Review: ‘Warrina Portraits’ by Ewen Ross at Anita Traverso Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 14th July – 8th August 2010


Ewen Ross. 'Plain of Mars' 2010


Ewen Ross (Australian, b. 1957)
Plain of Mars
from the Warrina Portraits series



There is little more to say about this exhibition of works by Ewen Ross than the erudite catalogue essay by Geraldine Barlow enunciates (see essay below), except to say that the ‘presence’ of these works is extremely moving. It is difficult when viewing photographs of the work to explain the physical impact of actually standing in front of these works, absorbing their energy, examining their surfaces, their depths.

The larger photograph of Thenar Eminence (2010, below) is the closest one can get in the virtual world to appreciating the elemental quality of the work – the fire, the fragmentation and the soil, the contour-like mapping of the earth – as the work resembles a memory of earth, of place, re(as)sembles a signification, a meaning wholly of its own in the mind of the viewer. In the spectator the act of looking may turn into contemplation and this work does seem to have that effect = the context of looking at the work invites a contemplation on place and connection to earth.

Barlow asks. “Is this matter, or its coded representation? Ross sets up a liquid movement between such possibilities.”

Ross does indeed set up a liquid movement between matter and representation. But here I would offer a counter argument to the idea that matter and coded representation are binary opposites. As noted by Judith Butler in the excellent quotation below, matter is already meaningful, already coded and materialised. It always has a history and narrativisation embedded within it. Butler suggests the body is never a valueless matter on which inscription takes place because this hides the inscription already there.

Continuing this idea, Ross brings matter back into the fold, into the peeled away surfaces of his work. His process of materialisation offers these liquid movements not through an oppositional relationship between matter and coded representation but because a) his works are no longer anchored in an unquestionable reality and b) they have moved beyond coded representation. Ross reconceptualises both space and matter in his objects of place and invites us, the viewer, to contemplate these (e)motional environments.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to Anita from Anita Traverso Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting and to Geraldine Barlow for allowing me to publish the catalogue essay, all very much appreciated. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.


Body and Text

“Judith Butler has done much to interrogate and upset the assumes inside/outside binary of culture and nature, and has shown that what is called matter, and therefore presumed to be extra-discursive, is already meaningful. In her book entitled Bodies That Matter (1993) she argues that matter is already materialized, that is, it always has a history, is always narrativized. Any reference to matter will always be a particular formation of materiality that has been discursively set. Matter, nature or the body is never an absolute outside but is rather a constitutive outside that generates the significance of an interiority, culture or law. It is an outside that gives the inside its meaning and is, therefore, already textualized and incorporated within the oppositional space in which signification takes place. For Butler, the suggestion that the body is the valueless matter on which inscription takes place hides the inscription already there … Bringing matter back into the fold of inscription increases the manoeuvrability of political activism as it is no longer anchored by an unquestionable reality, the fixity of which is only secured by continual iteration of the norms attributed to it. ‘I would propose’, Butler argues, ‘a return to the notion of matter as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce effects of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter’ (Butler 1993: 9).

A useful analogy for this lack of fixity might be the reconceptualization of both space and matter within the new sciences, especially quantum mechanics, where matter, even that which we perceive as rigid or solid, is shown to be permanently in motion, and where the space which gives form to seemingly individual and autonomous objects is now understood to be a less dense area of matter itself.”

Curtis, Neal. “The Body as Outlaw: Lyotard, Kafka, and the Visible Human Project,” in Featherstone, Mike (ed.,). Body Modification. London: Sage, 2000, p. 258.


Ewen Ross. 'Thenar Eminence' 2010


Ewen Ross (Australian, b. 1957)
Thenar Eminence
from the Warrina Portraits series



Warrina Portraits

This body of work presents as a suite of portraits, and continues my ambition to track the truth through creative practice. Metaphorically the palm of my left hand symbolises the natural patterns and rhythms of line found in the landscape along the Glenelg River in the Southern Wimmera, with particular reference to the property where I lived (Warrina).

This work presents as part of a portrait series derived solely from my left hand. It continues the story of my search for the truth of my genesis in reference to the property (Warrina) where I was raised. The notion of touching the landscape with an open hand in order to investigate the relationship between landscape and portraiture underpins this image.

The concept of looking down and across this country continues to drive the format of my work as does the idea of using fire to peel back the surface of the plywood which often reveals new and mysterious information to work with. Fire is part of the natural ecosystem and a valuable means of cleansing and regenerating new life and truth into this landscape. This premise remains integral to my practice.

The linear information gleaned from the palmar in theory creates a conduit for bridging the concept of portraiture and landscape. The notion of inlaying the narrative of my palm into the surface to construct an image of landscape underpins this body of work.

