Artists are always happy to portray their work as a spiritual journey but Joshua Yeldham is more convincing than most. His mid-career survey at the Manly Art Gallery & Museum is a unique experience – less of an exhibition than a single work of art divided into different segments that unfold over time. This holistic approach can be very seductive, although such intensity of focus gives one the disturbing sense of reviewing the artist’s life rather than the work. Although an artwork can be analysed in many ways, assessed positively or negatively; only moralists seek to impose their value judgements on other people’s lives.
For Yeldham the line between life and art is very fragile. The show is titled Surrender, and comes with a book of the same name, subtitled A journal for my daughter. There’s also a short film called Surrender, screening in the last room of the exhibition. It reflects the artist’s attempts to live in a way that is emotionally, spiritually and creatively fulfilling. To achieve this goal it seems that one must listen to the voice of Nature, abandon egotistical ways and act as a conduit for whatever inspiration arises.
I say “Nature”, but I could just as easily say “God”, “the Cosmos”, or “a Higher Power”. Yeldham has tried to cure himself of materialism in the way that members of Alcoholics Anonymous accept the idea that “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
The Yeldhams are one of Sydney’s notable families, but Joshua’s journal reveals that his privileged background was both a blessing and a curse. Suffering from dyslexia he had a terrible time as a boarder at Cranbrook, where he played the clown to compensate for his academic shortcomings, and to avoid being bullied. His next move, however, was to Switzerland, where he received a more cosmopolitan education and developed a taste for mountain climbing.
From there Yeldham went on to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he became interested in filmmaking. His major student foray into the medium took him eleven times to the remote region of Mt. Humboldt in the Venezuelan Andes. The movie that resulted, Frailejón, would win an Emmy and an Oscar nomination for best student film in the United States for 1993. That hour-long movie is rarely seen today, but it is screening in the first room of this survey.
For a young man of 23 such early plaudits might have been the launching pad for a career as a successful director, but when Yeldham was given $5,000 to develop the script of a second film, he used the money to buy a yellow Kombi and headed for the desert. He seems to have had the same kind of experience as Robyn Davidson, but without camels. In brief: one goes to the desert to get lost and find oneself in the process. According to Yeldham’s journal this is roughly what happened, although when he tried to turn his experiences into a script it was rejected as too ethereal and not even faintly commercial. Perhaps he should have persevered – it took 40 years for Tracks to make it to the screen.
Returning to Sydney Yeldham gave up on the film world to pursue his burgeoning interest in the visual arts. He moved to the Hawkesbury with his partner, Jo, and began the love affair with Nature that has produced most of the work in this exhibition. This period has also produced two children, who have taken their places in the Yeldham vision of life, love, art and the universe. His journal, and perhaps the exhibition itself, is presented as an extended communication with his first child, Indigo.
The book and the art have such a private feel it seems strange to be writing about them as public artefacts. If this were a Hollywood movie, Indigo would find a dust-covered volume in the old family home after her parents had departed this world. She would begin to read, and the sound of her father’s voice would arise in her mind and the viewer’s ears. Soon we’d be in the midst of a lengthy flashback, as dad’s autobiography was replayed in glorious colour, interspersed with touches of homespun philosophy.
Putting it this way I can see why Yeldham chose the visual arts over cinema, although he has never totally abandoned the medium, as revealed by the very accomplished short film that concludes this show. The journal acts as an intimate, unconventional exhibition catalogue, full of notes, poems, sketches, memorabilia, artworks and snapshots.
Most of the work in this survey was completed on the Hawkesbury, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and engraved photographs. The latter are among Yeldham’s most innovative pieces. He prints a photo on a large slab of homemade paper, then carves back into it with a belt sander, which he uses with the delicacy of a fine etching tool. Trees grow patterns that resemble indigenous inscriptions on burial poles. Webs and pinpricks of white light cluster and sparkle amid the grey tones. Even his children get the treatment, being given white tattoos that cover half their bodies. Perhaps this is good parental psychology: they may be less tempted to get real ones when they’re old enough.
Yeldham’s paintings are highly unorthodox. The surfaces are flat but densely patterned. He creates relief forms by inserting small pieces of wood and cane. In the most elaborate he adds strings, giving his pictures the attributes of musical instruments, although I’m not sure they can be played with any conviction.
Leaving aside the sculptural additions, Yeldham’s style is so eclectic it can’t be related to any dominant set of influences. There are echoes of Aboriginal art, Indian tribal painting, traditional Chinese landscape, and the obsessive pattern making favoured by Outsider artists.
There’s also a hint of Brett Whiteley in that loose, curving line that defines a contour in landscapes such as In Search of Light – Pittwater (2013), even if he has furrowed the surface of the paper and crammed each plane with dots and lines. It’s also there in Motherland (2008), where a dark line, presumably a road, coils across the top of the painting like a serpent.
Yeldham emulates tribal artists when he takes the owl as his totem. It’s an image that appears again and again in these works, most dramatically in a large, black-and-white picture of an owl in flight, preparing to descend on its prey. It’s a suitably ambiguous motif as owls are associated with wisdom, but are also fierce nocturnal predators. Yeldham’s owls may be read as symbols of Nature’s sagacity, while simultaneously representing the dark fears and anxieties we must all overcome. The degree to which Yeldham identifies with the owl was revealed in the 2013 Archibald Prize exhibition, where this great bird stared out of a large Self-Portrait.
There’s a disarming sincerity in this exhibition. Beyond the point where most artists have begun to see their paintings as jobs to be completed by a certain deadline, Yeldham puts heart and soul into every piece. He meditates, he communes with Nature; he strives to make every gesture feel meaningful.
“I practice meditation,” he writes, “to lighten the weight of the labour required to make these paintings. I sway my brush, learning to push through negative thoughts that can hinder my line.” If such statements sound a bit too New Age for comfort, imagine them written as nine lines of blank verse divided into two stanzas. It’s not memorable poetry, but everything seems a bit more portentous when laid out in this manner.
Yeldham’s earnest approach tends to bring out the cynic in me. I’m not convinced that an artist should rid himself of negative thoughts, because this seems to remove an important element of self-criticism. Yeldham’s work is driven by obsession, which gives it a labour-intensive, hyper-decorative appearance. Once he has an idea he works at it with enormous energy, but every subject tends to lose its specificity, being drawn into the vortex of style. He is painting the world as he feels it, not as it unfolds in front of his eyes. Instead of surrendering to Nature he might be accused of bending her to his will. Perhaps the title of this show should have been equipped with an exclamation mark.
Joshua Yeldham: Surrender
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, until 2nd November.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18th October, 2014