Abu Dhabi catalogue Essay written by Holly Arden, Arts Writer and graduate in Art History [Hons] from the University of Queensland.
Essay By Holly Arden
…at the foot of the hill washed the plains, immediately flat. Close by the land was divided up into the familiar squares of cultivation, but as the eye leapt outwards the colours and shapes merged, fields and farms spreading all the way to the horizons…. On the left marched the blue line of the mountains, and on the right, the land merely extended forever westwards.
- Andrew McGahan, The White Earth
If there is such thing as a cultural psyche, landscape would be a defining feature of it. This must at least be true in Australia, for people of both indigenous and non-indigenous heritage. And it is hardly surprising, given that Australia is four-fifths the size of North America with a population of around 20.4 million. The landscape, vast and for the most part unpopulated, is literally everywhere. ‘The Land Down Under’, ‘The Great Southern Land’: historically, mythologically and psychologically, Australia’s identity is characterised by the distances that mark its interior and separate it from the rest of the world.
As a result, landscape painting has led arguably the strongest course of Australian art. The landscape works of early post-colonial artists evidenced a type of psychological rationalisation of what they encountered in these new foreign lands. Consequently, these were often filtered through a European aesthetic. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have pictured landscapes that recount stories of the creation of their ancestral lands. In all its forms, landscape art is a means through which artists have situated themselves physically and sensually, culturally and psychologically, in relation to place. As James Baker writes: ‘Landscape art is often a metaphor for…mindsets in that it is also a result of the response to the environment, not just a representation of it.’
What type of response might living in rural Queensland generate? Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox lived for decades in the agricultural communities of Dalby and Goondiwindi in the state’s south-east. The feelings of desolation and loneliness provoked by rural life has left its mark on the work of numerous Australian painters, foreshadowed it seems by the colonial experience. So it comes, perhaps, as a surprise to see the markedly upbeat works in this exhibition. One of the first ways we experience this is through Brimblecombe-Fox’s use of colour: jewel-like blues and fiery reds. Such reds ring true to the deep russet of the region’s soil and are coupled in works such as Life’s Vibration with a vibrant force of energy expressed by lines that vibrate with optic movement. These are scenes quite different to those traditionally pictured, for example, in Russell Drysdale’s desolate brownish terrains.
Secondly, there is a sense of harmony in these paintings achieved partly through the artist’s refined, almost diagrammatic forms. This suggests Brimblecombe-Fox works from a certain level of objectivity or ‘remove’. By ‘remove’ I mean that she is able to view the earth as a natural system and as one part of a much greater whole. Through the working of its ‘parts’, the vegetation that nurtures life, the blood that supports it, the natural world is able to revolve continuously. In a group of paintings that feature a circular earth motif, a network of roots/nerve endings/blood lines service the earth like veins. These connect with a much greater expanse of sky, which puts the earth, quite literally, into perspective. There is something liberating about this and also humbling. In works such as Every Wonderful Possibility, the sky is formed through repeated semi-circular brushstrokes. Traditionally symbolic of harmony and fertility, the circular earth is filled with the roots of life.
A range of rarefied mountain landscapes accompanies these busier paintings. The stylised, patterned forms in these works have a strong graphic quality. The sharp contrasts of the Darling Downs landscape where the artist lived perhaps lend themselves to such picturing. These are places where rain, as in Mountains Dancing, falls in visible sheets and where the mountains, as writer Andrew McGahan describes, “march” on one side, while “on the right, the land merely extend[s] forever westwards.” These are scenes of hard lines or else expanses of coloured nothingness. Then there are the man-made forms, the angular fields and irrigation channels; landscapes which, especially in the harsh light and heat, lend them to abstract rendering. And in the heat of the day, as in Mountains Dancing, there are illusions everywhere, where the luminous blue of the mountains could be mistaken for a gathering of lakes.
The use of abstracted form is also, for Brimblecombe-Fox, a way of translating her impressions of landscape into paint, impressions for which there are not always visual equivalents. None of these works were painted on site. Therefore, by employing a series of ‘motifs’ that might represent a thought or feeling about a place, or through intuitive brushwork, Brimblecombe-Fox maps a personal, inner landscape. A defining marker of the Darling Downs landscape, the mountain is repeated in a varied range of responses to this metaphor for life’s goals and challenges. (And there must be at least one personal mountain here; achieving an exhibition, let alone in another country is one steep climb)! In Metaphor, warmth seems to emanate from beneath the blanket-like covering of the mountain. In Hidden Secrets, the mountains are veiled, elusive and because of this, ever so slightly ominous. In the russet coloured painting, Mountains As Metaphors, the flowing painted line transforms the mountain range into a wave-like abstract form. Floating in an expanse of flat colour it is inaccessible but, with its gentle undulations, its distance causes no anxiety.
Mountains As Metaphors demonstrates Brimblecombe-Fox’s distinctive use of abstract graphic form, particularly line. In this work, the line is highly charged, seeming literally to carve the landscape out from a red void. In Earth’s Vibration and Inside The Mirage, multitudes of loose lines suggest a landscape quivering with potential energy. These heavily worked lines are also physical signifiers of the artist shaping the land in paint. In contrast to these more highly composed paintings, a group of gentler, freer works reflects the artist’s fascination with the possibilities of her medium. In Unlimited, for example, Brimblecombe-Fox builds thin washes of paint, allowing these to drip into forms that could be rain-washed landscapes or layers of wood grain.
Informed by vastness and distance, Brimblecombe-Fox’s paintings have an essence of Australia. But aren’t these qualities (feelings, stories) that might also be found throughout the world, in the desert scapes of the Middle East? Thus, while they speak of specific sites, gained through decades of living in rural Queensland, they are not essentially Australian. Part psychological, part allegorical, they have universal resonance. Most refreshingly, while her large canvases hint at emotions such as the fear and loneliness that come with isolated living, Brimblecombe-Fox never allows them to become overly sentimental. Instead, they reflect a mature artist with the ability to balance feeling with resolved, sophisticated approaches to painting this most charged of subjects.
Holly Arden is a freelance writer based in Brisbane. She has a First Class Honours degree in Art History from the University of Queensland.