I have let Monday’s Forum (Monday Forum – the changing face of work) run. I will update it to include responses to comments, but it has already given me the base for several new posts. In the meantime, feel free to add further comments.
I have featured this painting by Walcha artist Julia Griffin, Rain on the Uralla Road, several times, most recently in Musings on a visit to Armidale – art and all that stuff. There I complained that I lacked the visual language and indeed context to explain certain paintings properly.
Since writing that, my train reading has been Vivien Gaston’s The Naked Face self-portraits (National Gallery of Victoria). Its a very good book examining ways in which self portraits illustrate key if evolving ideas about the human persona. Vivien’s focus may be on self-portraits, but the technical challenges she faces in writing are very similar to the problems I experienced in trying to explain Julia’s painting.
One challenge lies in drawing out the elements in the painting itself. If you look at Julia's painting, you can see that it centres on the road. This dominates the bottom of the painting, stretching from the right back across two thirds of the canvas. The road then narrows with distance, drawing the eye to the centre of the piece.
If you keep focused on the bottom of the canvas, you can see how Julia has used layering, marking and smoothing to indicate the surface of the road, still shiny with the rain, You can see the puddles. As the road draws the eye forward, you can see how the hills set the middle distance Then above them are the clouds. They dominate the top of the painting, with lighter sky creating a separation between hills and cloud. It’s a visually successful composition.
But why did Julia paint this scene? What does it mean? I don’t think that we need to be too precious here. I suspect, I don’t know, that the scene just caught the artist’s eye, that it was recreated in the studio. I am not an artist, but I have a reasonably good visual eye and know how specific scenes, ephemeral images, just catch. However, while that’s true, the painting still has a context.
In the case of Vivien’s self portraits, context includes the artist’s life, the period in which they lived, their location and their place in broad changes in artistic and intellectual perceptions. This broad context reflects the National Gallery of Victoria’s large collection, the longish time sweep involved and the prominence of some of the painters. Vivien is also drawing from a large body of previous writing on the history of art and its relationship to the world around.
The context for Julia’s painting is much narrower. She has her own story, her own body of work. You will get a feel for that if you click through on the link in her name above. Her Kunderang pieces, for example, are very different from her earlier work such as Rain on the Uralla Road.
Do I like them as much? I’m not sure. Rain on the Uralla Road appeals to me in part because it captures something that I know so well, creating an instant emotional response. That is a second part of context, the geographic location. I know where Kunderang is, but I don’t have quite the same response to the Kunderang paintings for they are more abstract. I have to establish a relationship in my mind between the paintings and the possible scenes.
Landscape is an evolving form. As with self-portraits, it changes over time. It would be probably be possible to place Rain on the Uralla Road in that flow, although I haven’t attempted it. My own focus, the context I use, is actually far narrower. Beyond my appreciation of the art itself, I am interested in Julia as a New England painter, in what her painting says about the life, history and culture of Northern New South Wales.
In thinking this way, I am trying to determine patterns, to establish differences in patterns, to examine interactions between art and life. In its way, this is just as complex a task as that faced by Vivien.
Vivien had to synthesise a vast body of previous work and thought, to place the art works in that context. In my case, there is very little previous writing. I am trying to establish the context, writing on an almost blank canvas. I do so not knowing what the results will be. To what degree can we in fact speak of the art of Northern NSW in pattern terms? Is there such a thing as the art of Northern New South Wales as compared to artists who happened to live in or paint Northern NSW?
In writing, I also do so as a player, not just observer. The observer affects the observed. The fact that I create patterns, models that seem to fit, then feeds into later work and thinking.
I don’t want to sound too pretentious. I am not suggesting grand things, But if you have read to this point, if you have clicked through on the link to Julia, you will know a little of one New England painter, you will be able to identify one New England painting. That’s a start.