peart, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Brian Robinson, William Robinson, Anneke Silver, Ken Thaiday Snr, Patrick Thaiday, Rover Thomas, Imants Tillers, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, John R Walker, Ken Whisson, Mulkum Wirrapanda and John Wolseley.

FIRST PUBLISHED ON ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley.

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