A visitor to the Art Gallery of NSW has written to me, saying that after living through last year’s horror bushfires on the south coast, he was surprised at the lack of fire paintings in the Wynne Prize. He was also disappointed that the Salon des Refusés seemed to ignore the bushfire crisis, although it does include fire paintings by Peter Gardiner and Geoff Harvey.
It’s true that the Wynne Prize – which is awarded for “’the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists”, is not overrun with bushfire paintings, but there are a few. The most notable is John R. Walker’s Fireground 2 (for Matty H),which would have been my first choice for this year’s prize. Walker, who is based in Braidwood, watched the advance of the flames, and spoke with the fire fighters when they returned from their daily battle.
Walker’s expressionist, semi-abstract painting is based on observation and an imaginative reconstruction of the stories he heard. He has tried to capture the smoke as it billows up from a thousand tiny points of flickering red, enveloping the spindly black remnants of trees.
Another fiery work is Aida Tomescu’s Silent Spring. Strictly speaking, this painting is probably an abstraction rather than a landscape, but it’s breathtakingly powerful. Great smears of white and red suggest smoke and flames while the churning of the painted surface evokes the surging violence of the fires. Even the areas of exposed linen hint at the emptiness left when the blaze has passed. The title, Silent Spring, is a bit of poetic licence, because Rachel Carson’s well-known book of that name dealt with the destructive effects of pesticides rather than fire. Those who got close to the bushfires remember them as anything but silent.
Two other artists who address the topic are Luke Sciberras and Lucy Culliton. In White Christmas, Bell, NSW, Sciberras records his surprise at finding a landscape covered in fine ash and bursting pods, lending a white tinge to the scorched earth. He depicts nature in an orgiastic mood, with swirls and blobs of paint dancing in front of our eyes. It’s a lavish display of energy with scant concern for composition, but I suppose nature does much the same thing.
Lucy Culliton’s Guningrah, Bottom Bullock, is a more subdued effort. Ostensibly a view of a creek and rows of bare, grassy hills, we’re alerted to the presence of the bushfires by the smoky, pink-grey tone of the sky. Culliton has had more difficulty insinuating that smokiness into the foreground, which retains a natural colour scheme.
That makes four out of 34 finalists looking at the fires – a subject that screamed from every news bulletin this time last year. If it seems a small percentage for such a catastrophe this may signify the rapidity with which we try to forget difficult and unpleasant events – a habit that usually guarantees their recurrence. It also provides an insight into the Trustees’ priorities when selecting this exhibition.
In recent years indigenous artists have dominated the Wynne, and 2020 is no exception. Almost half of the show consists of indigenous painting and sculpture, and it would be difficult to argue it doesn’t deserve to be there. Nevertheless, the Aboriginal ascendency has produced a groundswell of discontent among those who feel the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. A supplementary prize sponsored by the Roberts family, for the best indigenous work in the show, is interpreted as a mark of special favour.
If the lack of indigenous artists in the Wynne once seemed scandalous, now it’s the white artists who feel they’re suffering discrimination. In the jargon of Political Correctness, to question the new state of affairs would be an admission of “white fragility” and incipient racism. It may be more realistic to attribute the grumbling to that venerable but elusive Aussie ideal: the fair go.
It’s not possible to approach the Wynne in a colour-blind manner because the indigenous paintings employ an entirely different visual language. Can one make a meaningful comparison between Nyunmiti Burton’s Seven Sisters, and small, realistic pictures such as those by Natasha Bieniek, Eliza Gosse or Lucy O’Doherty? In terms of scale alone, Seven Sisters is a major work whereas the others are engaging, but modest in their ambitions.
With its almost visceral impact Burton’s picture would be a stand-out in any exhibition, as would Nongirrna Marawili’s Lightning and the Rock, and Alec Baker and Peter Mungkuri’s Nganampa Ngura (our country). I was less taken with the winner of this year’s prize, Hubert Pareroultja’s Tjoritja (West MacDonnell Ranges, NT).
This work has grown directly out of the watercolours of Albert Namatjira and other Aranda artists, such as the artist’s father, Ruben Pareroultja. Hubert’s innovation has been to expand the scale of these views and use acrylic paint. The unexpected result is a picture that looks like a surreal dream image of Central Australia painted by Salvador Dalí. In most Aranda views conventional perspective sees the landscape receding into a fuzzy shade of blue or purple, but apart from a glimpse of blue in the centre of the work, Pareroultja has painted his distant hills a bloody shade of red. Tree roots in the foreground and rocky outcrops in the distance are recorded with the same exaggeratedly crisp sense of detail.
This produces a defiantly non-realistic painting, although it’s not clear the artist set out to deliberately break all the rules. I can’t deny the eye-catching nature of the picture but its strangeness is not at all seductive. The rocky desert landscape appears to be made of raw meat, while pictorial space is flattened out like a mosaic. If the Trustees were intent on giving the Wynne to the most unusual work in the show, they succeeded. Whether it’s the ‘best’ is a matter for debate.
Artists such as Gareth Sansom and Guy Maestri have also contributed unorthodox landscapes, but of a more lyrical bent. In The rain song, Maestri – who can look like a different artist from one show to the next – has created a landscape of flat patches of colour, with clusters of rhythmic line and pattern. It feels weirdly randomised, as if Maestri were building a fantasy landscape with whatever elements he pulls out of a hat. It’s a feat of stylisation that defies classification.
In No man is an island, Sansom, by his own admission, has drawn freely on Arnold Böcklin’s famous work, The Isle of the Dead (1880). His original twist is to re-present that melancholy scene, complete with a doomy title from John Donne, in the most attractive colours. It’s not a recognisable Australian vista but a kind of inner landscape: an insight into whatever is passing through the artist’s mind as he sits at home in Melbourne, wondering if the lockdown will ever end. He doesn’t seem to be taking it too hard.
The Wynne Prize,
Art Gallery of NSW, 26 September – 10 January 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October, 2020