One could hardly imagine a more universal subject than the tree. It’s one of the first things children draw, as a familiar lollipop shape. It lies at the centre of almost every major cosmology, from Adam and Eve’s misadventures in the Garden of Eden to Yggdrasil, the tree at the centre of the old Norse universe; and the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
This is part of the backdrop to Tree of Life: A Testament to Endurance, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, a show that brings together a diverse group of artists. But it isn’t the tree’s age-old, symbolic significance that forms the focus of this exhibition, it’s the urgent priorities of the present-day in which the destruction of wilderness threatens the very basis of human life.
As David Attenborough and other environmentalists have repeatedly affirmed, this is not alarmism. Science tells us we’ve entered a cycle from which there is no return unless we radically change our ways. The first imperative is to stop removing habitat but every year the forests recede a little further, as the pursuit of short-term profit pushes us towards apocalypse. In Australia we have good reason to be alarmed. The bushfires of 2019-20 have left indelible scars, and neither the government nor the opposition are willing to take decisive action on climate change.
Independent curator, Gavin Wilson, needs no convincing. His e-catalogue essay for Tree of Life details many abuses of the natural environment, including the NSW government’s infamous destruction of fig trees on Anzac Parade to install the idiotic light rail. He might well have added the government’s determination to cut down another swathe of bush in Castle Hill to construct an extended storage facility for the Powerhouse Museum that would be unnecessary if the existing buildings in Ultimo were left alone, as seemingly promised.
Despite the miltant attitudes, which I thoroughly endorse, when a topic is as big as “the tree” there’s no end to possible inclusions. There are more than 30 artists in this show. They could be replaced by another 30 and the display would be just as cohesive. To Wilson’s credit he’s brought together a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous artists, and included works by many of Australia’s leading landscapists. The problem, as is so often the case with these large thematic surveys, is that we’re presented with a scrapbook, an anthology, with no clear narrative or argument.
It all boils down to a heartfelt belief that trees are a good thing and a group of works by artists who share this uncontroversial belief. Taken separately each component of the exhibition suggests a show in its own right. A large work by the Adelaide Studio Women’s Collective featuring 7 painters from the APY Lands serves as a tantalising hint of the deep Aboriginal connection with country. The photos of performance artist, Allana Beltram, perched in a tree in Tasmania, provides the merest glimpse of the battle to protect old growth forests.
Louise Fowler-Smith has undertaken an extensive photographic project on trees that was shown at the Botanic Gardens last year, but here we see only two images. The same goes for Janet Laurence, whose MCA show of 2019 was one long hymn of praise to the tree.
In brief, we get a taste of many things but the exhibition is a checklist rather than an essay. Different kinds of tree-related art are dutifully ticked off but there is little relationship between artists, unlike the previous S.H.Ervin survey for which Wilson served as curator. River on the Brink, in 2019, focused intensively on the water crisis in the Murray Darling Basin, but Tree of Life takes a more expansive approach.
Perhaps the best way of appreciating this show is to swim with the current, taking in one work at a time. To start at the top, Nicholas Harding’s Wilpena Pound and Eucalyptus (Sliding Rock) (2019-20), is the best painting I’ve seen from this artist in years. There’s often been an arbitrary feeling about the fragments of the bush Harding captured in thick lashings of oil paint, but Wilpena Pound displays a greater ambition and application. The colour is crisp, the palette knife has been used with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. This vast canvas is filled with light, the composition held together by the most intricate rhythms.
Harding writes in the catalogue that the central tree in the painting has become a talisman for his own recovery from cancer, and it may be that this exceptional work owes a good deal to such life-and-death inspiration.
Mary Tonkin’s large painting, Madre, Kalorama (2008) is a more subdued effort. Painted in characteristic tones of pinky-grey, the work embodies the feelings of awe and respect the artist experiences in front of a massive, ancient tree, its roots spreading out across the base of the canvas. She imagines the tree as a powerful, maternal presence in the heart of the forest. The fact that the tree has since died acts as an oblique comment on the vulnerability and degradation of the wilderness.
That feeling is even more pronounced in Nicholas Blowers’s Savage Entropy in Paynes Grey (2019), which uses a grey, colourless palette to depict a stretch of Tasmanian river poisoned by heavy metal tailings from a nearby mine. The care and patience with which Blowers has created this image only seems to add to the funereal atmosphere. By contrast, John R. Walker reveals a more hopeful attitude in the many small touches of colour he employs, showing the fire-ravaged bushland springing back to life.
Both artists are worlds away from the cosmic celebration of William Robinson’s Rainforest in morning light (2002), in which trees spiral heavenwards in a form W.B.Yeats would describe as a gyre. There’s another kind of celebration in Tamara Dean’s photos that show naked bodies in ecstatic communion with the natural world, or two small pictures by Idris Murphy, that embed brightly lit planes of colour in moody, dark landscapes.
Two largely abstract panels by Emma Walker seem to take us under the skin of landscape and the bark of the trees. In a muted, elegant picture, Rachel Ellis looks at trees in the streets of Bathurst, mutilated by the installation of power lines.
Richard Goodwin has created a drawing called Barangaroo masterplan that imagines this dispiriting development overrun by a single fig tree grown to monstrous proportions. It’s a messy, chaotic piece, but Goodwin, himself trained as an architect, would probably argue that a little chaos – or entropy – is exactly what is needed to offset the delusions of omniscience enjoyed by master planners and by a state government that refuses to listen to even the most well-intentioned criticism. The abiding belief is that the general public can always be manipulated by PR or simply bored into complacency. Such cynicism may be well-founded but Goodwin suggests that if we fail to stand up for the natural world, one day Nature will take her revenge on us all.
Tree of Life: A Testament to Endurance
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 10 April – 30 May, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May, 2021