The significance of the left hand is relevant to the principle. It is controlled by the right brain (pattern recognition, relationship understanding), reflects the inner person, the natural self, the anima, and the ability to think laterally. It could even be considered to be part of a person’s spiritual and personal development.

It is also said the left hand is the one we are born with, the one the gods give you; the right is what we do it with.

Ironically, of the four descriptors allied with hands, earth, air, fire, and water, my hands are relative to fire.

Ewen Ross July 2010


Ewen Ross. 'Palmar Quartet' 2010


Ewen Ross (Australian, b. 1957)
Palmar Quartet
from the Warrina Portraits series



Catalogue essay by Geraldine Barlow

Our palms and fingers each bear unique imprints. The intricate and entwined lines and loops of each palmscape have been generated from within the very core of what makes us individual, our encoded DNA.

“DNA molecules themselves, as physical entities, are like dewdrops. Under the right conditions they come into existence at a great rate, but no one of them has existed for long, and all will be destroyed within a few months. They are not durable like rocks. But the patterns they bear in their sequences are as durable as the hardest rocks.”1.

How should we read the patterned lines of a palm? The art of palmistry promised to decode the connections between this intimate landscape and our life to come. Palmistry is now dismissed as a quaint pseudoscience, yet the palm holds a special resonance, a very special part of the body from which the future might be foretold. Via the fingerprint, and now DNA traces, contemporary technology has developed seeking absolute recognition of each individual. Through our palms and fingers we hold and grip the world, we wield tools and touch those we care for. These interior sensate surfaces of the hand are at the centre of our embodied being in the world.

In his latest body of work Warrina Portraits, Ewen Ross has taken his own palm print as the starting point for a highly personal exploration of the relation between self and place. The furrowed banks of lines and shadows etched into ply sheets do not relay the literal five-fingered imprint of a hand, more a topography of interlaced systems, networks of lines which are at once familiar and strange to us.

In bringing these works into being, Ross has evolved a deliberate and multilayered process of making. He relays a detail of his palm print onto plywood, then channels the resulting lines into the layered timber surface. The finished surface of the ply sheet is then removed, to reveal an entirely new layer, with it’s own character and markings. Filler is applied, dries and the surface is sanded back, many times over. Sometimes further layers of stain or fine in-painting are added. This process involves a constant relay between layers of information, impression and counter-impression. At each stage there is the potential for slippage, opportunities for translation, room for the materials and the process of making to assert themselves. When Ross removes the finished surface of the plywood he welcomes chance into the artistic process, allowing for the planned and entirely unexpected to collide.

In Palmar Trilogy 2010 the mapped tracery of white lines and dark hollows sprawls over a surface of many parts. Various separate pieces of timber have been joined on this layer of the sheet; we can still see the remnants of the glue where the pieces were taped. Two systems of information are in conversation here, jostling against each other. Sometimes the incongruities suggest meaning; at other times they raise a series of questions. Looking at this work, I am reminded of a contour map superimposed onto a satellite image, or a geological survey. I see the echo of a tree branch in the patterns on a sheet of timber, overlaid with something more like an x-ray or a brain scan.

Is this matter, or its coded representation? Ross sets up a liquid movement between such possibilities.

In these works, palm print and wood grain take us into an intimate landscape. For Ross this is a place of memory. Warrina is the name of the Wimmera property where he grew up, where he ploughed the fields as a young man. Like Ross’ previous bodies of work Such is Dry Land, Red Gum Country and The Green Pick, these works speak of an intimate and formative connection with the Wimmera landscape. The artist works into and over ground that is familiar in the measure of his own life, as well as in the lives of previous generations.

Ross is sensitive to the connections of the many past generations associated with this land, stretching back beyond his own family’s history in this country. He works with the surface, but also looks behind it, tearing back the first skin, so that what was embedded in the substrate is now called into dialogue with other marks and textures, highlights and shadows.

In these works the artist’s hand is the model for a series of shimmering, chimera-like patterned imprints, echoes, reflections, templates and coursing sequences of code – allowing us to measure one life against many generations, the transitory against the eternal, our intimate landscape against the widest horizons.”

Geraldine Barlow
Senior Curator/Collection Manager
Monash University Museum of Art / MUMAMelbourne, May 2010

  1. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin, London, 2006, p. 127


Ewen Ross. 'Palmar Trilogy' 2010


Ewen Ross (Australian, b. 1957)
Palmar Trilogy
from the Warrina Portraits series



Anita Traverso Gallery
PO Box 7001, Hawthorn North 3122
Phone: 0408 534 034

By appointment only


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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