BRUSHES WITH NATURE
John Wolseley: Heartlands and Headwaters The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Melbourne, until September 20 Andrew Sayers: Nature Through the Glass of Time Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Melbourne, until June 27
The feeling for nature — as a conscious aesthetic, even spiritual experience — is something that develops in city dwellers. Peasants who worked the land, and before them hunters and gatherers, lived their lives entirely within the world of nature. They were almost inseparable from it: as late as the 1885, van Gogh could imagine his potato eaters as almost made from the earth which they worked every day.
The peasant is in nature, overwhelmed by the unrelenting labour it imposes, incapable of seeing it with a disinterested eye and without even an external vantage point from which it might be seen in such a way. It was in Greece and then Rome and China that urban poets and artists discovered the beauty of nature. After the Middle Ages, it was again in the urban centres of Florence, Venice and Rome that the modern landscape matured. Later still, impressionism developed in the huge modern city of Paris.
Thus the appreciation of nature entails a certain alienation from the reality of living in a natural environment; even when a poet or painter chooses to live in a bush retreat, they are seldom exposed to the harsh reality of finding or growing their own food. Horace had plenty of help on the Sabine farm.
The paradox of separation or alienation as a condition of consciousness is not unique to the case of nature. Many people have discovered that it is only when they find themselves, intentionally or not, in a different milieu that they come to understand their own culture, national character or class. For example, an understanding of other times and places can help us see the absurdities of contemporary consumer culture, For more than 30 years, gallery director Joe Eisenberg has believed passionately that regional galleries are a vital part of community and cultural life. One of his staunch supporters was Margaret Olley, who once told me that “if the art is flourishing in the community, the community is doing well”.
Eisenberg has fostered such an attitude during his time as director of major regional NSW galleries at Armidale and most recently at Maitland, in the lower Hunter Valley region. At both places he has gathered much support from artists and donors. His list of supporters reads like a who’s who of the art world. They praise his com-
June 13-14, 2015 which the mass media work so hard to make us accept without question.
Today, however, the alienation from nature has become more extreme, in whatever way we look at it. Most people drive to work, sit at desks, drive home, eat processed food and then watch processed entertainment. Even the news is processed: consider the way that bits of real news are chopped up and mixed with opinion.
It is in the context of a radical alienation from nature that we can understand the art of John Wolseley, which is an attempt, as he puts it, to reenchant our connection with the natural world. And this is why, in the short video that accompanies the exhibition, we encounter him swimming in a waterhole, and half-emerging like a tentative amphibious creature to smear mud all over a sheet of paper stretched on the bank.
This literal immersion in the environment is half-comical and half-touching, but it is not accidental. Far greater landscape painters in the past did not have to get their clothes off and get into a lake to feel the beauty and majesty of na- bination of enthusiasm, generosity and sincerity.
Eisenberg is about to retire and, as a swan song, the Maitland Regional Art Gallery is holding an exhibition, An Empty Chair: 10 Years of Paper. It is based on the gallery’s impressive collection of works on paper which Eisenberg was instrumental in building. ture, and yet this is not mere gimmickry or marketing on Wolseley’s part. It reflects a desperate level of estrangement from the natural world, even among many of those who espouse green politics but would never take the time to sit quietly and draw a tree or a flower.
Wolseley then picks up the desiccated carcass of a pelican and, wetting it too with muddy water, presses it into the paper and brushes watercolour around it like a kind of stencil. He is concerned to record the life of a formerly endangered wetland which has been saved from redevelopment as a cotton farm; in the finished work, which hangs on the other side of the wall, the patchwork of surrounding cotton farms, scratched on to the paper with lead and reinforced in watercolour, is overwhelmed by the exuberance of the natural forms.
Wolseley’s concern to let the natural world speak directly and for itself leads him not only to embrace the random and adventitious at the margins of significance, but even to carry out experiments that venture largely beyond the
The exhibition presents a selection of the finest examples from the collection and highlights the versatility of paper as a medium. It includes Graham Fransella’s Walking Figure, which Eisenberg and the gallery’s collection management curator, Cheryl Farrell, show me.
Fransella’s etching is a monumental work that demonstrates both his longstanding fascination with the single standing figure and the depth of his technique. Strong black lines outline the figure, which has been stripped of detail so that it becomes almost a symbol.
Fransella has a substantial record of artistic practice. Born in Harrow, England, in 1950, he studied at the Bradford School of Art, Yorkshire. He moved to Australia in 1975 and is now based in Melbourne. He is represented in numerous major public collections and has won the Art Gallery of NSW Trustees Watercolour Prize five times, most recently in 2011.
Speaking about his work, he says, “I have always had a liking for images which engage the eye and drawings that are spontaneously arrived at rather than preordained. Pictures may boundaries of art and are drawn back into the field of meaning only by their installation in the context of the exhibition.
Thus he has released sheets of paper into the environment for days or even months at a time, collecting them afterwards when they have been soaked by the rain, baked in the sun and marked by mud, natural ochres and the scratchings of charred tree-stumps.
Such sheets are hung on the walls around the exhibition, but, as already suggested, they only become artistically significant by their juxtaposition with works that are made by the hand and skill of the artist. For Wolseley, in spite of all his love of the random, is in fact a highly skilled artist, with great facility for drawing both landscape and natural history subjects.
What is characteristic of all his work is a simultaneously close and distant perspective, reflecting a sense of topography as well as an almost obsessive love of the textures, colours and living movement of the botanical life that occupies the land. Maps, contour lines and other geographical data may be overlaid with direct impressions from sphagnum moss impregnated with watercolour, and with botanically accurate delineations of plants that proliferate across the page.
It is in this that his work is most different from what we usually think of as a landscape, not only because most landscapes are based on a perspectival view of the world, but more subtly because landscape tends to presuppose an external viewpoint and, perhaps most important of all, because it seeks to create space.
Space is the mysterious dimension of contemplation, but there is, at least at first sight, little space in Wolseley’s work because he is so intent on evoking proximity, on making us pay attention to the details and texture of a natural world to which we have become desensitised. It is hard to find the space for contemplation when you are, like the artist on the bank of the wetland, face down and only centimetres away from the motif.
Wolseley says he doesn’t believe in what he calls the magisterial gaze. But it would not be accurate to say that space is entirely lacking appear simple, initially, but they reveal much more after contemplation. A good picture should be able to bear lots of looking at.”
Farrell says that one of the most impressive features of Walking Figure is the majesty of its size. “The beauty of this etching for me is that when you think of prints you often think of small scale, but it is such a huge scale for an etching that it really makes a statement.”
Eisenberg says the etching is evidence of Fransella’s skill and it is “hard to walk past and not be amazed. The amount of work in this etching is just unbelievable.
“Fransella has been fascinated for such a long time by the human torso,” he says. “He must have done thousands of etchings of torsos, and they are in the same position. It is not as though they are seated or squatting or running, but they are a body of a person with the arms outstretched and the legs usually close together and they are just so, so heroic.
“He also plays so beautifully with the background. He does it in green, he does it in red, and he does it in blue, every colour of the rainbow. He manages to keep it fresh each time.
It takes courage, Eisenberg adds, for an artist to continue to work at a single theme. “There is real strength and it is obvious that the artist knows what he is doing,” he says.
Etching on paper 194.5cm x 161cm