From the Flinders Ranges to the Fleurieu Peninsula, the vistas of Loene Furler and Winnie Pelz continue a long and ever-evolving tradition of Australian landscape painting.
Working in the studio is one thing. Hanging work out to swing in the breeze of public gaze is another. I know that both Loene Furler and Winnie Pelz would like viewers to look critically and ask the kind of questions all serious artists constantly ask themselves: ‘Why should anyone want to spend time with this?’ ‘What does it have to say?’ These questions matter because the theme of this exhibition – connection to place – is central to a sense of identity.
But consider the difference between being connected and feeling connected. The first is easily explained because it is usually seen through the lens of ancestral history. But feeling connected is something else. Very often one feels connected to a place but the reasons go far beyond logical explanation. It is common to find that various Australians identify with a particular place which could be their home and immediate neighborhood, but is often a place they go to, or, when not there, think and dream about. Deep down everyone has an Echo Beach.
These two artists have found common ground in a particular experience which Pelz refers to, when quoting Peter Craven on Bill Hensom, as “the sense in which your body knows the landscape before you do”. This sounds like a visceral response and perhaps it is – thoughts and emotions, even bodily sensations that flood the conscious mind. From this perspective perhaps this ‘place’ is, as historian Simon Schama has it, “less an expanse of territory, than a substance, it’s a rock, or a soil, or an aridity, or a water or a light. It’s a place where our dreams materialise; it’s through that place that our dreams take their proper form.”
The exhibition’s title is Landmarks. The artists have chosen the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to speak, to some degree, on their behalf. A good choice. He’s the very poet to turn to if you want to unleash the dappled beast within. “Where lies your landmark, seamark, or soul’s star?” he asks. Applying this question to the paintings and drawings in the exhibition involves identifying particular features. But first, a little context. The landscapes that Furler and Pelz describe, and the manner in which they have chosen to interpret them, belong to a long tradition in Australian landscape painting that can be traced from Hans Heysen to Fred Williams.
This tradition is marked by an engagement with what can be described as marginal country, neither coastal or arid inland. Hans Heysen’s capture of the timeless and bare-boned character of the Flinders Ranges in the 1920s finds parallels in the work of a number of mid-war artists including Blamire Young, Kenneth Macqueen and others, and finds later resonances in the pared-back Fleurieu landscapes of Hotoace Trenerry, Ivor Hele and the ongoing interrogation of the Fleurieu and other South Australian landscapes by Geoff Wilson. It has been commented that the attraction in this era for the hard, clear light of pastoral Australia and the inland, and its action of stripping landscape to its essential forms, was seen as symbolic of an essential Australian (male) character: lean, laconic and resilient.
Certainly Pelz and Furler’s choice and treatment of subject fits into this broad narrative. Furler’s farmscapes capture a sense of marginal country scattered with the skeletons of a bygone era. Pelz’s Fleurieu and West Coast Irish landscapes bear the scars of glacier grinding, burning and weather erosion so severe that only the occasional building, wall or set of standing stones survive. There are reasons for this attraction. Both artists have travelled extensively and feel a strong bond with rural and remote South Australia. Time spent on Ireland’s rugged west coast has given Pelz rich imagery to work with. The artist continues to live in the Fleurieu, occupied with building stone walls and coaxing gardens to life in harsh environments. Furler often spends time near Strathalbyn, on land that was once part of the family farm.
Unlike a number of mid war landscape artists, however, who were content to respond to aspects of marginal country, both artists have been more open to metaphor. In this regards their gaze has more in common with the Surrealist-inflected South Australian landscapes of (early) Jeffrey Smart, Dorrit Black, Jacqueline Hick and others. Furler’s painting of a church at Blinman, for example, has the attributes of a slightly dysfunctional landscape, underpinned by the experience of time spent in the Flinders and a response to the aftermath of pastoral and mining enterprise. For the artist, any structure within or aspect of the landscape has the capacity to act as a signifier or a trigger for personal response. Pelz shares this sense of reflection on the impact of human change set against deep-time natural forces. These brooding landscapes hint at a post-human world populated by sticks and stones.
Landmarks: Winnie Pelz and Loene Furler
Signal Point Gallery
14 September – 27 October