© Grant, I, ‘”Fleurieu Peninsula Art Prize: Imaging Land”, exhibition catalogue essay, 2006.
One can experience land at the most moving, spiritual and memorable level without ever seeking to communicate this experience by giving it material visual form. It can remain as a private, deeply felt component of memory and need not have any other manifestation. However, once a decision is made to communicate this encounter through visual imaging, the observer becomes the artist.
In working with painting the artist works, in most cultures, with conventions for visual communication that are understood by both themselves and their potential audience. In a broad contemporary context the painter can engage with such values as the expressive gesture evidenced in application of paint, the invention or abstraction of imagery, the fusion of media and mediums, and with the individualisation of image and response that is central to current practice. These are complex issues and they are made more complex in Australia by the significance of both land and landscape in the national consciousness.
Macquarie Dictionary defines the term landscape as ‘a view of rural scenery, more or less extensive, such as is comprehended within the scope or range of vision from a single point of view’. This definition is consistent with European artistic traditions of single station-point observation, of direct plein-air response to ‘rural scenery’, and with the artist as intermediary respondent to a pre-existing natural environment. Landscape, in this sense, is a picture of a view of land, which usually includes sky and often some evidence of human habitation. However, the meaning and understanding of landscape within contemporary art is more complex than this for many reasons – and a leading one is that the imaging of land, or more precisely the imaging of experience with land, can be located in almost all cultures where imaging is a means of communicating.
Australia is a multi-cultural nation. This is not a claim for social virtue; it’s a statement of simple fact. Social virtues that may benefit a society of multiple cultural perspectives usually arise from that society’s capacity to accept, consider and respond to systems of communication and to value bases which are often new and which may appear to question the accepted norm. The positive outcome of this can be a host of possibilities for innovative fusion of conventions and positions and this can result in outcomes which are not just new, but also exciting – particularly in the visual arts where immigrant cultures have brought their own values and intelligences to an already rich mixture. Add to this the understood power of indigenous Australian art and an extraordinary potential for synthesis emerges – and this synthesis does not necessary align itself with the ‘landscape’ of the Macquarie Dictionary. It does, however, align itself with contemporary systems of imaging through painting.
A good painting of landscape has to also be a good painting – and it must offer the kind and level of visual engagement that good paintings offer. What constitutes a good landscape painting is an issue of constant critical scrutiny and review, but it’s never just a painted image of the artist’s favourite vista. It’s also not just a painted image of a significant site. The artwork must offer intrinsic qualities which do not depend on the viewer’s cognitive referencing to a particular location although it may draw upon shared experience of that place to anchor response, either real or imagined.
A landscape painting must also be particularly careful with it’s handling of sentiment, beauty and the picturesque because these qualities do not sit easily within Modernist values. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe the evocation of the picturesque and the beauteous through both images and direct engagement with the natural world was perceived as elevating, spiritually uplifting and healing, particularly so for those suffering forms of mental illness. The notion of spiritual transcendence residing in experience with landscape of an almost mythical nature, seen at its most extreme in the Ossian cults of the early nineteenth century, forms the cultural underpinnings for many people’s expectations for pictures of land. Edmund Burke’s assertions of the essential intertwining of beauty and terror in the sublime, and its certain manifestation in a vast and threatening landscape, can form a powerful cultural reference for engagement with landscape. This can be particularly so for those Australians with genetic memories programmed from European origins as these values, although originating more than two hundred years ago, are at least partly reinforced through contemporary readings of expressive gesture as an almost heroic virtuosity – and with the artist as Romantic outsider.
The European-oriented internationalist cultural framework, though, is not necessarily the dominant working base for all artists who image land in contemporary Australia. Immigrant cultures constantly bring new values and working systems to a society with already deep traditions in both engagement with land itself and with the imaging of this engagement through painting. The traditions, of course, commence from well before European occupation and are centred in experience with space, light, distance and atmosphere at a sensory level and in the shared cultural positioning and narrative meanings brought to this experience.
Methods and conventions for pictorial representation can be equally complex and diverse. They can range from the ‘single point of view’, to an expressive, gestural response, to abstraction and versions of schematic mapping as employed by Australia’s original observers and artists. All these positions may, as well, be overlaid to form idiosyncratic hybrids that can be manipulated towards individualised poetic ends. In contemporary art, landscape is a very broad field.
The Fleurieu Peninsular Prizes place no stylistic judgment or requirement on the work they invite. This is one of their strengths. They simply indicate that the work entered be a ‘painting’, should be of a certain maximum size and should image ‘landscape’ or an almost equally culturally complex subject of ‘food and wine’. It is the range of potential in current painting practice and the culturally complex nature of the nominated subject matter that gives the Prizes their interest and significance, both within the Biennale and within Australia. They require that artists harness contemporary means to address aspects of Australian experience that are demonstrably complex and deeply held – and to bring all this together in a ‘good’ painting.