JOHN WOLSE­LEY

Heart­lands And Head­wa­ters.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Dr An­gela Hes­son

THE STORY OF THE PEL­I­CAN OP­ER­ATES AS AN EVOCA­TIVE MI­CRO­COSM OF JOHN WOLSE­LEY’S CA­REER: IN THE WIN­TER OF 2014, THE ARTIST WAS CAMPED IN A SWAMPY AREA JUST SOUTH OF MATARANKA IN THE NORTH­ERN TER­RI­TORY, AUS­TRALIA NEAR­ING THE CON­CLU­SION OF SIX WEEKS SPENT CRE­ATIVELY IM­MERSED IN THE WILDER­NESS. THE CAMP­SITE WAS A SIN­GU­LARLY UNROMANTIC ONE, SIT­U­ATED BE­NEATH A MO­TOR­WAY VIADUCT NEXT TO A SMALL, SOUPY DAM. UPON WAK­ING EARLY ONE MORN­ING, HE SPOT­TED AN IN­ERT BLACK AND WHITE FORM AT THE WA­TER’S EDGE AND WAS MOVED TO IN­VES­TI­GATE.

“I thought I was look­ing at a Friesian cow,” Wolse­ley re­calls, his ex­cite­ment at the dis­cov­ery still ap­par­ent. “What it ac­tu­ally was, was a dead, par­tially des­ic­cated pel­i­can! And so I took it to my camp and inked it up…inked her up… and be­gan to work with her.”

Wolse­ley’s part­ner of the past twenty-five years, cu­ra­tor Jennifer Long, re­lates her first glimpse of the avian haul with an air of fa­mil­iar, amused res­ig­na­tion. When she ar­rived to meet Wolse­ley at Alice Springs, hav­ing driven the cou­ple’s bat­tered ute from their home in the Whip­stick For­est more than 2000 kilo­me­tres away, she was greeted not only by the spec­ta­cle of the pel­i­can, pegged out to dry in the breeze, but also by the lamentably less de­com­posed body of a ju­ve­nile bus­tard, whose tem­po­rary shroud of a plas­tic bag soon filled with mag­gots. Such is the na­ture of Wolse­ley’s prac­tice (and in­deed, of the cou­ple’s shared ec­cen­tric­ity and prag­ma­tism), that a bag of mag­gots rep­re­sented not so much a spec­tre of hor­ror as a handy aid to speedy de­com­po­si­tion. The odour em­a­nat­ing from the bag ap­par­ently also pro­vided an ef­fec­tive guar­an­tee of space and pri­vacy at camp­sites on the long drive home.

When I visit Wolse­ley in his St Kilda studio, he is in the process of com­plet­ing the mon­u­men­tal work in which the pel­i­can ap­pears - Dystopia - The last wet­land, Gwydir 2184 - and he spends some time bal­anced atop a rick­ety lad­der af­fix­ing the five me­tres of pa­per to the wall with draw­ing pins. The work is soon to fea­ture in Heart­lands and Head­wa­ters, Wolse­ley’s ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria on 11 April, 2015. Com­pris­ing around forty-five paint­ings and fifty draw­ings, the ex­hi­bi­tion is the re­sult of four years work, guided by Wolse­ley’s char­ac­ter­is­tic merg­ing of sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity, ad­ven­tur­ous spirit, wry hu­mour, and pan­the­is­tic rev­er­ence for na­ture. The project has been spon­sored by Sir Rod­er­ick Carnegie (de­scribed by Wolse­ley as “a mod­ern day Medici or Doge”), whose pa­tron­age made pos­si­ble the artist’s nu­mer­ous jour­neys into the Aus­tralian wilder­ness, from Kakadu to Skull­bone Plains, to seek out new sites, new ma­te­ri­als and new meth­ods. Even as acts of pa­tron­age go, this was an un­usu­ally gen­er­ous and open one. With no spe­cific in­struc­tion as to the na­ture, sub­ject or scale of the works (save that they re­late to Aus­tralian land­scape - al­ready Wolse­ley’s cre­ative focus) the artist was ef­fec­tively granted com­plete free­dom to ex­plore his ideas.

And so to re­turn to the pel­i­can, and its artis­tic af­ter­life. Wolse­ley’s bird print­ing is not for the faint of heart. The process, in which the nat­u­rally de­ceased in­stru­ment is cov­ered with ink, tossed onto a sheet of pa­per, cov­ered with an­other sheet, weighted, and then left for hours or days to leave its mark, is rem­i­nis­cent of the kind of child­hood ex­per­i­ment a par­ent might anx­iously con­sider for traces of psy­chopa­thy. That this process should re­sult in the most ex­pres­sive, del­i­cate and ten­der marks – each feather de­lin­eated on the pa­per, sharp beak out­lined like the an­ces­tral ar­chaeopteryx- is an in­di­ca­tion of Wolse­ley’s rare fore­sight, ca­pac­ity to marginalise squeamish­ness and to priv­i­lege won­der, and see en­chant­ment where oth­ers might per­ceive ab­jec­tion.

