Haunted Landscape is a carefully selected collection of paintings about landscape, memory, and the passage of time. These paintings were exhibited at Nolan Art Gallery in Salamanca Place, Hobart, between 21 July and 14 August 2018. You do not have to agree with my commentary; bring your own experiences and interpretations, but above all, don't take them too seriously. Relax and enjoy!
Following the Van - 66 cm x 112 cm oil on canvas
FOLLOWING THE VAN
Is that an actual mountain? Somebody asked. I had to say “no – I made it up”.
I spend a lot of time walking in landscape, looking at landscape, and occasionally recording a piece of its history, often illustrated with photographs I have taken.
The infinite variety of shapes, texture and colour in the Tasmanian bush provides me with endless inspiration, but when it comes to painting I am not interested in recording an accurate image of a specific feature. My paintings are about ideas. Landscapes provide the stage and help set the mood of the picture and I adjust and modify them freely to fit my needs, working from memory but occasionally referring to a photograph for an odd detail.
The people I walk with are never as strange as these, and so far the landscape has never been so desolate. The caravan has moved on, and the stragglers are left behind.
McCrae's Hill - 91 cm x 76 cm oil on canvas
In the early nineteenth century Mr McCrae and his wife took up land near the foot of the Western Tiers. They built a standard Georgian farmhouse; the front rooms red brick; the back, over the brick-lined cellars, were timber. Perhaps the intention was to rebuild in brick once land was cleared and money came in from crops and livestock.
Decades passed. Properties changed hands, new roads were formed. McCrae's Hill, a low rise surrounded by swamp, was marooned far from commonly travelled paths. In the twentieth century the old house was abandoned in favour of a new home convenient to the road. Now great trees that once shaded a colonial garden lie rotting across the path. The head of a broken windmill hangs upside down over a rusty tank. Timbers have rotted away. There are gaping holes in the wall where bricks have crumbled, floors and staircase are treacherous, the stone lintel fallen onto the steps below. Nature, season by season, reclaims its own.
Among The Fallen - 66 cm x 97 cm oil on canvas
AMONG THE FALLEN
There is a historic cemetery in Richmond, behind Australia's oldest church. Below it flows the Coal River, where a platypus may occasionally be glimpsed at sunset.
My friend and I walked, after a scenic drive and cream tea, among the crooked headstones, reading names of other people's ancestors. The hill is steep, the grass was wet, and my friend slipped and fell. It was not a serious fall, but she has back trouble and was in a lot of pain. It was a few moments before she let me help her up, and we made jokes about fallen women. She wore a pale coloured coat; I was in my customary black. By the time we reached home all these images had begun to form a picture, and this is what it became. We didn't see a platypus that day, but I thought a thylacine was more appropriate. After all, we didn't see one of them, either.
Settlement Day - 66 cm x 97 cm oil on canvas
The idea for this painting fermented in the back of my mind for many years, bubbling to the surface now and then, until I decided it was probably ready. A lot of preparatory drawings were rejected or, in some cases, re-purposed to appear in other paintings.
Tasmanians are regularly reminded that we are descended from invaders who stole the land; in fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a country anywhere that hadn't, at some time, suffered an invasion. Here is a happy farm in a pretty valley, loosely based on a property I visited on the Clyde River near Hollow Tree. A dark force is approaching; this does not augur well.
I particularly enjoyed painting the sheep. Sheep are cute, warm, woolly, slightly demented (by human standards) and incredibly useful. They have completely changed the landscape, nibbling vegetation to its roots, compacting the soil and churning up mud with their sharp little hooves. Native bushland is turned into pasture to accommodate them. Some people call this deplorable environmental damage. Other people call it economic development. Anyway, here they are, a vital component of rural industry or ravenous little beasts intent on destruction.
The phrase “settlement day” has at least three different meanings – invasion, retribution or debt collection. Take your pick. If you think of another one, let me know.
Laughing Girl - 76 cm x 61 cm oil on canvas
This is a painting “of” three figures based on an old family photograph, and a distinctive feature on the Clyde River near Hollow Tree, but that is not what it is “about”.
It is about landscape and the memory of people who have passed through it. As future becomes present and fades into yesterday, only memories remain. A thousand generations have left their memories on this country; I am qualified to address only those arriving since the end of the eighteenth century. The characters in my paintings are no more sad, happy, benign or malicious than people you meet every day, nor are they lost souls. They are part of the land and its history.
Bones of the Ancestors - 76 cm x 152 cm oil on canvas
BONES OF THE ANCESTORS
Everywhere we go, we find traces of people who went before us. “Bones” in this context include any skeletal structure, be it metal, masonry or timber. Anything that endures after the soft bits are gone. I have even extended it to include earthworks, ruined forests and colonial history. That might be stretching it a bit, but it's my painting and I make the rules.
Wherever you get interesting ruins (and a successful marketing strategy) you get tourists as well. I have painted about them in the past, and will have more to say in future paintings.
A Child's Guide to Wilderness - 84 cm x 91 cm oil on canvas
CHILD'S GUIDE TO WILDERNESS
This painting is about the present, and more easily explained in dot points. Interpret them as you will.
- we live in an increasingly urban environment and many people rarely experience bushland or natural places. They run on treadmills, climb indoor walls and inhabit virtual landscapes where they can farm or fight as they please
- nature has become a theme park, where the wealthy go to play on their holidays while David Attenborough shows the pretty bits to people who can't afford holidays
- “wilderness” is a modern construct; there is no such thing as a pristine landscape, especially in Australia where it has been carefully managed for thousands of years. “Wild” simply means “neglected”
- we are increasingly spreading plastic and other pollutants all over the country and ocean, to the detriment of the non-human people trying to share the natural world with us
- does it matter?