To appreciate the art of Philip Wolfhagen one must be tolerant of repetition. Few Australian artists are more devoted to the serial approach to painting: fastening on to a particular motif, making small changes in colour and tone on successive canvases until the theme is exhausted. For Wolfhagen’s fans the process is mesmeric, for his detractors it is too boring for words.
It’s reassuring to find that Wolfhagen is among his own most vehement critics. In an interview, some eight years ago, he admitted: “I’m working on twenty or so paintings that are very, very closely related. In fact, the overlapping is sometimes too much in my view. I feel there’s too much repetition. But I also feel it’s necessary as a way of backing up ideas. If I’ve got something in a painting that I’m scared of losing, I won’t touch it until I’ve brought another painting up to that point and beyond. And then I’ll work over the previous painting.”
Wolfhagen is conscious of his own cautiousness but accepts this as part of his temperament. “It’s like the old saying about not leaving a stone unturned,” he says. “I will pick over the ground meticulously and make sure I don’t leave without having explored every possibility within it – because I never want to go back there again.”
He may not want to go back, but he often does. When one begins to accept this slightly pathological attitude, it’s possible to find much to admire in Wolfhagen’s subdued, insistent landscapes. Although most of his pictures have a melancholy atmosphere his control of tone, colour and texture is impressive in its subtlety. From a distance a painting may look almost photographic, but as one gets closer it is revealed as a mass of waxy pigment, applied with broad sweeps of the palette knife.
As for the repetitions, it could be argued that nobody complains about Claude Monet’s serial paintings of haystacks or Rouen Cathedral. Wolfhagen has enough respect for the viewer to believe that he or she will be able to become just as absorbed as the artist himself in the play of significant variations between canvases. In other words, he paints in expectation of a viewer with an attention span and a fascination with the tactility of his beeswax surfaces. These are very big assumptions nowadays, but every good artist has to follow their instincts, even if it leads them in directions that run contrary to the Zeitgeist.
The Newcastle Region Art Gallery has collaborated with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery on a mid-career survey called Illumination: The Art of Philip Wolfhagen, which brings together more than 50 works, ranging from large-scale paintings to small oil sketches, prints and notebooks. There is also a handsome catalogue that shows the influence of Wolfhagen’s exacting eye for detail.
One of the features of Ron Ramsey’s tenure as Director of the NRAG, has been the immaculate presentation of temporary exhibitions, and the trend is continued in this show. Walls are painted in different shades of pastel to pick up on the colours in the paintings. There are marvellous clusters and sight-lines. It makes a sad contrast with the ground floor galleries which have been packed up in preparation for a renovation that will probably never happen, thanks to a Council that has refused to back this sorely-needed development, even going so far as to return a $7 million grant to the federal government.
Instead, one learns that Newcastle’s property developer mayor is devoting funds to the beautification of Hunter Street. This is a project that should assist private interests at the expense of the obvious public benefits associated with an art gallery. With one of the finest collections in this country Newcastle deserves better.
I won’t dwell on this topic any further as it too depressing to see a community of this size reverting back to the philistine attitudes of the Askin era.
Wolfhagen knows a few things about life in the regions, hailing from Longford in Tasmania, where he works in what must be the oldest studio in Australia, built during the convict period. He returned to his home state in 1995, after carving out a career for himself in Sydney, and has immersed himself in the landscape ever since. The fields, slopes and seascapes that he paints are all within easy driving distance, yet he is not a plein-air painter. Rather than set up his easel on some windswept hill Wolfhagen prefers to capture a scene with a camera and reinvent it in the studio.
This imparts another dimension to his paintings, which are more concerned with process than with any nominal subject. There is a cerebral aspect to Wolfhagen’s pictures that sees him engaging with the work of past masters such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable and J.M.W.Turner; along with a glance at German Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich, and Tasmania’s own old master, John Glover. His cloud studies alone are sufficient evidence of his interest in Constable, who never attempted anything so monumental as Wolfhagen’s A Litany of Vapours (2007), which stretches out across seven panels and 9.4 metres.
Painting clouds is considered to be a romantic preoccupation, as if the artist were an incorrigible dreamer. A Litany of Vapours might be conceived of in this manner, with its dark and threatening overtones, but many of Wolfhagen’s cloud pictures seems to deliberately avoid such emotional resonances. The clouds in his Exaltations series of 2011 are almost exercises in abstraction, inviting us to ponder the movements of the palette knife rather than the will of the heavens.
The series continues today with two new Exaltations included in Wolfhagen’s current solo exhibition at the Dominik Mersch Gallery. The show reveals a growing predilection for abstraction, with a set of multi-panelled works called Propositions – banded studies of light that capture the glow of twilight or dawn in transcendental fashion. The spiritual overtones are reinforced by the thin reddish line that Wolfhagen leaves in the centre of several pictures, irresistibly recalling Colin McCahon’s Six days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950). This is far from coincidental, as Wolfhagen is a devoted admirer of the great New Zealander.
The Newcastle survey includes an even more extreme excursion into minimalism with banded works from a series called Landscape Semaphore of 2004, but the rest of the exhibition presents us with readily identifiable scenes. Apart from the odd suggestion of a tiny figure in the distance or a light flickering in the darkness, these works are devoid of human presence.
In paintings such as High Ground (2001) or the Transmutation series of 1997, one could be looking at Tasmania as it was in primordial times – a feeling that must have assailed many tourists when they gaze out over this empty landscape on a grey day. These paintings are carefully structured, but there is no obvious focal point. They pretend to be featureless and non-descript but the shrubs and hillocks fall into enough of a pattern to lure the eye. The indistinct nature of the forms suggests a wanton intermingling of earth, air and water, as if the land were in the process of formation or decay. It would be fascinating to send Wolfhagen to Iceland, where he would find a volcanic landscape that is a genuine work-in-progress.
From 2004-06, Wolfhagen experimented with nocturnes, showing dim outlines of buildings in the darkness, illuminated by small bursts of light. One of the most appealing works is a modestly-scaled painting called Night vision III (2006), which transforms a leaning telegraph pole into a kind of crucifix in the blue-grey of early evening. The picture is owned by fellow artist – and connoisseur of tonal painting – Tim Storrier.
Two or three years ago Wolfhagen began to explore an updated version of the Claudean landscape, featuring a distant view framed by trees. The major difference is that Wolfhagen’s trees are spindly, shadowy affairs that often seem to have been carved out of the painted surface. This lends a funereal aspect to the Neo-classical ideal of landscape, as if a vision of the golden age had been replaced by intimations of a tragic past. Many will be quick to imagine a reference to the dispossession of the Tasmanian Aborigines, although Wolfhagen is the last painter to adopt a crudely political stance.
By the end of this exhibition, and through the works exhibited with Dominik Mersch, we see the artist returning to the minimalist themes that he favoured at the beginning of his career. This would be a neat resolution of a life in art, but it hardly applies to Wolfhagen who only turns 50 this year. It is more likely that we are seeing the slow spiral of an artistic evolution that keeps returning to themes that are never quite forgotten or exhausted. Thorough, cautious, always alert to one last variation, we see an artist who habitually keeps one foot in the past as he pushes on towards new horizons.
Illumination: The Art of Philip Wolfhagen, Newcastle Region Art Gallery, June 22 – August 11, 2013
Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, Hobart, September 13 – December 1, 2013
Philip Wolfhagen: Propositions, Dominik Mersch Gallery, June 27 – August 3, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 13, 2013