After months in lockdown memories of this season’s bushfire crisis have already begun to fade. People are so fixated on the moment, so ready to focus on present circumstances and forget past vexations, that the fires might have happened in ancient times rather than a mere six months ago. For our beloved Prime Minister that forgetting can’t happen fast enough. Images of Scott Morrison sipping cocktails in Fiji or snatching the hands of unwilling bushfire victims will always be associated with this disaster.
The danger in forgetting so quickly – for reasons of political expediency or simply the human desire to push away unpleasant thoughts – is that fire preparations will lose their sense of urgency. The economic slump caused by COVID-19 will force cuts across the board, with many different sectors competing for government funds.
It’s imperative that those of us who only experienced the bushfires from a distance don’t lose sight of the magnitude of the catastrophe and help lay the ground for a repetition. Art has a role to play in keeping memories alive, and John R. Walker’s Fireground at Utopia Art provides a first-hand account of the bushfires that raged around Braidwood and further afield.
This show has grown out of Walker’s observations during the crisis and his subsequent explorations of a blackened landscape, but some of his most striking works are imaginative reconstructions of stories from the local firefighters. Fireground 1 (for Bruce R) and Fireground 2 (for Matty H), take us right into the thick of the battle. In the latter, red tongues of flame lap at spindly trees that have already been incinerated. A great brown cloud of smoke surges from the top of the canvas; the foreground is a mass of tiny, flickering highlights and sooty marks – a disintegrating calligraphy wrecked by the violence of the fires.
Fireground 1 adopts a higher, more distant perspective, all heat and light, fumes and ashes. The most minimal and unusual work is Fireground 4 – a kind of drawing in oil paint in which the schematic outlines of a rocky hillside or gully are lit up by a savage smear of red. It portrays the fire as an open wound draining the life out of the land in which it lies embedded.
In works such as Fireground 5 (Rebirth), Walker takes a more optimistic view, showing the scorched bushland bursting with new growth. The red flames of the previous works have been replaced by bright green leaves, eager to reassert nature’s good intentions.
There’s more landscape at the King Street Gallery on William, with Elisabeth Cummings’s Eastern Arrernte Country & Morocco. As the title suggests, the show features two bodies of work springing from the artist’s travels in central Australia and north Africa. Most of the pictures are modest in size, having been painted en plein air, or at least away from the studio. Cummings’s preferred medium is gouache, which dries quickly and allows for a range of layering effects.
There’s no new ground being broken in these works but by this stage of her career Cummings doesn’t have to prove anything. There’s a tremendous freedom and self-confidence in the Australian desert landscapes, a subject she has painted often enough to feel right at home. In Morocco she has had to pause for reflection, in order to find a way into an unfamiliar environment.
In a series of gouaches, Morocco 1-4, Cummings experiments with different ways of painting the compact, geometrical forms of a city. The first study is relatively naturalistic, but by the fourth she has swapped an earth-coloured palette for a range of blues and greys, breaking down the houses into quivering, fragmented forms that hark back to Cubism.
At Liverpool Street Gallery, Ian Grant mixes his signature style of minimal landscape with a series of figure studies, in a show aptly titled, Figure and Landscape. Over the years Grant has perfected a style of “non site-specific” landscape that rejects all the usual scenic devices. There are no clusters of trees, no pools of water, no grazing sheep, let alone ruined temples. A painting called Line of Trees is formally almost identical to one called Grassland Pattern. Both feature a dark foreground with a mass of carefully painted grass, a featureless sky, and a horizon with a few scattered trees. It seems an arbitrary decision to single out grass or trees as the nominated subject of either work.
Grant’s real subjects are stillness, silence and solitude – intangible themes that push these pictures to the brink of abstraction. He has pursued that abstract impulse in a set of figure studies meant to represent types rather than individuals. Inspiration came from the “tronies” Dutch artists painted in the 16th– 17th century, the most famous being Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring(1665). The tronie, although transparently a portrait, was not meant to be identified with a particular person.
Grant adds his own touch of paradox with two pictures called Celebrity I and II. Can one be a celebrity and also a type? Anybody who has ever attended a red carpet movie premiere and watched a crowd of so-called celebrities parading tediously in front of the camera will know they are the dullest, most stereotypical people in the world.
Today is the last day for another show of paradoxical figures – Maria Kontis’s It Was an Extraordinary Summer at the Darren Knight Gallery. Kontis makes painstaking drawings based on old photographs, most of them sourced from the Internet and completely anonymous.
Although taken from a snapshots, Kontis’s drawn translations entail many hours of work, requiring the most delicate use of pastel pencils and a magnifying glass. If these were merely the products of tedious labour one might admire the artist’s skill and perseverence, but the real pleasure of Kontis’s work lies in her choice of images, which are teasing, mysterious, and occasionally bizarre. Where are those people going in Slipping over the world’s edge? Why are all those schoolgirls wearing hoods in The clarity of sunlight? All, that is, except the one in the centre who looks out at us with a smile on her face.
There’s no correct answer to these questions. Kontis knows almost nothing about the people or places in the photos she draws upon, and has no hesitation in altering an image to make it even more arresting. The smiling girl, for instance, is her own addition to the classroom. Before the age of digital technology we tended to believe that the camera, like George Washington, could never tell a lie. Nowadays we suspect that photographs, like the present incumbent in the White House, are lying all the time. Kontis takes a bunch of old photographs with their protestations of forgotten truths, and turns them into fictions. What haunts us in these images is an unknown quantity of reality concealed in plain sight.
John R. Walker: Fireground, Utopia Art, 4 – 25 July, 2020
Elisabeth Cummings: Eastern Arrente country & Morocco, King Street Gallery on William, 7 July – 1 August, 2020
Ian Grant: Figure and Landscape, Liverpool Street Gallery, 4 – 28 July, 2020
Maria Kontis: It Was an Extraordinary Summer, Darren Knight Gallery, 13 June – 18 July, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July, 2020