30 December 2012

Return to the Island - Artist's Statement

 Return to the Island is an exhibition of paintings about King Island at the King Island Cultural Centre in January 2013. I wrote this in hope of helping visitors who found it all a bit hard to understand.


Sometimes people ask whether I have been influenced by the work of Salvador Dali or other early twentieth-century surrealist painters. The answer is no; if there is any similarity in our work, it is simply that we have all studied paintings by the same earlier artists. Look at old masters from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and you will find magnificent works of imagination - for example Hieronymus Bosch or Matthias Grünewald, only two of many to depict The Temptation of St Anthony. At first they appear outlandish flights of fancy, but a second look shows that everything in these paintings is based on careful observation of the real world filtered through the artist's imagination.
Sometimes people bring me a striking photograph (usually of a brilliant sunset) saying it is just the thing they would like to paint. Bad idea. Some images are better presented as photographs.
Here is one of my favourite pictures from the top of the Cape Wickham lighthouse. I think it's an interesting photo but I won't make a painting of it, for a jolly good reason.
Because we assume a photograph is an accurate representation of what was „really“ there, we happily accept strange colours and unfamiliar points of view. We like novelty, whether unusually coloured skies, people in unexpected places or bizarre, mis-shapen vegetables. If the image is a little ambiguous we try to work it out and relish the satisfying “aha” moment when we finally realise what the subject of the photograph is.
Paintings are another thing altogether. If we can't immediately recognise the subject of a painting, or the colours are a bit odd, we assume the artist was not creating a straightforward depiction of nature. We either join in the fun, seeing it as a work of imagination, or else we decide the artist didn't know what they were doing and walk off in disgust.
Sometimes it is difficult for newcomers to visual art to decide which is the appropriate response to a particular picture, especially when the artist is exploring more arcane aspects of picture making or deliberately being provocative. A brilliant red sky might have a serious expressive purpose (for example in this painting by Breughel) or it might merely be a failed attempt to paint a sunset.
This is why I don't recommend painting unusual views of unfamiliar objects or this morning's exceptionally magnificent sunrise. Paint ordinary things in an extraordinary manner. Or look for the extraordinary in nature and present it as something imaginary.
My paintings are works of imagination. They are interesting patterns of shape and colour. They are also amusing visual puns, re-arranged sketches of things around me, intended to stimulate the imagination and suggest what might have been – but probably wasn't.Feel free to decide you don't like them and walk off in disgust.
Otherwise, think in terms of generalities rather than a literal interpretation of what you see. Respond to the emotional rather than the intellectual content of the pictures and, above all, don't try to take them too seriously. Enjoy.


Return to the Island

Exhibition at the King Island Cultural Centre, January 2013

oil on canvas 76cm x 50cm
Notable things on King Island include the tallest lighthouse in the Southern Hemisphere, herds of dairy and beef cattle and the prevailing winds. The view from the lighthouse really was stunning, but this was more fun.

Some cows, and the real view from the lighthouse

Here are some more seemingly innocuous photographs - and the resulting painting:
beach at Cataraqui

treasures from the sea

40cm x 30cm oil on canvas
Things wash up on beaches during storms, especially when there is so much ocean beating on the shores.
It's always worth checking in case there is some wondrous treasure, but there probably isn't. You are most likely to find vast quantities of brightly coloured plastic, which does marine life no good at all.
But it was such a pleasant afternoon strolling along the beach near Cataraqui Point, gathering odd bits and pieces, many of which will be incorporated into odd works of art.

50cm x 40cm oil on canvas
Another Shipwreck painting. There will probably be some more; disasters are a splendid source of imagery.

The tale of the Battle Of King Island has to be one of the strangest and silliest bits of Australian history.
50cm x 46cm oil on canvas
In December 1802 Nicolas Baudin dropped anchor off King Island. He had sailed from Sydney Harbour where he had spent several months refurbishing his ships and now he was back at work, ferrying a party of scientists (whom he found intensely annoying) around the coast of Australia.
To his surprise, Lt Robbins turned up from Sydney a week later to deliver him a letter from Governor Hunter who claimed to be concerned about a rumour that the French intended establishing a settlement in Van Diemen's Land.
Robbins had obviously been packed off in a hurry to keep an eye on Baudin’s expedition, and had not had time to take on extra stores. Baudin found himself having to supply the English officer with canvas, sail-making tools, gunpowder and other necessities, while Robbins went ashore with some soldiers and had a Union Jack hoisted above the French scientists' camp. Baudin thought this pretty poor behaviour and never invited Robbins to dinner again.
There are various accounts of this incident in different books; some are very serious, others treat it as a huge joke and some of the details seem to get a bit exaggerated. I took my version from Facsimile edition no. 222 Reproduction of Text from p 1 – p 609 of the journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin, translated from the French by Christine Cornell. Original publication: 1974. Libraries Board of South Australia. You can find it in the State Library.
This is the mouth of the Fraser River, not far from the place
where the French expedition set up camp.
There is a plaque on the foreshore to commemorate the event.

56cm x 71cm oil on canvas
I like abandoned landscapes haunted by former human activity and decaying man-made structures of forgotten purpose. I'm not sure whether the Mechanics or the Machine are being threatened here, or whether they're all just going to sit down together for a nice cuppa.

This was somewhere on the island. The background landscape was somewhere else. I made up the figures.

76cm x 50cm oil on canvas
The road from Currie to Grassy was bounded by an exuberant growth of forget-me-nots, wonderfully blue. This painting probably isn't about flowers at all, but I wanted the rich forget-me-not-blue background and while I was there I put in a few just for decoration.

56cm x 71cm oil on canvas

A broken chimney and a few cement footings are all that remain of the schoolhouse in Attrills Park at Pearshape. It is a strangely spooky place, surrounded by dark conifers with a mouldering picnic table in the middle. Elsewhere I found a vast expanse of feral Arum Lilies, which are also unsettling en masse. They seemed to go together.