Wolse­ley is of course not the first artist to make cre­ative use of dead an­i­mals, but his re­luc­tance to cap­i­talise on the associated shock value sets his cre­ations apart. Far from the voyeuris­tic spec­ta­cle of Damien Hirst’s slaugh­tered, mag­got-rid­den cow’s head, Wolse­ley’s an­i­mal finds are memo­ri­alised with an air of ven­er­a­tion. The artist him­self refers to the pel­i­can’s im­pres­sion as “a sort of shroud of Turin”.

Many of Wolse­ley’s artis­tic in­ter­ac­tions with na­ture have their ori­gins in much ear­lier prac­tices. His bird print­ing is in ef­fect an ex­ten­sion of ‘na­ture print­ing’, a process de­vel­oped in the 18th cen­tury and pop­u­lar among sci­en­tists and ama­teur nat­u­ral­ists, whereby a nat­u­ral spec­i­men (most com­monly a piece of fo­liage) would be cov­ered with pig­ment and pressed be­tween sheets of pa­per to leave its mark. Ex­per­i­men­tal print­ing tech­niques have al­ways been a fea­ture of Wolse­ley’s prac­tice; hav­ing re­ceived his artis­tic ed­u­ca­tion at Byam Shaw and St Martin’s School of Art, the artist was al­ready a spe­cial­ist print­maker, and his work bears the traces of both his rig­or­ous train­ing, and of an imaginative de­sire to in­fuse the medium with some­thing more hap­haz­ard or tem­pes­tu­ous.

Driven in part by a pro­fessed de­sire for wild­ness, Wolse­ley de­parted the cosy green hills of his na­tive Som­er­set and set­tled in Aus­tralia in 1976, at the age of thirty-eight. Here, he em­barked upon a project of ac­quaint­ing him­self as in­ti­mately as pos­si­ble with the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the Aus­tralian land­scape. This ap­proach ne­ces­si­tated, from the out­set, a no­madic ex­is­tence, a con­tin­ued pro­gram of ex­plo­ration and dis­cov­ery. As Wolse­ley ex­plains “What I like do­ing most of all in the world, is im­mers­ing my­self in a lo­ca­tion which is com­pletely new to me; wan­der­ing about and mak­ing draw­ings of the in­ti­mate pro­cesses and nat­u­ral his­tory of the place”. Wolse­ley has al­ways cul­ti­vated a du­alun­der­stand­ing of both mi­cro and macro forms and pro­cesses within na­ture, de­scrib­ing him­self as “one who tries to re­late the minu­tiae of the nat­u­ral world - leaf, feather and beetle wing - to the ab­stract di­men­sions of the earths’ dy­namic sys­tems”. This sense of in­ti­macy with the en­vi­ron­ment is com­mu­ni­cated in his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hy­brid prac­tice, com­bin­ing the tra­di­tional me­dia of land­scape sketch­ing (in par­tic­u­lar wa­ter­colour, pen­cil and char­coal) with more serendip­i­tous, na­ture-based tech­niques. In Nat­u­ral His­tory of a Sphag­num Bog, for ex­am­ple, a del­i­cate wa­ter­colour de­pic­tion of the bog’s sur­face, com­plete with re­flected cloudy sky, is in­te­grated with the trail­ing, flat­tened fo­liage of run­ning marsh flower and the spongy im­prints of mosses.

Wolse­ley’s works are con­sis­tently marked by an in­no­va­tive man­ner of touch, an un­likely sen­su­al­ity re­sult­ing from a kind of sur­ren­der to land­scape rather than ma­nip­u­la­tion or dom­i­na­tion of it. In his will­ing­ness to let na­ture make the first move, so to speak, he ef­fec­tively in­verts the tra­di­tional power dy­namic of artist-nat­u­ral­ist-ex­plorer in the colonised land. He is not de­scrib­ing so much as re­ceiv­ing. There is an air here of rev­er­ence, of sub­ju­ga­tion to, and col­lab­o­ra­tion with, the land­scape. His 2007 ex­hi­bi­tion, Trav­el­ling West to Sun­set Tank, saw the in­ven­tion of what Wolse­ley terms the ven­tifacts - large sheets of rag pa­per re­leased into ar­eas of wilder­ness to blow in the wind and in­ter­act with what­ever nat­u­ral forms grow or re­side there. Af­ter a pe­riod of weeks, the artist would re­turn to the site to re­claim them, bat­tered and moulded by wind and some­times wa­ter, in­scribed by the char­coal fingers of burned branches, nib­bled by in­sects and scuffed by the earth. Wolse­ley de­scribes the magic of redis­cov­er­ing the newly-formed ven­tifacts “of­ten held in the arms of trees or nes­tled in the banks of sand”.

