BRUSHES WITH NA­TURE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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