There is the sense, in these de­scrip­tions and their associated prac­tices, of na­ture speak­ing through the artist. As he ex­plains, “I am find­ing ways of col­lab­o­rat­ing with the ac­tual plants, birds, trees, rocks and earth”. It comes as no great sur­prise, then, that a par­tic­u­lar pol­i­tics is re­flected within these col­lab­o­ra­tions/com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The cot­ton farms which dom­i­nate the up­per sec­tion of Dystopia (in which the pel­i­can ap­pears), are al­ready hav­ing a detri­men­tal im­pact on the ecosys­tems of north­ern NSW. In ear­lier works, Wolse­ley has painted del­i­cate en­dan­gered herons perched in the shadow of im­mense power sta­tion cool­ing tow­ers; he has mapped ar­eas of de­for­esta­tion and in­cor­po­rated graphs of chang­ing cli­matic con­di­tions into lush land­scapes. A de­pic­tion of flot­sam washed up on a lake’s edge in­cluded amongst its pic­turesque as­sem­blage of feath­ers, peb­bles and shells, alu­minium ring pulls and tan­gles of fish­ing line. That im­ages which are, in ef­fect, spec­tres of loom­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ter should main­tain such a sense of beauty is in­dica­tive of Wolse­ley’s sub­tlety, his un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­ity of ecosys­tems, and of the equally com­plex hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties and mo­ti­va­tions that threaten them. His works are evoca­tive, qui­etly per­sua­sive rather than di­dac­tic; this is very much a case of show-don’t-tell.

For all Wolse­ley’s fas­ci­na­tion with ge­ol­ogy, zool­ogy, car­tog­ra­phy and cli­mate change, there ex­ists si­mul­ta­ne­ously within his work a pro­foundly tac­tile, even cor­po­real qual­ity. This is an artist who refers, in the same breath, to graph­ing the mi­gra­tion of an en­dan­gered god­wit, and to danc­ing with trees. In the Ro­man­tic tra­di­tion of in­spired nat­u­ral­ism, Wolse­ley’s paint­ings, prints and draw­ings are sub­tly in­fused with both rev­er­ence and ir­rev­er­ence, with mys­ti­cism and with ac­tu­al­ity. Like Wil­liam Blake or Sa­muel Palmer - two of his most beloved if dis­tant for­bears - Wolse­ley fuses an un­der­stand­ing of na­ture’s minute par­tic­u­lars with a taste for the vi­sion­ary, the im­ma­nent and the sub­lime. Heart­lands and Head­wa­ters is the amal­ga­ma­tion of a life­time’s con­tem­pla­tion of na­ture in all of its un­know­able im­men­sity and ex­quis­ite in­tri­cacy, from the jewel-like cara­pace of the beetle to the great flat­ness of the flood­plain. One is struck by the pro­found, frag­ile com­plex­ity of the Aus­tralian land­scape, and equally by Wolse­ley’s place and that of his cre­ations within it - del­i­cately sus­pended be­tween po­etry and pol­i­tics, be­tween science and sor­cery.

Im­age Plates Plate 01. De­tail of: John Wolse­ley, Nat­u­ral his­tory of a sphag­num bog, 2013, wa­ter­colour on eight sheets 140x400cm. Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Melbourne. Plate 02. John Wolse­ley re­leas­ing sheets of pa­per near Sun­set Track to be col­lected af­ter they have been in­scribed by the burnt scrub Photo: Jennifer Long. Plate 03. John Wolse­ley, Mur­ray Sun­set Refu­gia with 14 Ven­tifacts, 2008-09, car­bonized wood, wa­ter­colour and graphite on pa­per, 120x232cm; 267x495cm. Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Melbourne. Plate 04. John Wolse­ley, The Great Flood­plains of Gar­ran­gali and Garangarri, 2012-13. Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Melbourne.

Plate 04. WWW.JOHNWOLSELEY.NET WWW.ROSLYNOXLEY9.COM.AU/ARTISTS/1/JOHN_WOLSELEY WWW.AUSTRALIANGALLERIES.COM.AU/ARTISTS/9-ARTISTS/178-JOHNWOLSELEY

Plate 01. Plate 02. Plate 03.

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